Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
The opening of Interstellar, the latest head-spinning, heart-breaking blockbuster from Christopher Nolan, introduces a paradox. We know we are in an Earth of the future, where humankind is faced with terminal decline as ever more frequent dust clouds and blight devastate the crops that feed the planet – and yet we seem to be in an agrarian past, as the planet’s inhabitants turn their backs on progress, officially declare the Apollo moon landings to have been faked for Cold War propaganda, and seek improbable salvation in working ever harder the very earth that is failing them. The world’s populace, it seems, is trapped in denial of its own ecologically doomed trajectory and burying its head in the sand(storm). This is the future and the past combined – and it is also, of course, about us right now.
Only a few like Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former space pilot turned widowed farmer, can see a possible solution for this dying world in engineering, technology and science. Yet even as he joins the covert NASA programme run by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), searching across the universe for a new habitable home before the old one expires, the whole time that Cooper is heading out to the stars he is also driven by his love for the two children, Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet), whom he has left behind in the hope of securing their future. It’s that paradox again, as Cooper, Janus-like, is always looking back as he looks forward, even if the chance of his ever seeing his family again becomes ever more remote. Meanwhile someone – or something – also appears to be looking out for Cooper and the other humans, bringing them together via mysterious, ghostly messages and even creating a convenient wormhole (not, it will turn out, equally a plothole) through which they can travel.
As the film shifts from Earth to the heavens, Nolan’s focus on the practical details – and grand spectacle – of long-distance space travel inevitably recalls the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Alien, Contact (which featured a much younger McConaughey) and Sunshine. In particular it is impossible to see the ring-shaped, spinning interiors of the spaceship, the onboard artificial intelligence TARS (with its capacity for both humour and dishonesty), and the trippy cosmic tunnels through which Cooper and crew will be drawn, without also sensing the ghostly presence of Kubrick guiding the way forward.
Yet much as TARS is a decommissioned military robot repurposed for space flight, Nolan has always favoured using old-fangled analogue kit and (mostly) outmoded practical effects to tell new stories – and while Interstellar is full of respectful allusions to the past works of other pioneers in SF, its preoccupations with time’s relativity, physics’ outer limits, grand deceptions and gravity (in every sense of the word) make it also very much Nolan’s own, recalling in different ways motifs from his earlier films Memento, The Prestige and especially Inception.
Indeed Interstellar, like Inception, is concerned with a journeying father’s desperate attempts to return to his estranged children – reflecting perhaps the anxieties of a filmmaker who must spend long periods on set away from his family in order to realise visions that his own children may not yet be old enough to understand. These concerns with the transcendent ties – familial, erotic, social – that bind humanity together ultimately keep Interstellar grounded, even as it explores the outer limits of space and time, science and faith (with science definitely winning out), survival and sacrifice. The waves of dirt that plague the Earth find their visual analogue in the walls of water on one distant planet, the icy inclines on another, or the curving deluge of light around a black hole – as though to suggest that we are always being faced with apparently overwhelming odds that drive those who endure onwards and forwards. They are echoed on Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack by occasional monolithic washes of bass that swamp the (already drawled and mumbled) dialogue.
At nearly three hours, Interstellar also feels somewhat stretched, perhaps in keeping with its constant play upon the elasticity and fluidity of time. Yet even if, haunted by a past that keeps overtaking it, this apocalyptic odyssey lacks the driving momentum of, say, The Dark Knight, there are enough ambitious ideas and awe-inspiring aesthetics in it to keep the patient viewer engaged for the long haul.