Interstellar – Review by David Turpin
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine
A near-three-hour science fiction epic, Interstellar is the latest cinematic tome from Christopher Nolan, the British director whose would-be Wagnerianism has colonised blockbuster cinema since he commandeered the Batman franchise almost a decade ago. Set at an unspecified, but cunningly evoked, period in the future, Interstellar deals with a mission to save humanity from environmental disaster by seeking out a habitable world in deep space – via a wormhole that has mysteriously appeared in our solar system, courtesy of a mysterious higher intelligence. Matthew McConaughey heads the cast as reluctant hero Cooper, who must abandon his family – including a young daughter – in order to take on the hopes of the human race. Said daughter, Murphy (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy and as an adult by Jessica Chastain), remains behind with mastermind Professor Brand (Michael Caine), whose own daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) is also aboard the mission.
The first hurdle to surmount with Interstellar is one of ideology. The film’s premise depends on one’s willingness to accept the idea that the continuation of Earth is less urgent than the continuation of human life. In its suggestion that Earth’s sole “purpose” is to be the cradle of human existence, Interstellar offers a myopically narrow interpretation of our planet. Tellingly, no fauna appears on screen besides human beings, and all flora is depicted as farm land. Human responsibility for the impending extinction of the planet is never interrogated, with one character glibly remarking that “the dirt […] had turned against us”. The script, by Nolan’s brother Jonathan, repeatedly invokes ideas of mankind’s special purpose and destiny, although as this appears to be one of self-perpetuation at all costs, it is unclear how such an imperative is specific to humanity. When Cooper asserts that “we’ll find a way – we always have”, and “we were meant to be pioneers, not caretakers”, one can’t help but speculate that putting men like him in charge may be the reason why our planet is in such a mess, both in reality, and in the fictitious world of this film.
None of this would matter, of course, if Interstellar didn’t demand so volubly to be seen as a movie of ideas. However, like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, it’s actually a movie that works overtime to court serious analysis that it cannot withstand. Just as Inception seemed unable or unwilling to acknowledge a distinction between the unconscious and the subconscious, Interstellar is founded on a simplification – that human life alone will be enough to support the ecosystem of a viable world. Also, just as The Dark Knight Rises flirted with Occupy Wall Street imagery only to ultimately affirm the supremacy of the one percent, Interstellar takes us across the universe to deliver a conservative homily on fatherhood.
Interstellar is surely the apotheosis of contemporary blockbuster cinema’s obsession with patriarchy – every notable character is defined in terms of father-child relationships, and almost every significant plot turn is motivated by father issues. Interstellar may well be correct in its suggestion that human endeavour will always be motivated by concern, not for the universal, but for immediate family – however, it fails to recognise that a cinema audience who’ve been promised the universe may be left cold by what is essentially a prosaic family therapy session, written huge. Having Cooper’s daughter played by an actress as fine as Chastain (and later by the wonderful Ellen Burstyn) certainly helps, but the film’s need to map its every turn to prosaic family drama keeps it stubbornly earthbound when it should, by definition, be reaching for the stars. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a key action sequence that Nolan cross-cuts with a squabble around the Cooper kitchen table, gambling vainly on equal viewer investment in both scenarios, but succeeding only in draining their energy. Similar cross-cutting in Inception, involving simultaneous action playing at multiple speeds on multiple planes of reality, was more effective – at least until that film too devolved into a domestic row premised on a woman’s overriding need for male validation.
For all its gestures toward 2001: A Space Odyssey, the animating influence here is not Kubrick but Spielberg – indeed, Spielberg was, at one point, attached to direct. However, Nolan’s sturm und drang lacks the light touch that can make Spielberg palatable – Interstellar makes for a solemn three hours, especially in its comic relief moments, featuring wisecracking A.I. units whose lines sound like they were written by robots as well as delivered by them. It may be for the best that Hans Zimmer’s characteristically deafening score – centred around booming pipe organ arpeggios – renders a good deal of the dialogue inaudible.
For all this, the film has a visual grandeur that demands to be seen. There is a haunting beauty to long-distance shots of our heroes’ craft as it glides past Saturn, a tiny glowing speck in the vastness of space. Vastness, of course, is the watchword here, and the degree to which one is wowed by Interstellar’s visuals depends, as usual with Nolan, upon one’s tolerance for hypnotic monotony.
At no point does Interstellar even approach the vibrancy of 2001’s final space trip, in which the blackness of space erupted into psychedelic colour. Instead, Nolan hews closely to Inception’s visual model. Just as that earlier film had the entire human imagination to work with, and offered only enlarged versions of office blocks and ski slopes, so Interstellar’s universe displays the results of an enormous visual effects budget expended on creating vistas of sameness. One planet is entirely covered with water, another entirely covered with ice, and when higher intelligence finally manifests, it does so as an image of infinite repetition. The effect is striking in its austerity, but one can’t help but see in these scenes an analogue for the film itself – enormous lengths have been gone to, in order to create the hugest possible empty space.