7 November 2014

Review: Interstellar (Chris Nolan, USA, 2014)


2014, 169mins, 12
Director: Chris Nolan 
Writer (s): Chris & Jonathan Nolan 
Cast includes: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Mackenzie Foy
UK Release Date: 7th November 2014

When all’s said and done, it’s entirely probable that Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” will be the biggest movie of the year. Not the highest-grossing or best, just biggest. It’s a film that traverses multiple worlds, varied galaxies and even alternate dimensions, all with a refreshingly heightened (at least to this ignorant soul) understanding of science and philosophy. Everything about the venture screams ambition, from the casting (a list of decidedly in vogue A-listers) to the whirlwind structure, evoking the aura of a genuine event. Aesthetically, it makes “Inception” seem tame by comparison. The screenplay is filled with big ideas and sweeping set-pieces, but what fascinates most is the idea of pitching mankind’s need to explore against a parent’s duty to intimately nurture. This journey belongs to McConaughey, the actor arousing moments of beguiling sadness as he watches his children grow from afar, their relationship blighted by questions of ultimate responsibility, destiny and the cruel realities of science. “Interstellar” has us aching for the southern fried spaceman, and the performer is able to imbue the part with increasingly dependable weight. However, that’s only a percentage of the feature’s overall dramatic sweep, and little else satisfies as cogently. Most of the supporting heads wither under the Nolan’s bright lights, and the second half cuts McConaughey’s internal struggle clumsily, applying focus to the less meaningful or vibrantly evoked dramas of a dying earth. When it’s in space, “Interstellar” manages at the very least to stun, but elsewhere the stumbles are frequent.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a corn farmer, an increasingly important occupation on a decaying Earth. Reduced to a dustbowl, the planet’s food sources are drying up, leaving NASA determined to seek out other fertile worlds. As a gifted engineer and pilot, Cooper agrees to pioneer a mission to assess alternate planets, using a conveniently placed wormhole for express galaxy travel. Included on the voyage are spiky Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi) and robot TARS (Billy Irwin, R2-D2 complete with linguistic fluency and sarcasm pills). The priority is to find a world habitable for future generations, whilst Professor Brand (Michael Caine) pours over a formula to allow for the mobility of Earth’s populous. If either plan falters, there’s an alternative, but for Cooper that means leaving his children behind.

I've never found Christopher Nolan to be a cold film-maker. The criticism which became increasingly prevalent around the release of “Inception” has always seemed forced, as if suggesting that any film with an iota of calculated narrative must in turn also be a heartless, Xanax pumped crone. Of course anybody with a string of wit can detect the plethora of heart at that film’s centre, the story of a heartbroken husband and father, coming to terms with his responsibilities both past and present. Perhaps it’s not the most nuanced exploration of grief (and it comes with a lot of added slo-mo back flipping), but it’s communicated tangibly, offered almost as much airtime as the labyrinth of narrative trickery.  In terms of “Interstellar” the familial component is gripping, and provides nearly all of the movie’s non-spectacle related highlights. McConaughey’s “Cooper” might’ve been sketched a little finer, but the actor lends gravitas and feeling to his arc, an empathetic quality that causes our heart to fracture in tandem with his own.  For the opening half, this seems like the movie’s chief priority, played out beautifully through painful goodbyes and video diaries, arousing longing, tears and a vast separateness.  God, it’s lovely. Then Nolan sort of gives up. With another 70 minutes to go.

The Spielberg inflection gives way to something decidedly more Kubrickian, as the astronauts charge across visually resplendent worlds, contemplating obligation vs. yearning. It’s a vital question, but it feels slight in comparison to the heartier, teary material which precedes it. Watching a daughter, riddled with a combination of love and despair, unable to say farewell to her father, is dramatically richer ground than scientists disputing philosophical quandaries. The ambition is there, but it translates stagnantly into the realm of character and plot, “Interstellar” halting every so often to lay out its thesis, puncturing drama, action and just about everything else. During one crucial sequence, Nolan succeeds in blending incident and idea, as a character bursts forth from their shell, laying waste in the name of their own prerogative. This portion has a nice surprise appearance to its name (I won’t spoil it) portraying the picture’s most consistently intriguing entity. This figure, an astronaut previously marooned on one of the foreign worlds is a volatile cocktail of courage and cowardice, an oxymoron unable to separate his pangs for societal benefit from preservation of the self. The tension snaps during a finessed and pleasantly low-key burst of fisticuffs, highlighting concept through physical incitement. It’s thought-provoking and entertaining. The rest of “Interstellar” doesn’t always walk that tight-rope so cleanly.

Pacing and character work are where “Interstellar” warbles, the link between the two definite. The 169 minute runtime screams self-importance, a deafening “look at me, I’ve made Warner X amount of dollars and now I have final cut”. There’s no need for the feature to really exceed two hours, but it would be remiss to complain that it does. Nolan’s a titan of a film-maker, and until such a time where that’s not the case, he’ll act like a titan in the edit. Unfortunately much of the flab is thrown in the direction of hollow supporting players, including but not reduced to Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine and errr…Topher Grace. Not one of these characters transcends the realm of superficiality, much less springs to life. McConaughey’s Cooper at least commands a measure of soul, but even with such fine actors attached, the figures around him thud flatly. The second best turn (excepting our mystery cameo) is easily young Mackenzie Foy, radiating adoration for Cooper, and forlorn bemusement at his decisions. Chastain, who plays the character later, never manages the same earnest veneer, although she’s saddled with dumpy onscreen relationships alongside Affleck, Caine and Grace.  When McConaughey’s absent, the film is vanilla, a parade of listless meat-bags harbouring half-hearted concerns. I don’t buy it, and I certainly don’t care if they escape their respective predicaments (i.e. Armageddon).

There’s a well implemented sense of humour (forget iciness, comedy’s been a big Nolan negative) and the aesthetic wonderment is unrelenting. Zimmer’s score makes every triumph that little more sparkly, even offering a lifeline when Nolan gets bogged down in the brainbox stuff. The new worlds that the picture takes us to are less boastfully bedazzled than James Cameron’s Pandora, but each has a simple, effective concept that runs through the design. “Interstellar” doesn’t need ferocious wildlife or tribal smurfs to evoke danger, the crisp, barely habitable vistas communicate that on the most primal level possible. They appear genuine and hostile, able to utilise nature’s simplest tools to devastating effect. Combined with man’s unpredictability, this endows each exploration with unspoken edge. It’s a reminder that this is science-fiction not science-fantasy.

The ending’s a doozy, a haunting summation of what the picture does well. Merging conscience, thought and accountability it celebrates man’s unending need to explore and protect, rounding out the central character arc on a note of fist-pumping brilliance. It, along with several other choice scenes of parental trouble suggest Nolan probably does the Spielberg stuff - the cheap touchy-feely material - more satisfactorily than the odes to “2001” or Tarkovsky. “Interstellar” is an important technical achievement, ripe with consideration and thought, but it’s often when indulging his basest urges that Nolan succeeds most brazenly. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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