Such is his status as a filmmaker of significant influence and import, anything Christopher Nolan does these days is a big deal. Since 2000’s Memento introduced Nolan to the world at large, the British-born director is yet to hit a bum note, churning out eight high quality feature films to earn a reputation as an intelligent, innovative filmmaker who refuses to compromise his vision. As such, Interstellar is very much a Nolan film; huge in scope and execution but with an intelligence and inquisitiveness rarely seen in big budget science-fiction. Then again, Interstellar is not a typical sci-fi flick, clearly influenced by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey more so than audience-friendly space swashbucklers such as the Star Wars series. With Interstellar, Nolan seems less interested in spectacle – although there are plenty of spectacular moments here – than he is with posing philosophical questions about the nature of the universe, the possibilities of science and the destruction of the Earth as a result of human neglect and mismanagement. As a result, when Interstellar is good it is breathtakingly so, but when it becomes too bogged down in high concept musings on relativity and the space-time continuum, it tends to lose momentum and, like 2001: A Space Odyssey before it, may struggle to resonate with anybody for whom action trumps intellect.
Despite its elongated running time in excess of two and half hours, this is a film so large in scope that everything, in the first segment at least, happens very quickly. Almost immediately after we meet Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a widowed former astronaut and engineer turned farmer, he has stumbled upon a secret NASA base, is reunited with friend and mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and has been recruited to pilot a spacecraft beyond the reaches of our universe in search of a potential planet suitable for human habitation. You see, Earth has turned to shit, with little rain and severe daily dust storms making food production all but impossible in most parts of the planet. Industry and government have collapsed and there is little hope for any kind of future for the generations to come. Within minutes (of screen time), Cooper is abandoning his teenage son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), 10-year-old daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) to embark on an unprecedented journey through space – literally jumping from the corn field to the cockpit with nary a skerrick of training or preparation as Nolan necessarily propels the narrative forward in an effort to reach the crux of the narrative; the search for a new home for humanity. Joining Cooper on this journey into the unknown are Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway) and fellow astronauts Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Rommily (David Gyasi). As is to be expected, there is a direct correlation between the profile of the respective actors and the fate of their characters.
The journey beyond our galaxy – via a wormhole no less – is staged with great finesse and every effort is made to explain exactly how it all works; but the complexities of it all will not doubt be lost on many. Apparently, the passing of time and aging in deep space occur at a significantly slower rate, which means there is a real likelihood that Cooper may never see his family ever again. As the crew of the Endurance begin to explore potential sites for settlement, the inevitable setbacks occur and the tension mounts as they battle for survival. There are some surprises along the way, which I won’t delve into for those who haven’t seen the film as yet, and the mission seems doomed to fail. Meanwhile on Earth, the adult Murphy (Jessica Chastain) is now working alongside Professor Brand while Tom (Casey Affleck) continues to till the land with diminishing returns, cognisant of the fact that Cooper may never return.
For most of the running time, this is a mesmerising examination of ideas that, whilst far-fetched, are thought provoking none the less. However, it seems Nolan was at a loss with regard to how to end it all logically. As such, there are moments – and one extended scene in particular – that is too ludicrous to believe and only serves to undermine everything that goes before it. Until this point, I was prepared to embrace every supposition that Nolan was making. Academy Award-winning man of the moment McConaughey is fine as the cocky Cooper, while a romantic revelation midway through destroys the credibility of Hathaway’s character. Whilst Nolan has again proven himself a filmmaker of grand ambition and there are many great moments here, his biggest problem may well be that Interstellar suffers unfairly from the weight of expectation. Having said that, one can only imagine what Nolan’s next grand undertaking will be.