Why is it that whenever a new and ripe filmmaking talent comes along, some critics feel a need to make a comparison to the late, singular Stanley? Besides being a lazy comparison, it’s a dead weight around the person being praised. It gives them a shadow they’ll spend forever trying to escape (A notable recent example was Jonathan Glazer, whom more than one critic nominated as an heir to Kubrick in reviews of Under The Skin). When Memento launched his career proper (Following is a fascinating but problematic experiment), Christopher Nolan was suddenly encumbered with the Kubrick comparisons, and they’ve never totally disappeared. But they make no sense. He’s based his career to date on thrillers with a sci-fi edge. Presumably too many people are still reeling from 2001: A Space Odyssey to remember there are other sci-fi directors, or that Nolan’s yet to make a black comedy or a war film.
Now, Nolan actively invites the Kubrick comparisons with Interstellar, a film grappling with heady themes and huge effects-driven set-pieces similar to 2001, not to mention Hans Zimmer’s organ-led Strauss-baiting score. One has to praise both Nolan and his film for their gumption; they’re going after something far bigger than their contemporaries could ever manage. Mainstream films don’t generally ‘do’ ideas as grand as the effect of a black hole on the driving power of love, but Interstellar isn’t really all that mainstream. Yes, it’s from the director of the Dark Knight trilogy. Yes, it stars Mr. ‘Alright Alright Alright’, Catwoman and Jessica ‘Scannain‘s reviews editor wants to marry me’ Chastain. Despite all this, Interstellar is aiming higher. Therein, however, lies the film’s inherent risk. Comparisons between Nolan and Kubrick do neither much favour, but to compare this new space opera to Kubrick’s opus will only serve to demean the new pretender. Take it on its own terms, because Interstellar is too indebted to 2001 for it to step out of the monolith’s shadow.
It begins promisingly enough, with talking head interviews of older people recalling a crisis we have yet to experience. A global blight threatens our food supply; indeed, it has done so for years forcing much of the population in this distant future to take up farming to provide sustenance. One such farmer is engineer and former pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). Like many Nolan leading men, Cooper is widowed and struggling to do right by those left behind. In this case, he’s trying to raise two children in this massive dystopian dustbowl. His son Tom (Timothée Chalemet) is destined/doomed to be a farmer, but daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) is more scientifically inclined, like her pop. This father-daughter relationship drives Interstellar; it carries across galaxies and through black holes, like a constant anchor. It’s good to have something so solid to cling to when the rest of the film demands a few leaps of faith.
The first leap of faith sees Cooper being led to a covert NASA base. Here, a search for a new planet for humanity to inhabit/destroy/do what we will is being headed up by Prof. Brand (Nolan’s good luck charm, Michael Caine). Brand and his theories on black holes are modelled on the work of astrophysicist (and Interstellar producer) Kip Thorne. His ideas of the possibility of interstellar travel are the basis for Nolan’s script, co-written with his brother Jonathan. In this case, a black hole near Saturn is a gateway to at least three planets that might host us. Thus, off go Cooper, Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and fellow scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), plus robotic assistant TARS, a source of much-needed levity voiced by Bill Irwin. From the start of the film until the eventual blastoff is when Interstellaris at its strongest, effectively establishing a world and a populace under threat, even if we’re not sure when the film’s set or why the blight is so rampant. Having fine actors like John Lithgow and David Oyelowo inhabiting even small roles does help. Meanwhile, McConaughey continues his winning streak with another committed performance, all slow-boil emotion and weariness.
It’s not long after blasting off into the second act that Interstellar begins to lose its footing. Within this black hole, there are large time loops to contend with; depending on the planet, minutes could be weeks, months or even years back on Earth. Nolan played with a similar structural gambit in Inception, but the distances and passage of time in Interstellar deny it the same immediacy. It’s hard to get pulses racing about wasting years in the space of an hour when characters are too far away from each other to feel the effects. Cooper wants to get home to his children, but his children grow up into Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain in the blink of an eye. The children themselves are battling to maintain what lives they have left, all the while not knowing whether their father is alive or not. This is Interstellar‘s failing; its plotting is far, far too ambitious. The second act attempts to dovetail the Earth and space story strands via simultaneously-occurring conflicts, but it doesn’t quite work. 2001 was relatively plotless next to its stirring imagery; Insterstellartries too hard to explain its earlier leaps of faith. The brothers Nolan cannot make a virtue of exposition as Inception did.
In addition, Interstellar’s underlying emotionality is problematic. Cooper’s love for his family, his daughter especially, is his driving force through this intergalactic chaos. Again, Nolan has covered this story before, but he attempts to give it more air than usual. He goes so far as to introduce the concept of love as a scientific variable. At one point, Hathaway’s Dr. Brand explains her motivation for the mission as an extension of love; it’s the point at which audience goodwill may get sucked out of the airlock. It’s a noble and poetic idea, but any scientist caught saying this in reality may find themselves a laughing stock. Next to this, it’s the moments of more recognisable love and humanity that prove most compelling. The remaining Earthlings send one-way video messages to the crew. One particularly spiteful message from Chastain’s Murphy to her long-gone pop threatens the tear ducts. But next to the over-reaching theories of love in the blackness of space, it’s a wonder the filmgets near that level of emotionality at all. The Cooper-Murphy story works; there’s just too much else getting in the way.
If the script threatens to derail Interstellar‘s efforts, the technical skill on show elevates it. The special effects are necessarily impressive, but their heft comes from the efforts of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her). Space is none more black, against which the stars dazzle. In one of the most stirring shots of any film this year, the spacecraft carrying our heroes passes by Saturn, a tiny twinkling diamond rapt to the ringed gas giant. The visual thrills of Interstellar demand as big a screen as possible. Mile-high tidal waves, frozen clouds and an explanation-defying climax will stretch the eyelids to bursting point. Nolan elevates theatricality to artistry, delivering money shots worth every penny. As for that climax, the time loop is closed in a baffling sequence that seeks to explain all. Is Nolan being too neat about this? Probably, but you’ll be astonished he even dared to try.
To date, the films of Christopher Nolan have been accused of lacking in emotional resonance. With Insterstellar, he tries too hard to redress the balance, taking too long and too many liberties to make his point. Interstellar gets to its intended destination, somewhere under a Saturnine ring, but was the scenic route really necessary? Caine’s Prof. Brand quotes Dylan Thomas upon blast-off, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Nolan has raged and rallied against mainstream complacency in his oeuvre, but now might be a good time for him to calm down and come back down to Earth.