Christopher Nolan’s apocalyptic space epic isn’t really about space; it’s about family. Yes, it challenges Gravity as a technical triumph; but it’s too long and has a thumping great sci-fi time paradox at its core.
And while McConoughey, Chastain and Caine have never been better, you come to realise Nolan has only gone and remade 2001: A Space Odessey, complete with monoliths, worm holes and a black hole that makes less sense than Disney’s.
In the near future, an ecological disaster threatens humanity’s food supply, where crop blight and dust storms mean it’s the end of the species. Ex-astronaut turned farmer Cooper (Matthew McConoughey – Killer Joe) has nightmares of his shuttle crash and stares despair in the face whilst trying to raise son Tom and prodigy daughter Murphy.
Murphy’s ‘poltergeist’ (yes, stay with it) provides the map co ordinates to a secret base of the re-formed NASA, where Prof Brant (Michael Caine – Batman, Inception) reveals a grand plan to leave the Earth for a new home in the stars. It’s a hazardous journey to a distant galaxy via a conveniently donated worm hole in search of habitable planets, to which twelve scout missions were sent to reconnoitre.
The co-ordinates and the worm hole seem to have been provided by extra-terrestrial intelligence, helping humanity. For a time, this movie might be Contact.
Cooper is immediately back on the team as chief pilot, but has to leave his family behind. The rest of the movie, needless to say, is the dangerous exploration of strange new worlds and Cooper’s fight to get back to his family. Whilst on Earth, the adult Murphy (Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty) has to continue Brant’s work to launch his space-going Ark. Oh yes, there’s a lot of sci-fi guff about relativity, time dilation and gravity; growing up, growing old and facing death. Not a comedy, then.
And that’s just the set-up.
Interstellar is a grand epic of sweeping ideas; love and family set against astrophysics and the survival of the species. From the confined interiors of tiny spacecraft to the vast exteriors of fantastical alien worlds, Nolan and his design department run wild. The visual effects team exceed Gravity‘s zero-G effects and go much, much further with a worm hole journey that is mercifully shorter than that in 2001.
Sci-fi fans will love the Hal-like military robots, with their spikey personalities, quite unlike any design you’ve ever seen, unless you squint a bit, then it’s R2D2 and the droids from Silent Running.
Vast oceans and huge frozen escarpments give a sense of scale, and yet, the black hole is a boiling mass of light which seems curiously small and non-threatening.
The cast emote on a similarly epic scale, with McConoughey, Chastain and Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables, ) all acting their teary best. There are some obligatory digs at human nature with surprise co-star Matt Damon (Bourne, Elysium), Caine’s professor and Coopers son Tom all proving flawed characters.
For all it’s superior design and supposed grounding in physics, Interstellar is surprisingly fiction-heavy and science-lite. The second act odessey to other worlds pulls so many sci-fi tropes and audacious action sequences, there were some involuntary titters of laughter in the screening I attended.
When it comes to the anti-climatic third act, you sit there thinking “…really?”
Then there’s the epilogue which of course, lays on the family values thing so heavy it almost crashes the Cooper space station into Saturn (not the ludicrous NASA concrete office block that Caine failed to launch in act one, I noticed). By which time, Hans Zimmer’s clanging score had given me a headache.
So where does Interstellar sit? It’s the warmest and most ambitious of Nolan’s career so far, full of ideas and big set pieces; it’s also full of improbable manoeuvres, made on the fly, at high speed using indestructible kit that is too low-tech twenty-first century to be high-tech for intergalactic travel. Come on, if you can go interstellar, you can fix the food shortage.
It’s full of contradictions, you see; a Steinbeck dust-bowl, with a When Worlds Collide ark-in-space; seat-of-the-pants flying into the most destructive forces in the universe, and yet to there’s a load of Basil Exposition as characters explain the basics of space flight and relativity to each other during the mission. Would you not have had these conversations before you left?!?!
It has some of the tension of Gravity, some of the vision of 2001, and a little of the wild Jules Verne adventure of Disney’s The Black Hole. There’s none of the edginess of Event Horizon (an admirably bad space movie) or the pathos of Silent Running. Instead, Interstellar is nearly smothered by the family soap-opera and the unbelievable stupidity of characters failing to spot the plot points half an hour after the audience.
Interstellar is a good movie, but is it a great movie? I’ll certainly take a Nolan movie over pretty much anything day to day, but this one talks down to its audience in a way not even Cooper talks down to his ten year old. Having delivered Memento, Insomnia and Inception, with their deeply personal musings on perception and reality, it’s as if Nolan doesn’t trust us now.
However, there is an elephant in the space capsule; a space movie head and shoulders above all the aforementioned, by which all shall be judged. It’s Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. RC
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Chrstopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Genre: Adeventure, Sci-fi, drama
Running time: 2hr 49min
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck