Christopher Nolan continues to impress with his brand of epic, ambitious, thought-provoking blockbuster cinema. With Interstellar, his first film to follow the conclusion of his Batman trilogy, he reaches as far as he has reached yet – to the stars, and beyond.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, an engineer and trained pilot who, like most of the earth’s population in the film’s near future setting, is restricted to farming corn in order to feed the world’s desperate population. Other crops have died out, or are dying, and the planet’s resources, including human ones, are trapped in a cycle of survival, hoping things will get better. Cooper reminds his step-father (John Lithgow) that humankind used to look forward, but now lives in an increasingly bleak-looking present. As the film’s earthbound first act progresses, Cooper and his daughter Murph (a very good Mackenzie Foy) stumble upon what turns out to be the remnants of NASA, and Cooper gets the chance to pilot a mission that may save the human race, even if it means leaving his children behind.
In the first of a number of technical and/or thematic references to Kubric’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan cuts away from earth in an effective sequence, propelling Cooper and us into the depths of space. From there, the film takes a moment or two to lay out some scientific questions, before disappearing through a wormhole into a new galaxy. It would be remiss of me to elaborate on much of what happens beyond that, but the film takes a number of scientific, theoretical and thematic leaps as the crew of the Endurance make their way into uncharted space.
The scientific basis of the film – which was overseen by theoretical physicist Kip Thorne – is elliptical, thought-provoking and, inevitably (though I am not in any way a physicist), speculative. But that is the nature of this kind of story, which deals with what may or may not happen when humankind travels outside of its traditional three-dimensional experience. Some of the scientific themes, in particular the relativity of time, are used with great effectiveness by Nolan. Watching the crew bypassing years of Earth time in hours of their own is heart-breaking in the context of the well-established human relationships, and gives McConaughey in particular the chance to really show what he can do. In the final act, as the film indulges in more abstract ideas, the emotional hooks begin to loosen slightly, but the heart of the film is thankfully maintained. There is one speech about love roughly half way through which drew some derisive laughter in the screening I attended, and I could sort of see why, but credit must go to Nolan (who co-scripted the film with his brother Jonah, as he often does), for ensuring that that speech isn’t a throwaway moment, but a through line which the script revisits, and which is intelligently seeded throughout.
Considering the film is dealing with theoretical physics, it would’ve been difficult to entirely avoid moments where the dialogue feels a tad too on the nose, but these are very much kept to a minimum. Where there is more consistency is in the film’s technical qualities, which as in all Nolan films are fantastic. Hans Zimmer comes up with another enormous-sounding, propulsive soundtrack (which is generous enough to indulge in silence when appropriate, and to great effect) and the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is often stunning. The supporting cast, which includes Nolan regulars Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway, are also on good form.
Interstellar is a gripping sci-fi adventure that’s simultaneously exciting and smart – a combination that is synonymous with Nolan’s back catalogue. If the threads don’t quite tie up, and the script occasionally suffers a few hiccups, these are minor flaws that can be easily forgiven, and which Nolan makes up for with craft, exuberance and ambition. The film is confident enough to take us on a thrilling adventure witho ut resorting to huge action sequences, in which the spectacle is delivered on an intergalactic scale, but from a very human point of view. I can’t wait to see what Nolan does next.