By this point in Christopher Nolan’s career (16 years and 7 films on from his debut piece, Following), he has reached a point where his name alone is enough for him to walk into Warner Bros studios with an idea and then walk out again with $200 million. Whether or not he deserves that status is a matter hotly debated, but it does come with the danger of him buying into his own hype and making something overly self-indulgent. Interstellar, his first foray into space, sometimes comes close to falling into this trap, with its tackling of high-concept theoretical physics, 5th Dimensional space and more sometimes bordering on the pretentious. However, its sheer spectacle and scope, anchored by some thrilling set-pieces and one of the best lead performances ever in a sci-fi by Matthew McConaughey, save it from these dangers and make it into one of 2014’s most essential cinema trips.
McConaughey plays Cooper, a former engineer and astronaut, reduced to farming corn on an earth with no need for technology and ambition (children are taught that the moon landings were faked so that no one thinks about anything above the ground) or anything other than more food. All crops are failing, there are no animals to be seen anywhere and humanity is getting very close to extinction. Salvation is offered to Cooper by Professor Brand (played by Nolan talisman Michael Caine) in the form of a manned expedition through a wormhole to find a planet suitable for human colonisation. This momentous and thrilling task is made complicated by the fact that Cooper will have to face the idea of spending years away from his growing children (Mackenzie Foy and Timothee Chalamet). It is this very human element that keeps the film ticking even in the far reaches of space, and whilst the film takes too long to get going with its earthbound plot (the whole thing could do with being about 20 minutes shorter than its nearly 3 hour run time and more tightly edited), it also offers McConaughey the opportunity to showcase an immense performance. The scene where Cooper fully realises just how far away he is from his family is genuinely moving, and proves that McConaughey is possibly the best in the business when it comes to weeping.
However, the other actors are given far less interesting stuff to do and fellow expeditionary Doctor Brand (Anne Hathaway) is saddled with some rather clunky dialogue, including a very cheesy speech about love’s power to transcend dimensions. In fact, aside from Cooper, the best characters are by far the two assistance robots, TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart). Imbued with more of a personality than any of their human companions, they bring a well-needed sense of levity to proceedings, whether it’s through deadpan threats of self-destruction, or their best impressions of 2001’s HAL. Not only that, but they look incredibly original as well, pleasingly angular and non-humanoid and able to reshape themselves into whatever the situation requires, like a sentient block of LEGO.
Obviously, the entire film looks absolutely stunning, from the opening take-off, to travelling through the wormhole, to a planet with mountain-range sized waves, to the aforementioned ice world, made of a combination of CGI and location shooting in Iceland. Nolan’s vision of outer space is both magnificent and terrifying; you feel like a 16th Century explorer as you accompany the crew of the Endurance (Cooper’s ship) through entirely uncharted territory, even if space as we know it is not actually the final frontier in Interstellar. The effects are jaw-dropping, never more so than in the very 2001-inspired finale and I found myself craning my neck from side to side just to make sure I didn’t miss anything on screen. The final 30 minutes will probably prove very divisive, replacing action and excitement with a dense exploration of metaphysics, but I felt that it was handled very well from a visual standpoint and the constant emotional anchoring provided by McConaughey meant that it did not become boring.
The film does suffer from some less forgivable flaws than becoming a $200 million dollar, Neil DeGrasse Tyson approved, science lesson, however. As I’ve already stated, the dialogue is often clunky and overly expository, and the pacing felt slightly off. It also did a dual finale, where two time-dependent scenarios have to be resolved at the same time, which I personally don’t like, especially when one of them is so much more interesting than the other that the cuts between them become a nuisance. Finally, in a film which is so overwhelmingly big, Hans Zimmer’s score needed to be a little bit smaller. It is sometimes overpowering, drowning out some dialogue, although this juxtaposes with the terrifyingly huge silence of space in a very visceral manner, lending it a feeling of loneliness and mystery unrivalled by even Gravity.
As an experience, Interstellar deserves five stars, taking its audience on a journey unlike anything that’s really been seen before on screen and seeing it on the biggest screen possible is an absolute must. However, as a film, it falls a bit short of such praise, suffering as it does from underwhelming dialogue and generally uninteresting (Cooper and the robots notwithstanding) characters. It is still great, and I found that it held my attention far better than its main inspiration, Kubrick’s 2001, even if it is not Nolan’s tightest or most coherent film. It absolutely demands to be seen, and opens an exciting new door for hard sci-fi to push into mainstream cinema. Like its leading man, Interstellar is a pioneer, and whilst it may make mistakes, the journey is thrilling, new, and unmissable.