Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, Wes Bentley, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Mackenzie Foy
There's a lot to admire about Christopher Nolan. Compared to many of his Hollywood peers, he's an incredibly restrained director who never indulges in showy pretension, the antithesis of the Michael Bays of this world. That said, there's all too often a coldness and inaccessibility to his work, as though his films were fashioned by a scientist rather than an artist. It seems Nolan can sometimes get so preoccupied with the big picture that he forgets to infuse his movies with those essential moments of humanity. 'Moving' is a word I've never used to describe a Nolan film, until now. Interstellar outwardly concerns the biggest picture of all, but at its heart is a very intimate drama.
The movie opens in an unspecified near future America ravaged by drought and transformed into a giant replica of the set of The Grapes of Wrath. The only crops that can now be harvested are corn and okra, and the latter is about to die out too. This may spell an end to America's obesity epidemic, but it also means humanity will be extinct before Marvel can release their ninth Avengers movie. With such earth-based concerns, America's space exploration program has been disbanded, leaving former astronaut Cooper (McConaughey) to reluctantly eke out an existence as a corn farmer. His precocious daughter, Murph (Foy, later growing into an underused Chastain), believes her bedroom is haunted by a presence that seems to be communicating to her by way of rearranging her bookcase. During a dust storm, particles of dust fall in an oddly precise fashion, forming a binary code message that Cooper deciphers as the coordinates for a secret facility, one that houses the very much still in business after all NASA.
If you're thinking this all sounds very familiar, you've most likely seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which aliens communicate a specific location in similar fashion to Richard Dreyfuss' protagonist. Nolan's film is clearly inspired by Spielberg, and that's no bad thing, even if it means a heavy dose of sentimentality. There's also a touch of M Night Shyamalan's Signs about these early corn surrounded scenes. When Cooper reluctantly leaves his family at NASA's behest to embark on an intergalactic mission to find a new home for humanity (for humanity, of course, we presume "the rich", as the film never explores the logistics of our planet's rehousing), the movie begins to look and feel like some newly rediscovered Peter Hyams epic form the early 80s. The representation of the universe here is truly something to savour, and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema proves a worthy successor to Wally Pfister.
We've seen countless movies featuring adventurers setting off to discover new worlds, but what's unique about Interstellar is that it's more concerned with time than space. Like last year's overlooked French drama, Just a Sigh, time is the movie's main antagonist. Due to the nature of intergalactic space travel, a few extra minutes wasted by Cooper in exploring a planet equates to a few years of his children's development back on earth. This idea makes for a series of heart-wrenching moments, as Cooper's children come to believe he walked out on them for good, and eventually stop sending him video messages, which he can't reply to for reasons I'm far from scientifically qualified to explain.
Scientists were consulted by Nolan to add a sense of realism to the plot, but the script is so poorly fashioned that its crudely explained science comes across as no more realistic than an episode of Star Trek. Too often, highly intelligent scientists are forced to behave like dimwits so another character can deliver exposition for the sake of the audience. The dynamics of this near future Earth at times seem contradictory, with fast food outlets still in operation despite the global drought, to highlight one odd inconsistency.
If you go into Nolan's film looking for an epic space adventure, the movie will likely play out as the sci-fi equivalent of watching a novice trucker attempt a u-turn in a cul-de-sac, but if you're willing to latch onto Cooper's familial plight, you'll find Interstellar a gripping human drama, grounded in a father's fear of missing out on the lives of his children.
By Eric Hillis