Interstellar is the film I’ve been looking forward to most in 2014. (I’m too ashamed to admit what film holds that position for 2015.) My biggest worry when moving to New Zealand was how to befriend sheep, but my second biggest worry was whether I’d get to watch Interstellar. As it happens, I managed to creatively organise my schedule so as to watch it at New Zealand’s only IMAX cinema on the morning of release, which means I saw it before it was even released in the UK. So take that, Parallel Universe Fof – bet you wish you hadn’t stayed in London.
WARNING: Although I have deliberately avoided being too specific in an effort to avoid spoilers, I do briefly reference a couple of early important reveals and discuss the final act of the film in broad brush strokes. I also draw comparisons to other films that would allow the cinephiles among you to extrapolate later crucial plot points.
Cards on the table: I’m a Christopher Nolan fanboy. Memento is a masterpiece; The Dark Knight is the best superhero film ever made; The Prestige is as clever and satisfying a film as one could ever hope for; the backlash against Inception is totally unwarranted.
Critics generally love Nolan too, but Inception planted a seed of doubt that grew larger with The Dark Knight Rises and can be seen across almost all the reviews for Interstellar. This opinion says: sure, Nolan can make us think, but he can’t make us feel. Interstellar is Nolan straining to prove this idea wrong, and this is by far his most emotional film. It is powerful and at times supremely moving, and yet it simultaneously contrives to provide fodder for those who insist that the beating heart of cinema eludes him.
There’s a phrase in science-fiction literature, hard sci-fi, which refers to science-fiction writing that is deliberately and often alienatingly technical. A focus on the science over the fiction, on the mechanics over characters (although not necessarily at the expense of characters). In film, there are few examples of popular hard sci-fi. The hardest sci-fi of the modern era is Primer, a film so off-puttingly abstruse that Back to the Future’s Doc would need about fifty blackboards even to get started.
Interstellar may just be our first real example of commercial hard sci-fi cinema. Don’t panic, it’s not difficult to follow the plot, but the film does often feel like a science lecture. Nolan consulted heavily with theoretical physicists (including executive producer Kip Thorne who has a minor character named after him) and he was clearly so enamoured with what he learned that he put all of it into the film. Thus we have a scene where one character explains what a wormhole looks like even though we’re already looking at it. And so on.
I’m fascinated by the science of space, but that’s not what makes space films great. Space films work best when they convey the beauty and the majesty of the universe, and Nolan comes tantalisingly close to displaying that awe. There are scenes of real beauty, of visuals that go far beyond anything cinema has seen or even imagined before. At times it’s like watching a documentary: first your mouth drops open in wonder… and then the narration kicks in.
One of my favourite films is Sunshine, a beautiful work that beats Nolan’s space sequences on two counts: the music is more evocative (Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar score soars on occasion but is often too pedantic and shrill) and Sunshine’s director Danny Boyle knows what the audience needs. He lets the camera linger and lets the audience breathe the scene. Nolan has spectacular cinematography (despite no longer working with DP Wally Pfister) but he edits too rapidly. This brand of staccato worked a treat on Inception, heightening the tension and fostering a huge adrenalin rush. Unfortunately, it often undermines Interstellar, not so much disrupting momentum as trying to force momentum when the film needs to slow down.
It’s almost as if Nolan realised he hadn’t made an action film and panicked. Interstellar isn’t an action film and it doesn’t need to be. There are two stunning action sequences (one involving a lot of water and one involving a lot of spinning) but Nolan needed more faith in the dream-like Spielbergian nature of the film. He replaced Spielberg on the project and you can see the meat that Spielberg would have loved, but Nolan overlays it all with constant exposition and characters telling each other the themes of the film with wincing precision.
There is another reason for the maddening amount of superfluous explicating: Nolan wants us to believe the science so that we can swallow the final act, which moves beyond physics and firmly into the realm of metaphysics. Paradoxically the floods of exposition actually serve to undermine the climax, because the audience mindset is still stuck in literalness and has not been nudged towards the requisite wide-eyed fantasy.
Interstellar also has issues with its narrative. The film wants to be ambitious but the story-telling is often derivative, even lazy. On the odd occasion it surprises, but often it finds itself drawing on previous films with similar themes. One major plot-point is eerily similar to a key part of Sunshine and another walked straight out of Aliens. It even transpires that the whole film is built around a premise that features heavily in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who. Meanwhile the final act is an intriguing mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact, but with the one thing no-one needed added to those two films: more exposition!
(Incidentally, many critics are comparing the film to Gravity, which doesn’t ring true to me thematically. The two share a strength in their ground-breaking visuals, but otherwise the main link between them is that Gravity would actually have been a fantastic name for Interstellar: you’ll understand when you’ve seen the film.)
So far, this is a heavily critical review, but here comes the twist: Interstellar is still a very good film. This is a movie with breathtaking scope. There are numerous scenes that are instant classics. Some of the visuals are literally jaw-dropping and metaphorically mind-blowing. There are captivating vignettes of silence and stillness. (One inspired moment juxtaposes the emptiness of space with sounds of nature.) Perhaps most importantly, and possibly for the first time, Nolan really does look for that beating heart. There are scenes of heartbreaking emotion, including an intensely moving mid-film sequence in which Matthew McConaughey more than justifies his Oscar-winning status.
This has been called Nolan’s Kubrick, but the heartfelt family melodrama at its core means that it’s really much more his Spielberg (right down to Spielberg’s exasperating habit of tacking on unnecessarily neat codas). This may also be Nolan’s funniest film: his works are always po-faced, but with Interstellar (and particularly the robot character TARS) he’s finally managed to inject humour without it being cringey (I’m looking at you, Dark Knight trilogy).
Interstellar is fascinating and gripping and zips by despite being nearly three hours long. It’s often profound and always sincere and it isn’t afraid of its huge themes. It takes ideas of pure cheese and approaches them with such love (in the context of the film, I’m afraid this is a pun) that it wins you over. It’s epic and ambitious in a way that so few films are; this remains one of Nolan’s key strengths and the reason he’s so important to an often moribund film industry. Despite its flaws, it’s undoubtedly one of the best films of the year. It makes you think, and even makes you contemplate the world differently, as great films often do.
Interstellar’s themes are as expansive as its visuals. Yes, it’s about love, although it approaches the topic in a sometimes startling way. It’s also about the limits of our knowledge and what could exist in the endless oceans of our ignorance – a topic close to my heart. Indeed, the film argues for expanding the frontiers of exploration, and on that count, Interstellar could be both a success and a meta-success: some children will watch it and dream of pushing back the boundaries of space, others will watch it and dream of pushing back the boundaries of cinema.
Interstellar does such a good job of approximating a true masterpiece that it’s frustrating that it isn’t one. Somewhere inside it is a quieter, more languid version that would have had the sense to shut up and consequently could have been one of the best films of all time. So here’s my advice: go see it anyway. Make an effort to see it at the cinema and leave your cynicism at the door. Ignore the side of Interstellar that wants to be a documentary and embrace the side of it that wants you to dream.