Well, you can’t say Christopher Nolan lacked ambition with his latest endeavor, but I find myself wishing he’d attempted a little less so he could actually pull off a little more in practice. INTERSTELLAR will surely go down as Nolan’s first big misstep so far in an otherwise pretty spotless career.
In the not-too-distant future, our little Blue Planet is facing natural disaster on a global scale. Massive dust storms cause devastation across populated areas and a mysterious blight has killed off most of the crops we rely on, pressing the majority of the world’s population out of necessity into service as farmers to preserve what food remains. When strange goings-on bring him to stumble across the remains of the Earth’s space programme, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot and a widower, is forced to abandon his young family to undertake a mission through a wormhole in order to find the human race a new home.
One one hand, Interstellar wants to be a hard science sci-fi (Christopher and Jonathan Nolan clearly revel in showing off how much brainier they are than us mere mortals) but on the other hand it tries to sell (completely straight-faced) the tired and all-too-easy to mock hippie-dippy concept of “love conquers all”, even (snicker) time and space. INCEPTION in many ways shares similar themes, but Nolan there didn’t have to balance the gooey stuff with plausibility, because the core concept behind that film was inherently ridiculous. With Interstellar, he tries to have his cake and eat it by trying to balance an improbable see-saw with science on one end and poetry on the other. Consequently, both the heart and the brain of the piece take a real hit.
You can tell this was originally a Steven Spielberg project, and perhaps it would have been more successful if it remained that way, if you could see what he would he could do with the film’s core dysfunctional family dynamic, since that’s the kind of stuff he does better than just about anybody. If Spielberg directed, the emotions would have been more concentrated and focussed, and perhaps all the science stuff would have been less all-consuming and show-offy. The odd Spielberg-y element remains (intentionally or not) – the Cooper’s arrival at a secret facility before being blinded by spotlights and surrounded by suits couldn’t be more like E.T. if it tried. In comparison to other projects where a director has inherited duties from a fellow, it’s not quite the disaster that was A.I. (which Spielberg finished for Stanley Kubrick) but it’s certainly a lesser product because Stevie boy jumped ship.
Far too often when a character (usually David Gyasi’s Romilly) provides a big chunk of science-y exposition, shortly followed by Cooper or Brand (Anne Hathaway) pitching in with an emotion-y quantifier, I found myself asking, “Why should I care?”. Beyond their basic drives, and no matter how good a job the actors do (and they are good for the most part), you’re never allowed to get a handle on any of them, what really motivates them or what the hell their end-game is.
If the time distortion plot element that becomes steadily more prevalent as the film goes on weren’t confusing enough, the Nolans make things even more bewildering through the casting. The adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) in an admittedly poignant scene, finally sends her astronaut dad a video message after many years of hurtful silence. Murph claims to now be the same age as Cooper when he left Earth. Chastain is in her mid-30s, McConaughey is 45, and a weathered 45 at that. Let’s not even start on the octogenarian Michael Caine’s character still being around another 25 years into the story.
Nolan clearly adores certain classic examples of science-fiction filmmaking. Apart from the obvious, that he wants Interstellar to be this generation’s 2001 (it isn’t), he also seems to have been inspired by the original STAR WARS in how technology looks (bulky, functional) as well as George Lucas’ approach to planet design (as mocked by ROBOT CHICKEN, planets “defined by one topographical feature”). Nolan even uses a visual cue towards the end that recalls his own work pretty explicitly. But of all the sci-fi films to blatantly rip off, it does surprise me somewhat that Nolan chose EVENT HORIZON!
Speaking of obvious inspiration, Hans Zimmer may just have been listening to a lot of Philip Glass as he composed his Interstellar score. The former’s music is certainly evocative of the latter’s here, and as such has the power to be equally beautiful in its form and intrusive and distracting in its repetition.
All of this isn’t to say that the film is a lost cause.There are a few elements that I really liked. Being a Nolan film, it looks stunning in IMAX, whether you find yourself in a dusty cornfield or among the stars, and it sounds even better (Nolan being one of the few directors who seems to really care about the quality of a sound mix). I also liked how humanity’s technology appears to have remained at early 21st Century-level because of their changing priorities. You of course wouldn’t bother researching flying cars if you could barely farm enough food to survive the day.
It must be so hard for designers to come up with original ideas for movie robots, so I particularly appreciated the pair we’re presented with in Interstellar. TARS (Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart) look like minimalist kitchen appliances and six-foot versions of the sleekest and cleverest desk toys the next. One of them also carries Anne Hathaway just like in THE FORBIDDEN PLANET’s poster, which pleased me a great deal (because I’m sad like that).
Interstellar is also easily Nolan’s funniest film so far, in that it actually has a sense of humour. The laughs mostly come from the robots who have customisable personality settings and a hilarious degree of self-awareness, and occasionally from a deadpan McConaughey at his quippy best, though this is at odds with how deadly seriously we’re expected to take everything else in the movie.
I’m not saying don’t see Interstellar, as it’s too worthy of discussion – for the badd points as much as the good – to be dismissed entirely. All I’m saying is don’t expect the highs that Christopher Nolan has delivered before. It’s not another Inception, MEMENTO, or THE DARK KNIGHT. It’s not even another THE PRESTIGE. SSP