November 8, 2014 Leave a comment
In the future, after the entitled excesses of the 21st Century, the Earth is struggling to support the human race. With little demand for engineers and explorers most people now work as farmers — including ex-pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his makeshift family: father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, named after Murphy’s Law). When a downed military drone leads him to NASA, now underground and incognito, he is recruited for a last-ditch attempt to save the species, if not the planet. Crops are failing, and in order to prevent his children from either starving or suffocating he must find them a new home — a new world. Together with Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and robot TARS (Bill Irwin), Cooper charts a course for Saturn, and a recently-formed wormhole to another galaxy.
Having ended his trilogy of Batman-inflected treatises on fear, chaos and pain with The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s latest think-piece looks to the stars. Interstellar, which began life as a Steven Spielberg project before being rewritten by Nolan and longtime brother/collaborator Jonathan, asks whether love might be a force akin to gravity — capable not only of transcending life and death but dimensions too. At first it seems like something of a change of tact for Nolan, a director better known for debunking spells than casting them, but when the film introduces a ghost, a wormhole and a race of inter-dimensional beings known as ‘Them’ or ‘They’ you can’t help but take the bait and join Cooper in “wondering at our place in the stars”. Sadly, any mystery is short-lived.
However, for the first act at least, there is real promise. Nolan’s vision of a planet blighted by pestilence and choking in dust is an effective one, and small scenes showing life in such an environment — plates and glasses being placed upside down on the table to keep them clean; a school curriculum deriding NASA’s space programme as a hoax in order to discourage students from pointless distractions — are intriguing and well-observed. Perhaps inevitably, it’s this section of the movie that feels most Spielbergian in tone: the family dynamic is interesting, their adventures exciting and their interactions entertaining. When the family’s Land Rover leaps into a cornfield in pursuit of low-flying drone it’s more likely to evoke ET or Jurassic Park: The Lost World than anything from Nolan’s own filmography.
That all changes when Cooper arrives at NASA. He is quickly stripped of his children and his humanity; lectured on Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity by Michael Caine; and launched into the vacuum of space with the physicist’s daughter, two personality-free scientist and a Stanley Kubrick homage. The film’s humour setting is dialed down while its honesty setting is ratcheted up; with Nolan once again valuing realism at all costs, even when he’s being decidedly unrealistic. The ship — Endurance — may be about to fly into a wormhole but it must do so in absolute silence, darkness and inactivity, as its passengers enter stasis for months, if not years at a time. The film loses all momentum immediately, and for the next hour Nolan stops and starts his narrative as the characters travel to a series of gimmicky planets earmarked as potential homes (or, at least, “rocks for humanity to cling to”) by previous missions for additional exposition.
It’s not just a sense of limbo that Interstellar shares with Inception, either, with Nolan returning once more to the subject of time. As in different levels of dreaming, and as per Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, time operates differently across space. Their first destination is Miller, a planet upon which time slows to a crawl, and it’s hard not to feel a sense of deja-vu as the characters discuss temporal differences between locations at length. The stakes, in this case, are reversed: Cooper doesn’t risk losing years of his life but missing decades of his childrens’, but they are familiar nonetheless. As it stands, Miller is a bit of a waste of time, and as impressive as its mountainous waves may be they add exactly nothing to either character, theme or plot — save to necessitate the recasting of Cooper’s children as adults, so that Tom is now played by Casey Affleck and Murphy by Jessica Chastain.
According to Nolan, interstellar travel is as mundane as Gotham in The Dark Knight trilogy or Ariadne’s dreamscapes in Inception — same men, different suits. The problem is, however, that when the film finally plays its hand and Nolan is forced to ask for a suspension of disbelief from his audience it is much too late. After two films spent establishing Batman as a pragmatic character it is no wonder audiences balked when in The Dark Knight Rises he was finally called upon to do something genuinely superheroic, and so it is with the third act of Interstellar. We may not in fact be dealing with ghosts, wormholes or inter-dimensional beings but the reality is no less ridiculous — perhaps even more so. In Spielberg’s hands it might just have worked — after all, it wouldn’t be the first of his films to hang on the precept “life will find a way” — but in Nolan’s it doesn’t; it seems sentimental and simplistic. It’s a gear-change that jolts you awake, and when the core concept crumbles you realise that it’s all he ever really had in the first place. Nolan loves ideas so much he’s now naming his characters after them.
That said, Intersteller is still a thought-provoking and ambitious movie. It has often been said that the director is as gifted at writing women as he is at telling jokes — yet Anne Hathaway’s Dr. Brand is a surprisingly engaging character. There is a lot about Nolan’s latest that feels contrived and convoluted — not least a lesson on love given by Amelia herself — but Hathaway’s performance resonates regardless, and her motivations and sacrifices have all the more impact for her emotional honesty. The best scenes are felt rather than explained — the indignity of a parent-teacher meeting; awe as a space ship clips a frozen cloud; desperation during a rescue mission — but you lose hours in stasis in between. It hardly matters that it’s scientifically accurate, until it isn’t.