Seeing as this is the millionth review of Interstellar to appear online it’s highly likely that you won’t bother reading past this first paragraph. In fact it’s entirely possible you may have read the word ‘Interstellar’ and mentally switched off straight away, which means you’re not even reading these words even if you think that you are. Confused? Welcome to the high-concept world of Popcorn Nights. And if you are actually still here – and I must at this point assume that you are – perhaps I should state my feelings about Christopher Nolan’s latest high-concept film as quickly and as succinctly as possible, just in case your reaction to the word ‘Interstellar’ is delayed and you do end up clicking away to somewhere more pleasant after the first paragraph: it’s overblown, overlong, overhyped, overly-sentimental and occasionally-confusing horseshit, but as horseshit goes it certainly looks pretty good.
Christopher Nolan’s biggest blockbuster to date has been out for a couple of weeks now, and is one of those rare films that feels like an unstoppable juggernaut, a devastating and uncontrollable force of marketing that has convinced all of us feeble-minded fools to pay and see it regardless of any reviews carried out in its name. It has received the kind of push that makes the marketing campaigns of other blockbusters – let’s say Transformers: Age Or Revenge Of Something Or Other – look as if they are designed to appeal to miniscule collections of polo-neck-sporting Werner Herzog enthusiasts. This is studio promotion at its most aggressive and in-your-face, and it’s hard to be objective when advertising alters the way you feel about a film two or three times before it is even released. If you haven’t obeyed the marketing directive to go and see Interstellar by now you’d best be looking over your shoulder with a worried expression on your face: do you think Paramount and Warner Bros pay out this kind of money to suffer your disobedience?
There comes a point when debating whether something is good or bad (or neither good nor bad but somewhere in the middle) becomes pointless. Interstellar is such a ‘thing’ and its release into the wild is such a ‘point’: it’s not a film, it’s a big hovering blob, a new friend or relative in your life that you suddenly see lots of before they skip out after a month or so, a moneysucking vampire, a Rick Wakeman keyboard solo, a fake con of an instant cultural monolith, a giant 5,000 ft long floating wotsit with Matthew McConaughey’s face cheerily whistling away at one end. All those things and more. It’s not a film cast out for public analysis and judgement in the way that, say, Nightcrawler is a film cast out for public analysis and judgement. Yet here’s even more pointless public analysis and judgement that will, unfortunately, affect nothing.
The individual parts are, as you would expect, all present and correct. Let’s take the performances first. Event movies this big rarely include performances that mesmerise or delight, but the assembled talent is (mumbles, stares at floor) sort of OK, I guess. I mean I don’t know what the cast earned for their work. $50 million, collectively? More? What does a McConaughey get paid for an Interstellar in 2014? And how do you judge the value of these acting performances against such ridiculous, inflated sums anyway? Does the remuneration they receive actually matter? If you don’t think so, perhaps we should instead be questioning why we’re living in a world where a bunch of actors can charge such huge amounts and the question of whether that money is well spent or not doesn’t actually matter.
Hmm. McConaughey is certainly fine as Cooper, the honest everyman farmer-dad of the future who just happens to be the greatest test pilot NASA ever had (oh please, come the fuck on), but this certainly isn’t his finest work and it certainly isn’t his worst either. Anne Hathaway is his lesser (and compliant) space partner, her role simply to support / enforce Hollywood’s bullshit age-old ‘leading man leads the leading lady’ hierarchy. She is given 1% of the backstory time that McConaughey’s character is afforded, an imbalance which stands out in a film of this length. Hathaway is also fine, but this isn’t her best or her worst work, either. Same goes for Casey Affleck – Cooper’s grown-up son, Jessica Chastain – the grown-up daughter, Michael Caine – the perennial Nolan father figure and Actor X in the ill-judged cameo slot. Actor X gets the best deal of all: he’s on-screen for about ten or fifteen minutes and he doesn’t have to establish his character at all, except to give out a couple of signals about the state of his mental health. In fact I think that we are supposed to be impressed by the mere appearance of Actor X’s face here, as if it’s some kind of momentous 21st Century ‘I was there when…’ happening. Why not give the part to a capable actor who needs the money or who needs the big break? In fairness Actor X’s emergence from a plastic bag is one the finest emergences from a plastic bag that I’ve ever witnessed, so maybe it will stay in the minder longer than … nope … it’s gone.
Together this handful of characters represents humanity, along with Ellen Burstyn and John Lithgow as old people, Mackenzie Foy (good) and Timothée Chalamet as young people, and a couple of lesser known adult actors thrown in as death fodder. Hollywood’s propensity for filtering the end of the world through the perspective of a tiny number of Americans is something that irritates me immensely, and it’s a device that usually patronises people who happen to live in rural areas by portraying them as simple, unlikely heroes, although I should point out that the writers who have chosen to do this are both English (Jonathan Nolan, the director’s brother, penned the script with his sibling) and we’re not exactly talking Randy Quaid in Independence Day here. There are shades of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, though, in the way that we only get to see how a global event – a crop blight, in this instance – affects the inhabitants of a farmstead who appear to be miles from the nearest town or city. For a film purportedly concerned about the future of the human race there’s a very narrow focus here on the make-up of it.
Interstellar bursts into life when Cooper and co are launched into space along with the film’s most interesting character, a blocky and witty robot that goes by the name of TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin). Their task is to boldly go where no Nolan plot has gone before, which is basically to the backyard of bonkers and back again (via Saturn, that most picturesque of planets). The plan is to find other explorers who have ventured out there before them and / or to locate an inhabitable planet that can be colonised before we perish on our own ravaged, ruined Earth. To exit our own solar system the group must travel through a wormhole that has apparently been left for us by an alien civilisation; this hole leads to three planets closely orbiting the giant black hole Gargantuan.
Interstellar may be big and brash from here on in, but it is not completely devoid of restraint. The crew visits two planets and I dare say the Nolan brothers may have considered the introduction of alien life forms into their story at one point or other, or some other fantastical crowd-and-studio-pleasing aspect, but instead the writers stay with the nature thread and it works well. The decision to use the landscape of Iceland as a double for these distant planets pays off and the country’s unusual, spectacular geography ensures that any CGI that is incorporated on top of it – giant waves, frozen cloud structures – looks believable. Thankfully when there is a human-on-human fight in the film Nolan is equally restrained; the scrap is fairly exciting but it isn’t milked for every last drop of dramatic tension, and gravitational concerns ensure that it resembles two drunks fighting in a bar rather than two overly-choreographed Hollywood heroes.
Much hoo-ha has been hoo-ha’d about the involvement of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as an Executive Producer and technical advisor, and certainly all of the detailed, complicated exposition sounds grand, realistic and impenetrable to these lay ears (although the script is often abruptly simplified to the level of “So if we go here, and travel through here, we’ll end up here? That’ll work!” while one actor or another earns their rationed corn by staring intently at a doodle pad or whiteboard). Let’s not get carried away though: there’s a ‘fiction’ in the phrase ‘science fiction’ for a reason, and without wishing to diminish the considerable achievements of Mr Thorne I’m pretty sure he’s only involved in the scientific exposition side of the movie, so let’s not lose sight of the fact that he and the Nolan brothers have the same amount of experience of travelling through wormholes and into black holes as you and I. Nolan therefore has as much creative freedom as he imagines outer space as the many other sci-fi filmmakers that have ventured into the great beyond before him, and his take on it looks good; as a result I personally don’t care whether his images or his characters’ expositions are scientifically-accurate or not. Interstellar successfully brings to mind both the beautiful abstractions of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the more recent ‘cor, wow’ footage of spinning space station parts in Cuaron’s Gravity, though I should add the caveat it is not as awe-inducing as either of those films. Scientifically-speaking, it gets your endorphins all jiggy without ever blowing your pickle.
This aspect of Interstellar – the exploration of our galaxy and others, plus all the attendant hopes and fears and ideas about time and space and things that can transcend space and time, such as love – I enjoyed. The film distances itself from the less-cerebral sci-fi blockbusters out there and clearly aims for those lofty peaks once scaled by Kubrick and Tarkovsky, even though it does fall disappointingly short. For much of the film there’s an admirable balance of action, philosophy and emotion, even if the more gut-wrenching family moments (for example when Cooper is relayed twenty-odd years’ worth of messages from his kids) are typically heavily-delivered and somewhat cynical by design. The presence of these forced teary interludes and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic, distracting ‘this-one-goes-up-to-eleven’ score failed to completely ruin my sense of blissed-out awe and wonder, but please add my name to the growing list of traditionalist squares that likes to hear what the characters are actually saying to each other. (It’s a shame that reviewers have fixated on the volume and lack of subtlety of this music, though: I absolutely agree with the criticism, but it’s also worth mentioning that Nolan’s film has some beautiful silent moments too.)
I think a lot of the good work carried out in the middle section of this film is undone by the extended, occasionally-baffling ending. Parts of it feel rushed and parts of it feel like a step too far, the unexpected test of the audience’s faith that occurs near the end being a case in point, which is included to neatly tie the story together. I also have my reservations about the use of the gravity-defying effects that were previously seen in Nolan’s excellent mind-bender Inception, the last of which feels awkwardly shoe-horned in here despite the fact that the movie has been building to such a scientific leap forward all the way through. The least said about Jessica Chastain’s shrieks of ‘Eureka!’ the better.
At the end of the film I sat in my chair for a few minutes, trying to make sense of the experience, wondering if I could look at the work objectively given the fact that I was sick to death of hearing about Interstellar (and of seeing many of the film’s best images) by the time it actually arrived in my multiplex. By ‘experience’ above I don’t simply mean the near-three hour running time of the movie itself, but also the months and months of trailers and hype and interviews and advertising; I left thinking that the film industry needs saving from itself … it needs its own equivalent of the 1970s punk rock scene, something that comes along with the intention of blowing away all the pompous, self-important, bigger-and-louder-and-longer-is-better noodly prog rock-esque bullshit like this. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate the film – a solid five-out-of-ten-er, with a bonus mark for effort – but it is overlong, overblown and overhyped, and I hate the forced sense of its release representing some kind of life-changing event of international importance. Stop building this shit up so much, it’s just a bloody film.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, Mackenzie Foy, Timothée Chalamet
Running Time: 166 minutes