Explore a cold and empty void – Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar
Somewhere between The Dark Knight and Inception Christopher Nolan became the people’s auteur. Walking the tightrope between critical dismissal and commercial unviability with near-impeccable balance, he’s mastered the art of making philosophical action flicks – or, if you prefer, thinky films that just happen to have a lot of things blowing up. Interstellar ought to be the apotheosis of this form, combining musings on the nature of spacetime and reality with rockets, wormholes and a classically Spielbergian family drama. Unfortunately, what it actually is is 169 minutes of nonsense.
In the near future, the world has gone to shit just as we all knew it would. Overpopulation has left the human race unable to feed itself, and despite virtually everyone becoming a farmer crop after crop is being wiped out by blight. Wheat’s already gone and okra’s following suit; once the corn starts to die, all Matthew McConaughey will have left is his sullen son, his weird daughter, John Lithgow and a rubbish farmhouse. This wasn’t McConaughey’s plan – astronauts don’t put themselves through years of training so they can drive combine harvesters – but what else is he to do? If he doesn’t feed his kids, they’ll never grow up to be Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain!
Right on cue, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, who played that creepy vampire kid in Twilight) stops being generically weird and starts to be weird in a way that will drive the plot. She thinks there’s a ghost in her room, and although ghosts obviously don’t exist (just like wheat, OH SNAP future humans) Matthew McConaughey still sort of pays attention because he’s a lovable Texan dad and Murph’s mum is dead and also she has a stupid name. Then the ghost that doesn’t exist helps Matthew McConaughey find a spaceship. I’d love to say more, but I can’t without spoiling one of the most thrillingly ridiculous lines in the film for you, so you’re going to have to take this on trust. That shouldn’t be too hard, because now Michael Caine is here.
“There’s a wormhole, Matthew McConaughey,” rasps Professor Michael Caine, who could divorce his supermodel wife, marry a new one and then divorce her too on the money he’s making out of Christopher Nolan. “We’ve known about it since the fifties or something, but now the Earth is banjaxed so you have to get in this spaceship with Anne Hathaway and some robots and minor characters and FIND US A NEW BLOODY HOME.” “But what about my kids, Professor Michael Caine?”, says Matthew McConaughey. “I could be gone for years. What if my sullen son turns into Casey Affleck, and then starves? Nobody wants to see a really skinny Casey Affleck!” “Get out there and save them*,” replied Professor Michael Caine, cleverly superimposing a strained father-child relationship onto an epic space-y backdrop. And then everyone turns their brains off for two whole hours.
*This is an actual line from the film. The others are taken from the original draft script, scrawled in Jonathan Nolan’s very own crayon.
This review is obviously going to be dismissed across the board, because Interstellar is looking like another huge success for Christopher Nolan and I am, therefore, a whining nerd who hates it when people are successful. I accept that. The sad thing is that I bloody love Christopher Nolan, and I was enormously excited about this film, and I feel utterly cheated. Nolan makes films that look and sound gorgeous, are crammed with brilliant actors, have awful scripts and glaring plotholes, and are enormously fun to watch. They might not all stand up to a repeat viewing – try watching The Dark Knight Rises again, it’s a mess – but Nolan’s ability to sweep you into a meticulously conceived world is frequently second to none. By contrast, Interstellar doesn’t feel like one complete, finely honed picture – it feels like two, a compelling fifty-minute farmer drama and a two-hour sci-fi B movie with a billion dollar budget. Fifteen years after the release of Notting Hill, someone has finally made a film that’s Close Encounters meets Jean de Florette.
By and large, Interstellar is technically superb. Nolan eschewed green screen in favour of sound stages, elaborate sets and scale models- the huge dust storms that ravage Earth, for example, were filmed live with the help of tons of pulverised cardboard – and everything, from the spaceships to the alien worlds, feels pleasingly tangible. The film’s soundscape is stunning, using long periods of silence as well as Hans Zimmer’s huge, expansive and absurdly loud score. The volume of the music is a mixed blessing, because it drowns out quite a lot of dialogue – and whilst missing lines is very dodgy in a film this badly plotted, it can be a relief in a film this badly scripted. Jonathan Nolan’s script really is dreadful, darting back and forth between “We don’t have time for science!”-type eruptions (mostly from McConaughey, the original redneck astronaut) and absurdly complex lumps of exposition that rely heavily upon the words ‘quantum’, ‘gravity’ and ‘black hole’. I’m almost certain that, had it come out two years ago, Interstellar would have been called Gravity.
As you’d expect from a cast of this calibre, performances are largely on point. McConaughey makes a great dad, and his internal conflict – stay with your kids or save the world – is convincing throughout. The extraordinary Jessica Chastain, surely one of the best actors of her generation, is utterly wasted in a one-note role, whilst Michael Caine manages to make Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ sound vaguely interesting even when he’s reciting it for the third time. Anne Hathaway is the weak point of the principal cast, as per, but this time it’s more the fault of her lines than her performance. “You knew about relativity!”, “It was all… a MONSTROUS LIE!” and a proper monologue about love holding the universe together are all palmed off on her hapless character, who goes from capable scientist to incompetent lovelorn token woman in about six scenes. Other pleasing performances come from David Gyasi as Token Black Astronaut, Bill Irwin as Wise-Cracking Lego Robot and Person I Absolutely Can’t Name as Ridiculous Mid-Film Cameo, all of whom do their best with dreadful characters.
Interstellar’s biggest problem isn’t its script or its plot (which I can’t talk about, but it’s QUANTUM really quite GRAVITY astonishingly BLACK HOLE incoherent) – it’s something that feels, like Nolan’s best films, both incredibly big and very personal. This is simply not an engaging film. Rewatching Inception, Memento or The Prestige, it’s impossible not to be drawn into the story – Cobb, Leonard and Angier are all flawed, engaging characters with a story that demands to be told. In contrast, McConaughey’s Cooper is virtually lifeless, a plastic astronaut toy that we know will end up back where he belongs, zooming through space to make a date with plodding narrative destiny. If Christopher Nolan wants to make a companion piece to Interstellar that concentrates on the people left on earth, I’ll gladly watch it. With this epic, hollow film, he’s reached between the stars and come back with a handful of what we all know is there – cold, empty space.