Christopher Nolan over the course of his career has taken great measures to bring complex to the multiplex. Gleefully screwing with way cinema handles such things as time, space and story structure the way a 5 year old genius skilfully manipulates lego, the man not only gave Batman back his nobility in his lauded Dark Knight Trilogy but he also pumped the cerebral into such high-concept, brain fuckers like Inception, Momento and The Prestige possibly single-handedly raising the IQ of cinema goers around the globe (disclaimer: this last fact hasn’t actually been proven – but it’s a nice thought, right?). However, with Interstellar he may have topped even himself in vision and scope by utilizing the vast, terrifying, inky blackness of space travel as his next canvas.
That’s right, Christopher Nolan is finally hurling his hat into the black hole arena of transcendent sci-fi – a genre that’s been effortlessly ruled by the iron fist of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odessy since it’s release and has cast a huge shadow over every similarly themed movie that’s arrived in it’s Titanic sized wake. But can even the man who helped us forget about Batman’s American Express card and cast David Bowie as Nikolas Tesla possibly hope to topple possibly the greatest Science Fiction movie ever made?
It’s the near future, and due to rising dust bowls and crop blights, earth is gradually and literally being choked to death to the point where it’s only future is to become a starving dust ball. Worse yet, in a world that desperately needs farmers over engineers and scientists, mankind has regressed somewhat with history books stating that all the moon landings were faked and anyone with loftier ambitions than growing corn is regarded as somewhat of a crackpot. In this world we find Cooper, a drawling test-pilot cum farmer who mourns the loss of his wife and the world his kids – especially his stubbonly precocious daughter, Murph – are growing up in. However, due to a repeating weird phenomenon that occurs in a bedroom that the family jokingly chalked up to the behavior of a “ghost”, Cooper finds himself stumbling on a secret NASA installation run by a gaggle of scientists that claim they’ve found a way to relocate the human race thanks to a worm hole just on the outskirts of Saturn. Various manned probes were sent out years prior on one way missions in order to scout out possible worlds and of the 14 explorers launched out into almost certain death (saves a bundle on a retirement package I suppose) 3 have shown to be viable.
So to the horror of his family -and especially Murph – Cooper volunteers to pilot a ship into the great unknown with 3 other crew members and 2 domino-like robot marines in order to traverse the event horizon and find a home away from home for the human race to kick their heels on. However, saying things aren’t going to be easy is as gross an understatement as saying that space is “a bit big” and numerous threats await them such as hostile surfaces, the lethal threat of loneliness and the fact that surfing by a black hole does screwy things to time Even if the crew succeeds, will this brutal paradox gobble up the remaining time the earth has left before humanity literally bites the dust?
To answer my rather hyperbolic question from earlier: no, Interstellar doesn’t manager the obviously impossible feat of toppling 2001 from it’s monolith shaped throne but that’s not to say it doesn’t take a damn good shot all the same. For a start , this being a Nolan joint, obviously the science here is ACTUALLY fairly sciencey. No casually breezing through important details here (although the demonstration as to how a wormhole works is oddly lifted from Event Horizon’s “pencil through the paper” bit). However Nolan’s usual devotion to reality is tempered by a noticable lack of cynicism as Interstellar proves to be not only a very human story but stands out as the most emotional film Nolan has made. Keeping your tear ducts as dry as this doomed earth is becoming proves utterly futile as the film goes on, especially concerning the merciless passing of time that’s best spent in the company of loved ones. As I already stated, a recurring theme is time moving at different speeds for different people (not unlike Inception) where the longer the mission takes the MUCH more time passes on earth and this is where Interstellar truly finds it’s heart. Whereas other movies portray space travel as exciting, thrilling or down-right crap-your-pants scary; Interstellar elects to treat it as a truly heartbreaking experience and a bravura scene that features McConaughey’s Cooper catching up with over 20 years worth of messages sent by his rapidly aging kids breaks you in half as devastatingly as Bane giving Batman a back massage. Such overt emotion is a wonderful new direction for the director whose past works have been accused of being a tad cold.
Of course there are cool, science-y fiction things too (I mean, Nolan gave us Bruce Wayne’s Tumbler after all), chief of these are the jaw droppingly original take on the robot duo TARS and CASE; 8-foot, rectangle, prehensile slabs of metal with the attitude of marines, the unfurling dexterity of giant rubix cubes and the sardonic humour of a washed up stand up comedian, who both steal the show.
Of course, the set pieces are spectacular with a brief visit to a water planet being particularly tense (it features the ticking clock on the soundtrack that would be put to even greater use in Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk) and a trip to a planet made of frozen clouds which gives us not only a suprise cameo but a dark, alternate ending for Ridley Scott’s The Martian.
The cast are all great but it’s the determined squint of Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper that drives the film harder than an interstellar engine, as he adds another maverick to his gallery of rule breakers and driven outsiders, but nods to Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain are more than earned.
For a film this sprawling and complex, there are times where it struggles to maintain it’s own momentum and for a film that shoot’s so aggressively for the moon (or in this case Saturn) there will be some who will be turned off by a great number of things, not least amoung them a rug-pull revelation that hurls you screaming into meta-physics that will no doubt anger some; and yet despite some wobbles, Nolan manages to hold the course just steady enough to take it through any anomalies mostly unscathed to it’s touching and satisfying ending.
Paying dutiful homage to what has come before (2001, The Right Stuff, Sunshine) while unsurprisingly pushing the boundaries of cinematography (see it on the biggest, loudest screen you can as composer Hans Zimmer seems to be locked into a death struggle with the sound effects as to who can make your seat shake with more teeth rattling bass than the human body can endure), you are guaranteed for an experience unlike any other as Nolan racks up yet another cinematic experience that launches you into the heavens.
I’d love to see someone explain the logic behind that spacecraft; very unique, but structurally kind of ludicrous. Though they put a lot of work into the realistic mechanics of black holes and space habitats, so much of the rest of the story (the planets, the climactic message-sending concept) was pure fantasy, and the combination of both ultimately brought the movie down rather than up. It was pretty as hell, though.