Not many directors have the clout of Christopher Nolan. Most of them receive notes from their fretting studios: suggestions (or demands) to change plot points or highlight certain characters/actors, which must be adhered to for contractual or financial reasons. With huge, intelligent blockbuster successes like the Dark Knight franchise and Inception, Nolan has deservedly won carte blanche from Warner Bros. for Interstellar – he gets garguantan sums of money and complete autonomy to realise his artistic vision. In effect, he’s making an indie movie on a blockbuster scale. Ironically, this lack of oversight might be just what keeps Interstellar – a very good, occasionally brilliant foray into the furthest reaches of our galaxy and beyond – from greatness.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot and engineer, is now reluctantly scraping together a living as a farmer on a starving Earth. With sandstorms swirling and food supplies dwindling by the day, it doesn’t seem likely that Cooper’s children, stoic Tom and inquisitive Murphy, will have much of a world left to inherit when they grow up. While investigating a “ghost” in Murphy’s bedroom, Cooper deciphers a message that brings him to a top-secret NASA base. Once there, Cooper learns from his former mentor, Dr Brand (Michael Caine), that NASA is looking for solutions to Earth’s crisis in other galaxies. A recently-opened wormhole has given NASA and its scientists access to a whole new galaxy of planets. Brand appeals to Cooper to pilot the final and most important mission: to determine whether any of three identified planets can truly host human life. But it’s a journey from which Cooper might never return – one that will take him away from his kids and everything he has ever known and loved.
That’s not even the half of it – Nolan’s narrative is a sprawling, ambitious one that asks heavy metaphysical questions about the position and role of humanity in the universe, filtered through the prism of a father and daughter whose bond transcends time and space. It’s shot through with complex scientific theories about wormholes and time travel courtesy of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who served as a consultant on the film). Indeed, much of Interstellar plays with such philosophical gravity that one can’t help wondering if it’s simply too deep a subject to be effectively communicated in a movie that must also create emotional stakes and real characters.
Clocking in at almost three hours, Interstellar pulses with intelligence and occasional bursts of brilliance. The science and emotion of its story works best on each planet they manage to visit, with Nolan crafting some chillingly smart sci-fi moments amidst the human drama experienced by Cooper’s crew. As badly as Cooper wants to save enough fuel to make the return trip home, Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) has both professional and personal stakes in visiting the planet that’s furthest away from the wormhole. They trade hope for time, the minutes they use to hunt for salvation translating into the loss of decades with their loved ones. The film is at its best when the members of the Endurance – including David Gyasi’s Romilly and Wes Bentley’s Doyle – confront one another, and establish contact (or fail to do so) with the scouting teams that preceded them through the wormhole.
But Interstellar also suffers from a bloated and faintly silly final act. The science of it may be well-founded (who knows, after all, what miraculous answers really do lie within a black hole?) and the concept very cool, but it doesn’t quite translate as such. Instead, the film hyper-blasts itself into a oddly cheerful (and confusing) ending that feels purely fictional and not at all scientific. There’s no denying, either, that Nolan could have carved half an hour or more out of Interstellar without losing any of its narrative or emotional density. Instead, many scenes unfold in an almost obstinately languid fashion, including a moment when Cooper is left gasping for oxygen on the icy terrain of an alien planet. It’s pretty evident, too, that Nolan really wanted to make sure his audiences knew how little greenscreen he used to make the film; for no other discernible reason, his camera lingers in extreme close-up – and far too often – on the exterior shells of the various spacecrafts designed for the film.
Nolan can afford the best when it comes to his cast as well, and it shows. McConaughey anchors the film with a gravitas and tenderness quite unknown before his career McConnaissance, and he’s ably supported by a steely Hathaway, whose character, just like the film she’s in, blends cold, pragmatic science with a churning wealth of emotion. Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon, in roles perhaps best left unspecified to avoid any explicit spoilers, are excellent too – the former radiates quite enough warmth and intelligence to make us believe that she can save the world, and the latter admirably treads in morally grey areas to good effect.
For months before its release, Nolan kept Interstellar firmly under wraps. Everyone speculated that it would be a game-changer – a sci- fi blockbuster as thrilling and thought-provoking as it is entertaining. In some ways, that’s true of the final product: Nolan’s film is brave, brainy film-making, and it looks absolutely spectacular. But, on closer examination, Interstellar loses some of its gloss and varnish – and beneath it all lies an unwieldy script that meanders a little too long and wastes a little too much of the big, breathtaking ideas that underpin its story.
7 out of 10 stars