Apparently Christopher Nolan, patron saint of discerning blockbuster audiences, saw the comparisons between him and Stanley Kubrick. His Interstellar, an achingly ambitious but derivative space-opera, embraces its debt to Kubrick’s seminal 2001 even whilst it tackles a Spielbergian story of a family separated on an intergalactic scale. The film follows Cooper, a farmer and father played by mumbling everyman Matthew McConaughey, on a journey from our dying earth to the edges of the space-time continuum in order to find a new planet for the human race to populate. Taking on two of western cinema’s most revered masters seems almost as ambitious as the plot’s mission. What surprises is that Nolan almost sticks the landing.
Yet whilst Kubrick’s classic takes us to the birth of mankind’s successor, Interstellar tells an altogether more hopeful story about the betterment of humanity itself. It’s at times majestic, electrifying and riveting, at others a heart-breaking human story connecting its two central father-daughter relationships across galaxies. But between these dizzying heights, there are moments lacking focus, dropped narrative threads, and plot machinations as clunky as the film’s array of space-faring machinery. With Interstellar, Nolan is undoubtedly working on his biggest canvas yet, so it’s unsurprising, if a little disappointing, that his broader brush strokes paint in a little less detail.
The film occasionally struggles to elucidate the profundity of its human drama, instead sometimes resorting to signifiers to do the heavy lifting — a character is conspicuously named Dr. Mann, the planet-saving spaceship called Endeavour, and the project titled ‘Lazarus’. This lack of subtlety seeps into the relationship between Cooper and his daughter Murphy, named after the Law. Nolan struggles to convincingly dramatize his signature heavy exposition, and the script relies on its talented cast to get through some painfully forced dialogue.
Despite the film representing a departure in many ways, it is full of returning Nolan collaborators. Hans Zimmer’s surprisingly delicate score foregoes much of the Dark Knight trilogy’s bombast in favour of more introspective, but no less mesmerising music. You can practically hear the twinkling stars. Editor Lee Smith’s presence is apparent in the Inception-style climactic crosscutting, which keeps a coherent sense of escalating tension across both the space-set and earth-bound narratives. Anne Hathaway also makes a return appearance, though, like her fellow cast mate Jessica Chastain, is given depressingly little to do. Apparently Nolan can conceive of the human race entering the fifth dimension, but not a female character that isn’t defined almost exclusively by her love of an honest man.
One new arrival is cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. Hoytema uses the blackness and limited light sources of the film’s space photography to create imagery that surpasses your usual blockbuster spectacle. Yet it’s in the American heartland’s endless vistas that he delivers his most haunting work, wringing every possible ounce of nostalgia from its corn fields, blue skies and dusty roads. Elsewhere, the special effects dazzle — one set piece on a watery planet particularly impresses — whilst the production design in the film’s dimension-bending finale is truly awe-inspiring. Audiences looking for a spectacle will not be disappointed.
It’s easy to forgive many of Interstellar’s missteps given the complex scientific and emotional territory being traversed, and the sheer amount of plot the film churns through in its three hour runtime. But Interstellar remains a flawed masterpiece, a film whose ambition slightly, but crucially, overreaches its grasp. Its ultimate conclusions about destiny and family are a little hard to swallow, particularly coming from such a typically clinical filmmaker as Nolan. It seems somewhat disingenuous to tell a story about love pushing us to our limits and pulling us back together, when the establishment of our characters’ relationships feels so forced. Still, as Interstellar enters its final act, Nolan finds his way to the film’s heart, and on the way finds our own.