(Christopher Nolan, 2014)
By now, the things that Christopher Nolan does well are taken largely for granted. This is a director who makes immense blockbuster films, a widely reviled genre. And yet he makes them with an utterly serious intent, set on examining big, important themes through narratives including superheroes and sci-fi action. He largely eschews digital visual effects in favour of more old-fashioned in-camera tricks, and his films all look and sound splendid - he has mastered a monolithic, stately visual style based seemingly on a mix of Michael Mann in his middle period (Heat, The Insider) and Stanley Kubrick, coupled with deafening Hans Zimmer scores which make his films must-see big-screen experiences. All this and massive movie stars too.
Interstellar is a fascinating, hugely flawed film, like much of Nolan's work. These days, with ridiculously huge budgets and final cut, his films must be as close to his vision As any major director is ever likely to get. And that's a possible reason for the fact that stretches of Interstellar feel interminable. The third act, in particular, is boring and seemingly endless. Perhaps if he were a slightly less popular and commercial filmmaker, some executive would be on-hand to make the point to Nolan that This film needed another week or so in the editing suite. But instead he indulges himself, and while his commercial instincts tell him to introduce some conflict on a human level in his third act - a decision leading to perhaps the weakest passage in the film - he somehow also thinks it is ok to include not one but three, yes, three separate scenes of spaceships docking in space stations, the second and third both attempts at suspense which fall monumentally flat.
In fact the best moments in this film are all early on, before Nolan is able to indulge his desire to remake 2001, when the drama is still largely domestic and Terran. At some unspecified point in the future, a worldwide blight and ferocious dust storms wipe out the majority of crops, kill millions, and ensure that governments redirect most of their spending away from defence and technology and into agriculture. Matthew McConaughey plays Coop, an ex-NASA pilot and engineer now working as a farmer somewhere in the Midwest. A widower, he has two young children who he chooses to leave after offered a mission from a NASA operating in secrecy. The mission is a last chance to save humanity from the inevitable death awaiting the species, and involves travelling through a wormhole to investigate the viability of planets in a distant solar system.
The scenes of Coop's life on earth are quiet, beautiful and almost banal. He attends a parents evening at his daughters school, where he learns that she has been fighting with classmates because of her belief that the moon landings happened and were not just (the now-official line) state sponsored propaganda. He drinks beer on the porch with his wise father-in-law (John Lithgow), flees dust storms, fixes machinery, does his best as a dad. His bond with his daughter, Murph, is especially powerful, and their relationship is the emotional backbone of the film.
For such a big film it has an astoundingly narrow emotional focus - this is purely a fathers paean to his daughter. Murph grows up to be a bitter Jessica Chastain, finding a surrogate father in Michael Caine's NASA Professor Brandt, whose own daughter (Ann Hathaway, struggling with the worst dialogue in the film) is off in space with Coop.
The frayed bond between Coop and Murph is central to the best sequence in the film. The astronauts visit a planet where each hour that elapses equals seven years on earth. Suspense, immediately established, obviously things go wrong, and the scene where Coop watches his children's video messages and their development from teenagers to adults is immensely powerful, mainly because of McConaughey's performance.
There is a depth of emotion here, but Nolan frames it in an almost Spielbergian manner - trucking in wonder and sentiment, whereas his usual mode is a more rational Kubrickian distance. His films all seem rooted in a Godless universe, yet here is a film which seeks to make us wonder at the mysteries of that universe. This sets up a strange tension the movie never quite resolves.
It also feels as if it needed another week or two in the editing suite; or perhaps Nolan has reached such a level of power and influence that nobody dares tell him when he is being self-indulgent. Because the last act here is interminable - featuring two separate scenes (both meant to be suspenseful) of spaceships docking, it loses all tension and instead dissolves into metaphysics and manipulative melodrama. McConaughey keeps it watchable and it is always a typically grand, colossally-scaled spectacle, but it is confused and unsatisfying too.
The coda - while moving - feels a little contrived widescreen splendour, we've been here so many times before in cinema, watching astronauts struggle with eternity, and seen it done more intelligently and more cinematically. This is a film made by a director who fell in love with 2001: A Space Odyssey as a young man, and in this case that's very much a bad thing, since that influence is detectable in a number of irritating ways. The final product feels more like two other misfires of exploration: DePalma's Mission To Mars (minus the grandstanding set-pieces) and Cameron's The Abyss (minus the watery close encounters), only it feels a little inferior to both of those too.
For all it's strengths, Interstellar is fascinating chiefly because of the ways in which it fails.