Interstellar – A quest for the human spirit
Set in the near-future where an agricultural crisis has brought the world to its knees, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a widower who lives on a farm with his two kids, daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and son Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and his father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow). Though a farmer by default due to a “blight” that has affected the food supply on Earth, Cooper was once a pilot, an engineer and an explorer – a past life he often dreams about.
While Tom is more than satisfied being a farmer and is encouraged to become one by an education system that no longer prioritises anything but agriculture on the syllabus, Murph is a dreamer with a scientific mind and wishes she could go into her father’s previous line of work. When a chance discovery leads Murph and Cooper to a makeshift, secret NASA lair, Cooper is enlisted in a mission to find habitable planets outside of this galaxy, reachable through a newly discovered wormhole. The film then jumps between the crew’s journey to new lands and the experiences of those left behind on Earth.
Christopher Nolan likes simultaneous worlds, existing at the same time, jumping back and forth between them, keeping the audience hooked on the crescendo of action until he pulls it in to a satisfying climax. These consecutive worlds are painstakingly put together, their fabric infinitely detailed and extremely clear, at times mirroring each other, at times apposite, with Nolan defining the black, the white and the grey between them. This definition can come at a cost and sometimes, like in The Dark Knight Rises, the cost is the passage of time, specifically when we are forced to watch Gotham City live out an unrealistic state of criminality through superfluous images of destitution while Batman rebuilds his strength in prison.
In Interstellar the same applies but here, time is almost an antagonist in its own right – it is what keeps us riveted between the two worlds – and it is in fact the human element, the characterisation of those specifically on Earth, that lets the film down a little. People on Earth die, they make choices, they discover truths but the effect of these scenes is lost because the focus of the film is overstretched – and understandably so – by the exploration of space.
Of course, the juxtaposition of the two worlds is crucial to propelling the story forward but there are scenes and themes that take place in space that could certainly have been fine-tuned, allowing for more screen-time to focus on the subsidiary but pivotal characters back on Earth. And this rings true for other elements in the script as well, which do not seem completely thought through and lack nuance.
While in order to portray a dystopian world at the brink of self-destruction, the story needs characters that no longer believe there’s utility in looking beyond Earth’s means, which are content with just surviving. There is a tendency to over-exaggerate the sheer extent of these people’s idiocy and single-mindedness which leads us to dangerous ground where, for example, the education system itself challenges the idea that the Space Age ever took place. And then, at the other extreme, we have adventurers who suggest love might be an evolutionary marker and scientists who lie to their children and let a world die because of their entrenched beliefs.
Even the subsidiary divides within societal groupings come across as lacking nuance which might be overlooked if the film weren’t challenging our suspension of disbelief in so many other ways. Because we are faced with such an outlandish storyline, we should at least be given a grounded cast of characters to hold on to. What is interesting in all of this overly simplified characterisation is the trajectory of Cooper – a man who, at the start of the film, would selfishly pursue his own dreams knowing full well he may never see his children alive again, to someone who puts all his faith in the love he has for his daughter.
We are dragged along with this, the heart of the film willingly right to its final exposition and through all the twists and turns of the plot, some worthwhile and others superfluous, we believe in the bond between Cooper and Murph; without this, the film may just be a sprawling, awe-inspiringly beautiful yet pointless juggernaut.
In spite of all its flaws, there is ambition and beauty in this film that has never been seen before and that is incredibly inspirational. While there is a sense of frustration with the script and dialogue, there is also a sense of wonderment at the scale of it all. That in turn is additionally frustrating because the film’s potential is so palpable. We begin to wonder, perhaps if Batman had not taken up so much of Nolan’s time, he would have been able to really perfect this film with his brother and co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, as he had with Inception, which is similar in scale and concept to the film.
But then he had a decade for that one, which is time that Nolan, as one of the most in-demand directors today, just does not have to spare. We wonder these things not because we are comparing Interstellar with other films, or even other event movies, no. We are comparing it with Nolan’s exceptional filmography to date and in that respect Nolan with all his talent, genius and ambition is his own worst enemy.
Interstellar is one of those films that may need to be watched twice and not because some parts hold complicated quantum science (the factual physics is surprisingly not horrendously hard to follow; in fact it is a little too over explained in parts) or, like in other Nolan films, you might want to make sure you’ve caught all the beautifully chosen intricate details. It’s because once you know the trajectory of the film and have learned that some elements of its plot and dialogue don’t live up to impossibly high expectations, you can just let the brilliantly acted film wash over you and watch it for the sheer awe-inspiring levels of imagery and physical effort that have gone into it.
And so, regardless of mixed critical reviews (relative to his other films), Interstellar is going to be a big hit, because of the Nolan fans who will have geeked out, soaked in and read up on every last bit of the outrageous amount of detail, physical set building and effort that has gone into allowing this film to live and breathe as the creation of one of the most intelligently detail-minded writer/directors of our time.
That farm that you see standing in front of a cornfield? Well that farm was built from the ground up, architecturally sound and bar plumbing, works like a proper homestead. That corn? Well, that’s 500 acres of corn that the production planted and let grow over the course of six months, in Canada no less. Why? Because Nolan found the perfect geographical spot with mountains in the background and vast amounts of space and in spite of uncooperative weather, wanted the homestead there.
There’s no denying that there is a sense of awe and wonderment in the feats that the production has achieved and this may translate into some Academy Awards for the production in the same way it did for Gravity last year, though there certainly won’t be any for the excruciatingly loud sound design.
The detail is endless as are the spoilers, so I’ll stop there. Go watch this film, you have to see it on the big screen, you can’t not, but before you do, if you are a Nolan fan, lower your expectations and make sure you watch all the behind-the-scenes footage after the fact. I certainly intend to.
I’ll give it a 4/5.