Mark the date. We may just have reached peak Nolan. “Interstellar” simultaneously represents the most triumphant aspects of the auteur’s style as well as his follies. There’s breath-taking ambition, scintillating scientific thoughts and stunning realised visuals. But all the problems that plagued “The Dark Knight Rises” are here too in abundance and without the inherent cool factor of Batman, the inconsistencies in logic, characterisation and plot are more exposed this time round.
In the near future, Earth is slowly dying. Humanity, much reduced in number, has reverted to an agrarian society but one by one the crops are dying off as the climate changes and the planet is choked in dust. A last remnant of NASA plans one last mission to a wormhole which has been discovered near Saturn. The wormhole leads to a distant galaxy where there is a slim chance there may be a planet suitable for humanity to flee to.
With more shots of dust being cleared than a vacuum cleaner infomercial, the start of the film is painfully slow. At a lengthy 169 minutes, the preamble feels indulgent and unnecessary as we’re treated to a mixture of scene setting vox pops and introduced to one time NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who now makes a living as a farmer. We’re drip-fed information about this new world, such as the fact that there’s a disease called Blight which is destroying entire crop strains. Working its way through the food chain like a biological cereal killer, it’s already taken down wheat and okra and will soon devastate corn. There are hints of the darker turns society has taken, especially in terms of ‘official’ history being different and there’s a chilling example of how little time it takes for historical fact to become apocryphal conspiracy but the film leaves these unexplored as it, finally, gets to space.
Once in space, the film benefits from Nolan’s vision and a spectacularly accurate astronomical aesthetic. The space travel feels real, with all the resource challenges, despite the fact the worlds visited repeat the unlikely “Star Wars” trope of each world having only a single biome: a water planet, an ice planet, etc. The special effects are stunning, from the galactic phenomenon through to the production design. The two robots, TARS and CASE, are instantly iconic and despite disappointingly nondescript vocals are sure to join the pantheon of all-time great movie robots. Nolan seems most comfortable telling the science story. The technology is plausibly extrapolated from the present day and although there’s no specific date given for the environmental collapse the Earth is suffering, it feels credibly near future, perhaps within the current generation’s children’s lifetime.
The real triumph here, though, is the treatment of time and relativity as the narrative splits between the interstellar mission and those left behind on Earth. However, like General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, Nolan has trouble reconciling the majesty and spectacle of the science fiction adventure with the more human elements of the story. Characters motivations change clumsily as the story requires them to, with one or two abruptly changing their natures without explanation at all. Plot twists are eminently predictable and because the script doesn’t allow the characters to be more than vessels to move the plot forward, when it takes a turn for the more metaphysical in the final act, it feels awkwardly hollow and trite as well as clumsily edited. The cutting between the two storylines in the finale is an unexpected technical lapse from this masterful filmmaker however the worst offender in this film is Hans Zimmer’s aggressively intrusive score which, thanks to poor sound mixing, often drowns out dialogue and undermines the action on screen.
McConaughey and Hathaway do what they can with the script but there’s just not much for them to work with and while this won’t be enough to derail McConaughey’s recent renaissance, it’s certainly robbed it of some of its momentum. The supporting cast deliver what’s required with Chastain, Caine, Lithgow and the others doing solid work but none of the characters feel authentic so there’s little emotional punch. ‘Love’ hasn’t been this clumsily evoked in a science fiction epic since “Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones”.
Ultimately, the sad fact is that this is one of those movies which shows all its best visuals (and uses all the best soundbite quotes of dialogue) and gives away all but a couple of surprises in the trailer. Despite throwing a whole bunch of fascinating ideas and concepts at the screen fails to come up with something cohesive and coherent. Despite the wealth of imagination on offer, it stumbles too often in its attempt to cram too much in and dwells on uninteresting aspects too long.
In 1969, Stanley Kubrick brought us “2001: A Space Odyssey” and in 2014 it feels like Nolan’s brought us his own personal Space Obfuscatory, a spectacular but uneven and frequently opaque epic. There are brilliant ideas at play and an undeniable flair for visual and scientific storytelling but there are also elements of hubris as the Writer/ Producer/ Director brings his vision to the screen. This is one of Nolan’s most spectacular and ambitious films to date. It’s also one of his most frustrating. It’s also what movies are all about and why I love them so much. I look forward to debating, comparing and contrasting opinions on this film. I know my own perspective on it will change as I reflect on it and, let’s be honest, watch it again (and again, and probably again) but for now, I wasn’t confused or confounded by it, just disappointed.