Interstellar (12A)

Directed by Christopher Nolan
On general release from 7th November 2014

Reviewed by Nick Daly

Christopher Nolan has a tendency for big. His Batman franchise developed from an acute character study to a sprawling crime saga to its eventual A Tale of Two Cities-inspired conclusion. It’s representative of his whole filmography in the sense that they’ve grown in scope with each subsequent film. His second film, Memento, grappled matters of the mind with a mere indie budget before, a decade later, Inception would delve deeper into the premise equipped with $160 million and the biggest film star of this era. Now, four years later, Christopher Nolan has reached for the stars.

It’s clear from the first moments of Interstellar that we’re witnessing a very different kind of Christopher Nolan film. There’s no bold, commanding opening of a stranger awakening ominously on the shore of a beach (Inception), or a narrator stating the fundamentals of a magicians act (The Prestige) to suggest you’re in the assured, disciplined hands of a director who knows exactly where this is going. Instead it begins modestly, its sedated, almost low-budget approach, thanks in part to the director’s firm abhorrence to digital film, seemingly oblivious to the colossal science fiction epic it will eventually evolve into. Its relaxed, rustic nature sitting well with Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, his Southern drawl and farm ranch backdrop, as he rides haphazardly along dirt roads with his giggling young children in tow.

It’s strangely intimate for a director notorious for his coldness, a director whose first acts are assembled purely to establish its intricate and sophisticated narrative, with any glimpse of character development managed in a clinical and detached manner like components of a machine. Even when Interstellar’s catalyst inevitably does arrive, its introduction is unusually brief, flitting through Cooper’s discovery of a secret NASA installation to invest more time in an intense goodbye between Cooper and his daughter, Murph, as he’s ultimately chosen to search the universe of habitable planets for humanity and it’s failing Earth. It’s a welcome deviation from Inception, a film that seemed to dedicate half its running time to explaining its own plot, and a departure from Bruce Wayne’s simple armchair brooding in The Dark Knight; a hasty scene intended as a response to the distressing death of his apparent loved one, and the manner in which Nolan had previously handled emotion.

This sudden shift in method might not just be a director, now sixteen years into his career, simply yearning to explore new ventures. Interstellar was originally intended for Steven Spielberg in 2006 before it fell into the assured, disciplined hands (although slightly more shaky after The Dark Knight Rises) of Christopher Nolan in 2012. Combining his own ideas with that of the script, and with a self-imposed task to recreate “the golden age of the blockbuster”, Nolan’s tendencies clunk awkwardly with Spielberg’s own infamously sentimental approach. Nolan is the latest director to attempt an emulation of this nostalgic sector of cinema’s past, which has seen the likes of J.J. Abrams’ misstep Super 8, and it’s a somewhat discouraging move for a director who recently reinvented the summer blockbuster himself with The Dark Knight.

A director notorious for grounding a comic book in stark realism, who formerly shunned the remotest otherworldly aspects of its characters in support of sheer authenticity, is now grappling the notion of apparent ‘ghosts’ and mysterious signs from ‘them’; a component of the plot that brings Cooper to the NASA installation, and an angle that’s unsettlingly reminiscent of another recent space opera, Ridley Scott’s ill-fated Prometheus.

The character of Cooper is another typical Spielberg creation, an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation; all-American hero with no traces of an underlying darkness that commonly inhabit Nolan’s central leads. It’s a familiar archetype that, coupled with his mission to quite literally save the world, demands a particularly theatrical direction for it to thrive. Under Nolan’s stern, somewhat self-important supervision, however, there’s a clear disjointed quality that casts a shadow of falsehood over the proceedings that not even the charisma of McConaughey or promising talent of Mackenzie Foy can fully salvage.

Yet, aboard the spacecraft, as though its launch is representative of Nolan’s liberation from Spielberg himself, the Nolanisms are fully unleashed. Complex expositional dialogue is mumbled in such rapid motion that makes repeated viewings (with subtitles, if possible) almost mandatory, and the accompanying robot, a rather inspired and memorable creation, is somehow written to be more emotive and substantial than the human beings themselves.

The redeeming feature of this point in the narrative, however, that seems to demonstrate Nolan to his fullest extent, is that it coincidentally parades one of his strongest attributes: his ability of pure spectacle. Since the Dark Knight flipped an entire truck on its head in the middle of a city, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt swung through hotel corridors in the midst of zero gravity, Nolan has proved to excel in the modern blockbuster set piece. And Interstellar’s space sequences are something to truly marvel, offering some particularly elegant, artful scenes involving a Dylan Thomas poem recital that have a somewhat iconic quality. Nolan’s value of realism is also finally advantageous when creating a perfectly silent, eerie atmosphere onboard the ship, with its subsequent foray into a wormhole proving to be an intensely thrilling, immersive trip that competes with Alfonso Cuaron’s lauded space adventure, Gravity. The crew’s subsequent expeditions into alien planets are not particularly imaginative, but nonetheless expected of a director fiercely keen on real set locations, and whose representation of ‘limbo’ (a dream space as seen in Inception where literally anything is possible) is the rather dull concept of a crumbling muted city.

As it progresses, however, the grand scope and apparent awesomeness of this space exploration experience, upon discovering that the plot simply isn’t substantial enough to support it, regrettably prove to be an illusion. The supposed crisis on earth involving dust storms and scarce resources is limited to few scenes and even fewer characters, all of which are exclusively confined to the only two established settings, Cooper’s ranch and the NASA installation. As a result, the effect of a true global disaster that could justify this sensational intergalactic mission is not successfully achieved, and as sentimentality creeps back into the narrative with a stronger force, as if locating this particular high point in the film in the far reaches of the galaxy, it causes many of the emotional moments that the film so heavily hinges on to fall flat.

Christopher Nolan has a tendency for big, and Interstellar is such a monstrous creation both visually and thematically that it’s a relief to think he can only possibly get smaller. His Batman franchise, as mentioned earlier, is representative of his whole filmography in the sense that they’ve grown in scope with each subsequent film. Batman Begins symbolizes Nolan’s contemplative mind thriving in the restrictive environment of his early work, while The Dark Knight struck a fine balance between its increased scope and his introspective way of storytelling. The Dark Knight Rises, however, exemplifies Nolan’s recent tendency to construct confused, unfocused work lost in its ambitiousness and bombastic nature. There’s a moment in Interstellar where, in the midst of a crisis aboard the spacecraft, a distressed Anne Hathaway declares “Well, we got this far, farther than any human in history”, to which Cooper responds firmly, “Well, not far enough!” and it’s a sincere hope that it isn’t emblematic of Nolan himself.

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