I should start off by admitting that I’ve never been one of those people who worships the ground that writer/director Christopher Nolan walks upon. In fact I’ve had quite an up-and-down, ambivalent relationship with his work over the years: I absolutely loved Inception for example, but never warmed to Batman Begins. I much preferred the follow up to the latter film, The Dark Knight, but I suspect that was more to do with Heath Ledger’s stunning reimagining of the role of the Joker than it was the film itself which still felt overbaked to my taste. I liked Nolan’s breakthrough feature Momento well enough but it didn’t feel to me to have much in the way of rewatch value once you got the hang of the gimmicky structure, and the follow-up Insomnia was fine with a career-high performance from Robin Williams but nonetheless not a match for the Norwegian original.
As a result I came to Interstellar half expecting to be disappointed or at the very least non-plussed, especially after all the early Oscar-hype for the movie petered out almost the minute it opened at the box office. Word of mouth from those who have seen it has also been somewhat mixed to say the least. Even so I was still keen to see this one as soon as it arrived on home media, because credit where it’s due: the one thing Nolan incontrovertibly delivers is ambitious and risky art house projects on a big blockbuster scale. In an era dominated by studios bankrolling ‘safe’ comic book superhero films and never-ending franchises I really admire anyone attempting to make a bold and innovative film attempting to address some of the biggest ideas and themes there are in storytelling. While I might not have always liked the end result of Nolan’s films, I’ve certainly always appreciated the fact that he’s trying to achieve things that other directors don’t even dare to think about.
Interstellar is set on a near-future Earth in which the environment is breaking down and the human race faces extinction within decades. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) agrees to lead a last-chance space mission through a newly discovered worm hole near Saturn in search of a replacement home for mankind, while a team of scientists on Earth led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) works on solving the technical issues involved in evacuating a large number of survivors off the planet. Coop finds that in order to give the human race – including his own family – any chance of survival, he has to leave his loved ones behind with a high likelihood that he’ll never see them again, especially his beloved daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) who can’t forgive him his decision to desert her. Once underway, both teams face unexpected complications and reversals, deaths and betrayals along the way, resulting in a growing sense of realisation that their respective missions may simply not be achievable and are actually doomed to failure along with the whole of human civilisation.
To say any more would risk spoiling the film, and I really don’t want to do that because for me the power of the film and much of what made it a gripping and engrossing film lies with not knowing where we’re going or how things will turn out. That extends to the cast, as there are at least half a dozen famous names in the film that I had no idea were in it leading to several moments of “Oh, that looks like … no, it can’t be … Yes, surely it is him/her?” which also contributed greatly to my first viewing of the film. Suffice to say that the entire cast was excellent with not a single false or uninteresting performance to be found anywhere.
Which is not to say that the film is itself perfect. At nearly three hours it’s probably too long and is structured almost as an anthology of six or seven short stories. That construction makes the film rather stop-start and occasionally inconsistent in tone, as it varies awkwardly between ultra-cerebral high science and the cheesy touchy-feely. During the first 40 minutes set on a slowly disintegrating Earth I did worry that the slow pace would make the film a bit of a trudge, but in fairness there’s not a moment wasted in this section and it sets up a huge amount of plot detail that pays off at the end. Actually it’s the climatic sequence (which I’ll refer to simply as ‘the tesseract’ and which is a virtually a dictionary definition of deus ex machina plotting, but in a good way) that really drags, where Nolan seems to suffer a sudden crisis of confidence that the audience won’t understand what’s going on unless it’s spelt out in detail and at great length. In fact anyone who is familiar with Steven Moffat’s timey-wimey Doctor Who plots will have figured out pretty much the whole thing well before this point from the clues scattered around the first half of the film’s running time. After that, the final 15 minutes of the film serve as something of a coda that frankly feels painfully clunky compared with what’s come before. It’s too obvious, and yet at the same time strives to cut off before delivering the satisfaction of the final shoe dropping, the way that Nolan always seems to try to end his films on an ambiguous “what happens next?” beat.
It’s impossible not to invoke 2001: A Space Odyssey when talking about Interstellar, not least because Nolan shares Stanley Kubrick’s pathological obsession with authenticity to the last detail when it comes to state-of-the-art scientific theories and space technology, coupled with cutting edge metaphysical and philosophical thinking. However, where Kubrick notoriously leached out every trace of human emotion in 2001 to leave it a cold and sterile artefact, Nolan’s instincts are to go in entirely the other direction and it’s the father-daughter bond that is front and centre in Interstellar. The early scenes between McConaughey and Foy are quite superb and heartbreaking. Their connection survives separation over extremes of both time and space in a strong echo of another film that means a lot to me, 1997’s Contact with which it shares both a star (McConaughey) and a scientific consultant (Kip Thorne); other influences on the film include Gravity in its depiction of some of the outer space scenes, while the robot AI characters TARS and CASE evoke something of the spirit of Silent Running’s Huey, Dewey and Louie. Any notion that TARS or CASE will end up having a HAL-like meltdown are quickly nipped in the bud by a startling display of self-aware black humour from CASE which leads Coop to dial down the customisable humour setting on his robot helper. Other configuration options Coop fine tunes include settings for honesty and trust, all of which made me think of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’s genuine people personality robots that famously included Marvin The Paranoid Android.
Ultimately though all roads lead back to 2001 with at least two sequences comparable to Kubrik’s stargate roller coaster ride. And just as that seminal science fiction classic needed to be watched multiple times to appreciate all its aspects, so does Interstellar feel ill-served by attempting a review with just one initial viewing. Its true worth and quality won’t be apparent for some time to come, and while at first viewing it feels very strongly to be an intelligent film grappling with huge questions surrounding the human condition, it’s entirely possible that it won’t stand up to time and repeated viewings in the way that 2001 does. It could well end up being exposed as trite A-Level ruminations putting style over substance. Ahh, but even if that does prove to be the case, then what style: this film is frequently jaw-dropping to watch, both in its effects and its sets and locations, and there are moments that had me on the edge of my seat with the tension of what is inexorably about to happen next. The film promises much throughout and never fails to deliver on its them, and a large part of its effectiveness is the astonishing score by Hans Zimmer that sounds unlike his most famous past movie soundtracks and instead seems to take inspiration from the likes of Mike Oldfield and Vangelis to outstanding effect in adding dimension to the on-screen events.
Overall, Interstellar promises at the outset to take you on the ride of a lifetime, and then does exactly that. It’s by no means perfect, but even its flaws are impressive. The end result is a work of wonder, virtually a religious experience for atheists as much as for any of the devoted faithful who will find their own ways to read the denouement if they’re so inclined. It has certainly made me much more of a believer of the talent, imagination and peerless moviemaking ambition of Christopher Nolan that I previously was, that’s for sure.
On the Blu-ray: I loved the clarity of the picture available on the Blu-ray, although it’s perhaps not quite up to the very best of modern all-digital presentations and some of the early scenes set on Earth seem to be deliberately soft to make them more traditional celluloid in appearance, but things are sharp and clean once we’re in space and the FX demand high resolution to get the best out it all. The aspect ratio varies during the film’s run time – some sequences were shot for IMAX, some are archive footage, while others are proper 2.40:1 widescreen. The sound was great, although there were a few moments when I needed to rely on subtitles for short sequences involving choked-up performances; other reviewers have criticised the sound mix and said the music is too overbearing, but I never had any trouble myself in this area and I normally would be the first to complain. The overall soundscape is excellent and deeply involving. There is a second disc containing all the various featurette special features, but sadly no audio commentary that would have doubtless been a really interesting listen.
Interstellar is available on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming.