Just after Gravity was released I recall being distinctly impressed by a celestial critical evaluation of the film in Sight & Sound. The review identified the interesting maneuver that Cuarón’s film made in the context of wider SF cinema, that beyond the technical breakthroughs and the incredible meld of CGI and single character emphasis SF cinema traditionally faces outward and beyond, charting a future and evolutionary bend to our species of evolution and progress. Gravity however was about returning to earth and was framed within more terrestrial concerns, of rejoining the human race (which Sandra Bullock’s character had eschewed following her daughters death) through a sequence of increasingly testing trials which mirrored a more difficult social scenario, the age of austerity and survival and struggle writ large on the canvass of the silver screen. The original pioneering spirit of SF cinema is rekindled in Christopher Nolan’s solar anticipated Interstellar but the urgent threat of extinction remains, as in a near future world some loosely alluded series of ecological catastrophes has rendered the planet increasingly uninhabitable, with the doomsday clock approaching it’s final zenith for all mankind. In this dust blown dystopia we are introduced to retired pilot Copper (Matthew McConaughey) who is raising his family in the blighted badlands of middle America, his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and older son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) scrabbling for survival alongside their deceased mothers Dad (John Litgow). After an eerily supernatural chain of events leads Cooper and Murph to a clandestine NASA encampment he is enlisted into a frantic mission to investigate a wormhole which has been detected on the outskirts of Saturn, with mission control leader Professor Brand (Michael Caine) risking his own spirited scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) on a long shot mission to seek new habitable worlds and potentially sire the human race anew. That’s the first half hour of this epic near three hour movie, as usual I’m studiously avoiding spoilers, but I’ll just say that Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck also get roles in this remarkable, revolutionary movie which may well be Chris Nolan’s greatest achievement yet.
As the credits spooled on this epic, colossally mounted odyssey I sat humbly processing the experience, first impressions ranging from appreciating that Spielberg’s fingerprints are all over the text (it was originally commissioned by Steve) with the centrifugal force of the family, of fathers and their eternal love for their siblings directly driving the narrative, and also being utterly amazed at how Nolan with his scriptwriter brother Jonathan have smuggled in genuine quantum level philosophy on the ship of the Hollywood $165 million budget blockbuster. Yes there are some galactically sized plot holes although some early confusing, hand waved plot issues are resolved in the films final arc, before we’re plunged deep down the rabbit hole with a final act that apes Stanley’s journey beyond the infinite. It’s in these moments that Nolan shines like the brightest pulsar in the sector, although the film is showered in sentimentality I was completely sucked along for the ride, it’s just utterly, thrillingly refreshingly great to see a film with a genuine heart and belief imprinted on such a large blockbuster canvass. Like Cameron and Spielberg perched on the lofty heights of the big-budget pantheon he has a keen ear for the demands of as wide as possible an audience, which is why he has been lambasted for some failures in storytelling technique, as some of the slightly more obscure methods that the film trades in – trifling pursuits such as Einstein’s theory of general relativity, 4-dimensional space or string theory – are re-emphasized with clumsy repetition which reminds one of the criticisms of Inception.
Even with the films powerful escape velocity Nolan can’t escape the shackles of exposition laced dialogue and some of the utterances fall woodenly from the characters oxygen inhalation vessels, and there is also something of a problem with his conveyance of shifting time in grammatical terms, with frequent fades to black denoting a significant passage of time – days, months, sometimes years – rendering the film with a curiously fitful tempo through it’s first arc of ascent. Interstellar has something of a garbled syntax, particularly in some key points when some cross cutting between Earthly developments and intergalactic incidents are presented in semiotic tandem, but again studiously avoiding spoilers in some sense that is a crucial design of the film which may only become fully apparent with a second and indeed third viewing – yep, its one of those movies. That said I loved some of the decisions of brevity, once Cooper has made his decision to mount the mission for example he speeds away from his family and in is immediately blasted into the boundless confines of space, there is no training montage or redundant crew bonding, as if Nolan was impatient with terrestrial concerns and wanted to get us up into heavens as soon as he could.
I was a little apprehensive as the first half hour or so rushes through the motions and a not completely successful session of future world building unfolds, the evident 1930’s dust bowl influence of an exhausted and disintegrating world are plain to see, but the emphasis is solely on the Cooper family and their localized experience, with no wider tableaus of the world beyond the farm which makes sense in hindsight – I’m writing this review with one intellectual arm behind my back due to spoilers so you’ll just have to bear with me. When the film starts to explore the abject science of vast space travel and the real effects of relativity we are treasured with a deeply moving moment which dwarfs the human animal in the overwhelming depth and mystery of the cosmos, and the film starts to soar to new heights as McConaughey knocks it out of orbit with an immensely terrific scene, his rather low-key take on action heroics rendered to a simple tear streaked face. The dizzying special effects are as majestic and awe-inspiring as you can imagine, almost religiously Nolan insists on in-camera effects and has a curious affection to avoid the usual ‘gods eye’ majesty of wide intergalactic vistas, frequently attaching his camera to the hull of the vessel like a NASA exit footage presentation. Just to get a little indiscriminate I also loved how diagetic realism was also observed in terms of representing realistic space travel, from the utter silence of space suddenly assaulting the audience during a few key dramatic moments, with audience gasps galore at some of the movies plot derived machinations – this is a cinematic event in all sense of the phrase, visually, aurally, there is no other medium which could convey this simultaneous sensation of immense wonder ad mortal danger.
Speaking of machinations artificial intelligence also gets its CPU assisted hour in Interstellar, the design and personality of the robot assistants have a distinctly Asimovian bend and spark the film with rare flashes of genuine humor, their monolith design striking me as some Kubrickian design gag that conceals their adaptability as the mission powers onward – one can only speculate on what the Apple boffins may take as inspiration for future generations of the ifriend. Technically however I was also plagued with some indiscriminate sound mixing which renders some dialogue utterly incomprehensible, one character has a major reveal and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, and judging from a few comments I’ve read elsewhere around the globe I’m not the only one. This being a Nolan anointed mission there are a few twists including a unexpected piece of casting which the marketing material has studiously avoided, if you’re aware of who he originally wanted for Two Face in The Dark Knight then they’ve finally got together for a small but narratively crucial character, but wouldn’t it have been hilarious if he got a certain other A-Lister to awake from that coffin than the one we were offered, at least in terms of a shared Nolanverse? Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne worked closely with Nolan’s SFX visual effects team to provide some sense of realism and scientific grounding to the film and the presence of black holes, wormholes and inter-dimensional vortexes, this is no clone of the dog-fight Star Wars adventure model of movie making, but a creed working in celestial alignment with the likes of Contact, The Right Stuff and of course the monolith of all SF films 2001: A Space Odyssey.
As a sometimes scholar of SF cinema (I wrote my dissertation on SF genre you’ll be unsurprised to hear) the film reaffirms some central queries of the form which seemed to have been lost in the maelstrom of franchise, comic book and action dictated SF cinema of the past thirty or so years, pulling us back to the central motifs of the form – Why do we seek to explore beyond our boundaries? Where does this curiosity spring from in the face of scientific progress? What is out there? Along these trajectories some more prescient 21st century questions evolve around ecological malaise and our role as caretakers of our fragile pale blue dot, and the consequences of our unsustainable, poisionous fascination with continual growth amidst dwindling resources. There is a more urgent, frantic grip to the film than Kubrick had with his epic hymn to progress and evolution, although the Nolan brothers incept a conversation with their own conception of the infinite and eternal, on both a micro and macro level, during the film’s astonishing and cerebral scrambling final hour.
Interstellar is certainly Nolan’s most ambitious film to date which maps to his previous work with his fascination with time and our processing of that most elusive of concepts, and by his own admission it’s a love letter to his daughter which is a self-involved concept that would normally send me screeching for the hills, but for me the emotional nucleus of the movie glowed and there were a few moments where yes, I’ll admit it, my tear ducts suffered catastrophic malfunctions. I’m looking forward for a return mission as the film’s structure and DNA design demand repeat viewings, as I suspect that some of the films glitches in terms of narrative and plodding plotting are solved with a second bite of Newton’s apple. Nolan has the reputation as being a ‘chilly’ or ‘cold’ director – an accusation of course that certain other directors have suffered throughout their careers – and he seems to have taken these barbs to heart and responded with a picture sporting its heart on its EVA decked sleeve, a remarkably personal work considering it’s immensely expensive pedigree. There’s no doubt that the film is incredibly sentimental and I’m sure it will divide acolytes along those lines, I don’t have kids nor do I have a singular interest in siring them into this reality but the ultimate treatise of the film seems to be the major stumbling block that obstructs Interstellar from reaching masterpiece status, but there is one thing I’m certain of – this is a era defining film of it’s time, technically and thematically prescient, that may inspire others to follow in its fumbling footsteps.
Contrary to suspicions Nolan hasn’t suffered from losing regular DP Wally Pfister (who was away shooting Transcendence) as Hoyte van Hoytema bathes the screen in paralyzingly beautiful imagery, situating our molecule position against the immense celestial spheres, and he also seems to have pushed regular aural technician Hans Zimmer deep into Philip Glass territory with an admittedly intrusive but cathedral cacophonous score, and in terms of contextual material I’ve pulled a dossier together which inevitably contain spoilers so beware. Like Inception Nolan posits some questions and queries which will furiously populate discussion boards for aeons to come, and I unashamedly love how the film could sling-shot SF cinema away from the franchise and comic book mentality of contemporary Hollywood back into the realms of ideas and science, with future viewings being absolutely essential to fully realize it’s design and Mobius mandated structure, especially when it delves into the final journey which rendered me frozen in cinematic glee. Back in the real world our civilisation’s dreams of reaching to the stars has been trapped in entropy and accident such as the recent Virgin Galactic setback, our 21st century growing increasingly insular and alienated around digital tools which paradoxically offer connection but increase alienation. Communication and very specifically intelligence, in all it’s dictionary iterations pulses at the neutron core of the film, while others see the text as a family drama draped with a metaphysical construct I read the film as an empathic yearning for conquering and appreciating the infinite. Interstellar resonates with a genuine spirit of the wonder and danger of space travel and our species infinitesimal space in this cold and incalculable universe, but Nolan seems to have taken one of his mentors adage to heart with this flawed yet fantastic film, as Stanley said ‘however vast the darkness we must provide our own light’;