Interstellar is definitely a film worth watching and in particular a film worth watching in the cinema. The rest of this review is an asterisk to that sentence.
You can’t exactly say that Christopher Nolan is doing things wrong. People love his films, they are financially successful and there are few people in cinema who have more clout than he does. Yet it’s hard not to rankle a little at his IMDB-anointed status as a genius who can do no wrong when his films consistently demonstrate the same flaws, and frustrating to know that there is little chance of those flaws going away. Interstellar attempts to combine hard, conceptual science fiction with personal relationships, but struggles to balance the two and is clearly more comfortable with one than the other.
Interstellar shows an Earth on its last legs, with scaled-back technology, resources dying out by the day and no animals other than humans to be seen. Matthew McConaughey plays Coop, a man who could have been a great pilot but is instead stuck farming dusty corn with his father-in-law, son and daughter. He tries to encourage the intellectual curiosity of his daughter Murphy but the world seems to have no place for people like them. Strange gravitational goings-on lead Coop and Murph to discover Doctor Brand, his fellow scientist daughter (Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway) and a rabble of other eggheads; the last remains of NASA who have secret plans for a last-ditch attempt to save humanity, by sending astronauts to find a new solar system through a wormhole that has appeared under mysterious circumstances. Space travel, wormholes and black holes all cause things to get a little complicated timeline-wise and we end up following two narratives: McConaughey and company exploring planets and his kids left behind on Earth (played by Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain as adults) dealing with a planet that is very much on the outs and a father that has seemingly long-since abandoned them.
If Nolan is a ‘cold’ filmmaker then that suits his depiction of space, which is not so much dynamic as it is daunting. The bigger he goes the better his direction is, and the space travel, unwelcoming planets and sterile, functional technology of Interstellar all look great. It combines an interest in exploring the unknown with the despondency of being trapped in it. There are no bright colours to be found here, the hard sci-fi stuff is all well done. The problem is, hard sci-fi isn’t a big crowd pleaser and the things Interstellar is good at are watered down by the mass appeal elements.
Comparisons between Nolan and Stanley Kubrick are longstanding, and will only increase with this film, which wears its 2001 influence on its sleeve. But Nolan makes Kubrick movies for Spielberg audiences, while he might be meticulous and impersonal like Kubrick, the difference is his films are for made for broad audiences, and so are always trying to ground themselves in personal relationships, which Nolan is not good at conveying. The characters are underwritten and certain dynamics-Hathaway and McConnaughey, Chastain and Caine, Chastain and Topher Grace (!!) are too underdeveloped to be interesting. The most important relationship in the film, between Coop and Murph, is easily the strongest, helped by a good performance by Mackenzie Foy as Young Murph, but without giving anything away even that relationship doesn’t pay off emotionally in the end. Anne Hathaway does her best with a big speech about love midway through the film, but it’s a losing battle, she’s referring to a character we haven’t seen and is barely mentioned and we don’t know enough about her to be invested for her sake alone. A common problem in Nolan films, the characters are lacking a certain humanity and though he tries to compensate by putting great actors in these thin roles and turning the score up to 11 so we’re in no doubt as to how we’re supposed to feel, it’s still hard to connect emotionally.
The writing in general is inconsistent, Christopher and his brother Jonathan come up with some great lines (born on Earth etc, the back and forth between Coop and sarcastic robot TARS). The films set pieces are well constructed and the film manages to convey the doomed nature of Earth despite only really showing one part of it, a successful instance of telling instead of showing. But McConaughey is told that he’s the only man for the job seemingly minutes after showing up at NASA, which is incredibly clunky. At times the film creaks under the weight of two storylines-it is difficult to invest in some very important scenes when the film keeps cutting back between the Earth plot and the space one, we’re not allowed to stay in one moment. And worst of all, the science of the film is explained and explained and explained again. Scientists are explaining things to other scientists, right before they do science things. The concern that the audience might not follow the plot shadows Interstellar, and a climax that overuses the phrase “Don’t you see?” is a disheartening experience.
Interstellar is far too frustrating to be great, with a strong middle let down by a slow start and a weak end. But despite his faults, Nolan unquestionably has the ability to awe audiences, and the film will no doubt prove as popular, to be seen, discussed and parodied as all his work has been since The Dark Knight onwards. Undoubtedly it is best seen in the cinema, where his imposing visuals and the booming Hans Zimmer score can do the heavy lifting. (Although this particular score is perhaps over-done, there were points when it drowned out dialogue) Old school science fiction fans will appreciate the attention-to-detail and thoughtful exploration taking priority over action. Nolan at least brings blockbusters that try for something more meaningful than standard sex-and-explosions and this is a good B or 7/10, but there will always be a lingering feeling that films like Interstellar could be better if they weren’t bogged down by things that Nolan isn’t and seemingly never will be good at.