Interstellar director Christopher Nolan is, like the protagonists in his latest film, something of a pioneer, a filmmaker who likes to carve his own path and ignore the studio rules as to what a film should adhere to. There are few others in the current cinematic landscape making films on this scale that demand this level of cerebral engagement. Because, while many directors build worlds, Nolan constructs galaxies that we are transported to in ways few contemporary films even remotely touch upon.
With Earth dying and making the dust bowl of Grapes of Wrath look like a kiddie sandpit there seems to be little hope for mankind’s survival. Former pilot and engineer turned farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) spends his days trying to maintain his crops while caring for his pragmatic son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and delicate but intelligent young daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). But when a strange signal points Cooper to a now underground NASA he is convinced there might be hope for humanity if he is willing to leave his family behind and pilot a spaceship through a worm hole to seek out new inhabitable planets.
The plot reads as a simple case of space exploration, it’s the kind of prologue that even the terrible Lost In Space movie used but the story is nothing but skimming a pebble along the glassy surface of a vast ocean. Because Interstellar possesses enough intellect and scientific theory that it is often like listening to a Stephen Hawking lecture. At times the science on offer will leave you reeling in stunned awe at how insignificant we are in the universe. As with his Batman films Interstellar is always firmly grounded in a tangible reality, the slightly retrofitted aesthetic technology of the film seems plucked from a defunct future in which touch screens and holographic interfaces have been corroded by all the dust. Even the Rubik’s cube robots that aid the quest seem to be feasibly concocted from believable technology.
But Nolan injects so much more into proceedings. On the one hand it’s an existential musing on mankind’s place in the universe, a delicate theory on the existence of God and who or what created the cosmos – in many ways this is the film Prometheus so wanted to be – time travel, worm holes, black holes, bravery and man’s narrow-minded attitude towards the fragile planet we inhabit. Yet above all else it is a powerful and heart-warming story of a man desperately trying to keep a promise to his young daughter. And it is here, beyond the science and far flung reaches of the stars, that Nolan conjures an emotional roller-coaster that demands you engage your heart just as much as your head.
It is not a film that just any director could make, it’s a film of such vast magnitude that it has to be earned. And Nolan is a filmmaker who has more than earned the right to put forward his ideas on the largest canvas possible. Because having taken us to Gotham with his Batman trilogy, boggled our minds with amnesia, magic and dreamscapes where else was there to go but space?
The influences on Interstellar are always resonate. The ghosts of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick are often writ large with 2001: A Space Odyssey being a clear benchmark for which Nolan has not only aimed but firmly planted one in the bullseye. But with the concept of time delineation playing a key factor in the narrative there are moments in which Interstellar is reminiscent of that other McConaughey sci-fi opus Contact.
As you would expect from Nolan the film is a visual masterpiece. Between his ideas and Let The Right One In director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema (replacing Nolan stalwart Wally Pfister) the film, like the wormhole within it, often feels spherical and all encompassing. Cast your minds back to those school trips to planetariums, looking up at the wonder of the infinite black peppered with stars and then multiply it by infinity and you’re somewhere close to understanding just how powerful the images are that Interstellar projects. Adding to this is Nolan’s stunning use of sound. Much of the film utilises Hans Zimmer’s typically emotive and pounding score to truly up the epic nature of it all but in doing so Nolan earns himself an even more powerful tool in the shape of harrowing silence. The scenes in space, often fraught with tension, are injected with an edge of your seat anticipation as silence encompasses everything. When Zimmer isn’t rattling your eardrums with emotion Nolan is racking your nerves with the sounds of silence.
The cast assembled are wonderfully identifiable without ever feeling stereotyped. Jessica Chastain brings an air of hurt begrudging love to her role while Anne Hathaway’s wide-eyed wonder soon injects a sense of dread at the prospect of never seeing home again. David Gyasi is calmingly understated as the ship’s resident scientist, always collected even on the brink of heaving his guts up when artificial gravity kicks in via spinning spaceships. Mackenzie Foy hits just the right level of precocious yet painfully vulnerable youngster, her chemistry with McConaughey is the film’s strongest beating artery into your heart. And carrying it all on his now broad and ever strong shoulders is McConaughey himself. His Cooper is intense yet often able to lighten the mood, with the aid of the brilliant AI robot voiced by Bill Irwin, when things become truly intense. It’s the kind of performance that might not gain him the same plaudits as last year’s Dallas Buyers Club but in a film this big he gives us something earthly to hang our heart on.
Interstellar is a film of staggering ambition and one that more than achieves everything it sets out to do. Original, powerful and mind-bogglingly brilliant Interstellar is a film to be seen, studied and digested on multiple viewings.