By Jarrod Jones. It may be rather redundant to say so, but here goes: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is a film of many ideas. The director of such films as The Prestige, Memento, and (more crucially) Inception, can’t – or maybe won’t – provide a story without twisting one’s mind into an indeterminate shape. And true to form, the 44 year-old director can’t simply offer a heartfelt sci-fi stunner in his latest film; there has to exist Nolan’s reliable breakneck twists and mind-boggling turns too. It’s all very fitting for a filmmaker whose production company logo is forged from a labyrinth.
That’s what keeps most of Interstellar from imploding entirely, that echelon of cinematic chutzpah. Because if each successive Christopher Nolan film exists for a single reason, it’s for the filmmaker to take his beloved medium to places we’ve never seen before. The problem is, as far as thought-provoking, operatic science fiction is concerned, we’ve been there and back again. A precedent has already been set, and even though the Christopher Nolan of Interstellar is just as present and enthusiastic as he was in the days of Inception, here his Hitchcockian flare is jettisoned to make room for the inevitable comparisons to Kubrick, and as a result – with his quickly accelerating ambition – Interstellar inadvertently embraces the Shyamalan-esque.
This may be disappointing for the filmmaker’s fans to hear (it certainly pains this writer to scrawl out the words), but bear with me: there’s no denying that Nolan’s done his homework – theoretical physicist Kip Thorne was brought in to iron out the more scientifically confounding bits (and made a significant breakthrough in doing so) – but the technical and artistic majesty of Interstellar buoys the film a lot more than it has any right to, mostly because the film’s bigger problems lie in getting the matters of the heart and the matters of the universe to coincide. Truth be told, Nolan simply can’t connect those dots. (Its closest thematic cousin is Stephen Spielberg’s A.I., a film that also astounds with its ideas and imagery, but ultimately has more thematic emotional depth to offer than the visceral.)
Matthew McConaughey (more leathery and vaguely naive than in Contact) stars as Cooper, a former NASA test pilot-turned-corn farmer, a widower keeping his family stable in the not-too distant future where humanity has decided to forego the more rigid (and expensive) facets of society in favor of basic survival. (And, in doing so, we’ve become rather selectively dogmatic about how much we trust in scientific discovery.) He’s a solid family man who brings up his two children, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy) with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow, serving the same function as he did in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) in a world where food is scarce, crops are dying, and dust storms disrupt basic day-to-day lives (and manage to get all over everything). Interstellar paradoxically works better in these early sequences, and Nolan effectively creates a lived-in world so well-realized that it’s all the more disappointing when the film sets it into the periphery after McConaughey starts tripping the light fantastic with his crew of space-farers (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, and a smartalecky robot voiced by Bill Irwin).
Cooper’s fatherly care gives way to sporadically impulsive behavior (instead of driving his kids to school, he takes them off-road to chase after a surveillance drone), and his distracted, scientifically savvy mind is quick to dismiss his daughter’s suspicions that a ghost inhabits her bedroom. But the phantasm won’t be ignored, and once the plucky Murph deciphers the entity’s messages in morse code, Cooper discovers a path that literally takes him farther than he’s ever gone before.
But once Cooper has said his goodbyes (a sequence less effective than it should be), Nolan keeps his focus sternly on the escapades of the spacecraft Endurance, leaving the Earth-bound cast to – as McConaughey ominously drawls – “worry about our place in the dirt.” The narrative shuffling Nolan utilized to great effect in Inception (and in the better parts of The Dark Knight Rises) suffers greatly in Interstellar, and the director (who co-wrote the film with brother Jonathan) has a difficult time getting those gears to shift.
The film inadvertently recalls some of the clumsier science fictions of the 90s and 00s: Event Horizon, Mission to Mars, and even Armageddon spring to mind when the film allows itself to rest on story beats for longer than it should. But Interstellar has just enough suspense – nearly thirty solid minutes of the film is an effective white-knuckler – to keep the long stretches of science jargon from dragging the story into the navel-gazing doldrums of those best-forgotten potboilers. (While Michael Caine’s Professor Brand can spit the technical hot fire, others – primarily Anne Hathaway – don’t fare nearly as well.)
The crux of Interstellar, the film’s beating heart, is neglected for far too long by the time Nolan wants it to matter. McConaughey is more than capable enough to carry the majority of the film’s emotional weight, but the director opts to dazzle with the most incredibly efficacious visuals this side of Gravity (cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema – filling in for Nolan’s usual DoP Wally Pfister – can expect Oscar’s call).
Maybe that’s the point. The actor’s natural affability tempers the audience’s expectations with dry wit and a corn-fed altruism that the film’s icier trappings frequently threaten to swallow whole. Because of this, Nolan employs Hans Zimmer’s ceaseless score to emphasize the dramatic depth that would otherwise be absent in the film’s narrative – it’s a collaborative relationship very much akin to that of Spielberg and Williams. Which makes sense. This is a family-centric movie after all, but if Spielberg has taught us anything, it’s this: landing a happy ending isn’t like lining a spacecraft to an air lock. It takes more finesse, and a lot more care.