Note: This review is spoiler free, but outlines the basic plot setup.
Describing Nolan’s latest feature as his “Space Odyssey” is descriptive from perhaps a narrative and also a personal point of view. 2001 is a film I appreciate, and I understand the reverence in which it is held, but it is not a film I love by any stretch of the imagination. Ambitious, grand, cerebral, and flawed are words I would use to describe both movies. For Interstellar, the emphasis is on the final word there, flawed.
The film tells of a not too distant future, where Earth is losing its ability to support humanity. A blight has wiped out many of the crops; only corn remains and dust storms ravage the planet. Society has refocused its efforts from warfare, education, and exploration into agriculture, with countries including the U.S. striving to feed their people. Most children are channeled into becoming farmers, with only a select few having a chance for higher education, a luxury in this starved world.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot who now resides on his dusty farm with his two children, Tom and Murphy. The latter notices a strange phenomena in her bedroom one day and together they soon decipher a hidden code, coordinates that lead them to the hidden remnants of NASA. This is a world that will not tolerate money wasted on exploration; the moon landings are even portrayed as a propaganda stunt in school textbooks to reinforce the focus of the younger generation on the task of farming.
In secret, Cooper’s former colleagues have been working on a plan to save humanity. A wormhole has opened up near Saturn leading to a galaxy with a number of habitable planets. An advance mission has already been sent, they now ask Cooper, as the best pilot they had, to leave his family behind for a mission that could span years to assist the followup team in selecting the future home for humanity.
This opening act is very well realized (invasive documentary clips aside), with information dropped to piece together what kind of bleak world it is. Survival has triumphed over the human spirit. As it is put eloquently in the film, “mankind no longer looks at the stars, they just look down at the dirt.” The whole buildup to the NASA discovery is permeated with an odd feeling that something more is afoot, weirdly reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s work. After lift-off is when certain aspects of the film unravel.
The film intercuts between the NASA mission and the happenings back on Earth. There are spoiler plot devices which I will not divulge, but we are essentially introduced to characters we spend little time with, and are suddenly forced to watch them deal with more mundane life issues on a farm or sketching out equations on a chalkboard. Interstellar at times lacks the deft touch and skilled editing Nolan has displayed in previous films like Memento and Inception. Juxtaposing a mission to save the human race with such scenes brings the film to a crashing halt at times. For a film determined to push the idea of exploration as our salvation, it is puzzling how so much of the film is spent looking back. I understand the need to inject that element of humanity into the film, but the efforts of the astronauts, the brave few, should have been able to achieve that. Some scenes really work, notably those involving messages between Cooper and his daughter Murph, but overall the two aspects of the film never truly mesh. Also, for a film spanning nearly three hours. it is a curious viewing experience – somewhat lethargic in parts, rushed in others.
From a technical point of view, the film is incredible. The scientific grounding of all aspects is superb, practical effects are truly appreciated, and in IMAX (where I caught it) scale is wonderfully realized and the whole film has a luxurious quality. And do not underestimate what great sound mixing adds to a film of this type. The visuals are great, but perhaps more indulgence would have been nice. The realism is appreciated, but with some of the trippier aspects the film takes on towards the end, Nolan could have been more flexible earlier on. The vibe is not just Nolan, there are elements of many films and indeed directors at play: a mishmash of Kubrick, Malick, Shyamalan, and Spielberg, probably the best fit for this film to balance the emotional aspects. The film seems most successful when it is pure Nolan, with that colder, more focused feel; at times it seems like Nolan is trying to hit too many notes at the same time.
While the emotional components do not entirely blend into the film, the aspects that do succeed are entirely down to Matthew McConaughey. His folksy charm is crucial, providing a very genuine, warm center at what is a very cold film. His relationship with Murphy is one of the most effectively realized parts of the film. There are a number of moments where the effects of this journey through space and time (it’s relative, remember) are particularly haunting, and lead to some of the most successful and memorable moments of the film. Once scene specifically, which I shall refer to as “message catchup,” absolutely destroyed me. The rest of the cast are pretty effective, but it is hard to run through them without meandering into spoilery information. Their main issue is the vast amounts of exposition their characters are often laden with. Anne Hathaway is solid, one clunky out-of-character speech aside, as is Michael Caine, an always welcome source of gravitas in Nolan’s features. One standout was the great voice work of Bill Irwin for the robot TARS which accompanies the crew on their mission.
The themes explored in the film are interesting but do seem at odds with each other. From championing the cause of science, NASA, and exploration the film turns away from that, it moves to bringing in a clunky plot device about “love as a universal constant.” It’s a curious inversion from a pro-science agenda to how emotion and love will truly be our salvation. These differing themes encapsulate the issues with the film.
Interstellar is essentially a thoughtful piece of cinema brought to the blockbuster masses, and I have to applaud Nolan for doing that. It will spark debate, it will engage people, entertain some, and aggrieve others. It is another fantastic performance from McConaughey coupled to some audacious ideas and visuals. There is nothing revolutionary nor surprising here. It is an ambitious tale and a cinematic spectacle but with a fumbled execution, leaving you with much to ponder and even more to critique.