Review: Interstellar (2014)
'Interstellar' is a loud, exposition heavy blockbuster from Director Christopher Nolan. A director known for other high concept, visually spectacular epics such as his Batman Trilogy and the reverse narrative thriller 'Memento'. 'Interstellar' can be most accurately compared to Nolan's 2010 mind bending action thriller 'Inception' particularly in terms of its grand scale, and epic visuals. Similarly, whilst 'Inception' was praised for its inventive plot, pacing and dizzying visuals, it was criticised for its limited ability to invoke genuine emotion. 'Interstellar' features a strong performance from Matthew McConaughey as a competent and stoic former NASA test pilot turned farmer who chooses to say goodbye to his family in the hopes of ensuring their survival and more broadly the survival of the human race. 'Interstellar' is a slower burn than 'Inception', with more sparsely placed action sequences, and more emphasis on lengthy discussions on the nature of space and time.
This is not to say that 'Interstellar' is not dazzling, it's visuals awe-inspiring and its action sequences personal and engaging. All of this is true and to the films credit, McConaughey delivers a strong performance as Cooper, the man charged with leading the exploration, dutiful and focused but haunted by the idea of never seeing his children grow up. Space is depicted as beautiful but terrifyingly expansive and mystical. Nolan went so far as to hire scientific consultant Kip Thorne to gauge the authenticity of both the visual representation and physics at play in traversing worm-holes and time dilation in proximity to a black hole, the aptly named Gargantua. Tearful sequences and long discussions about love, familial bonds and loneliness punctuate the action, but was this all enough to prove that Nolan is fully capable of crafting a compelling narrative with emotive power?
Set in the year 2067, the Earth is becoming an increasingly bleak and empty landscape, plagued by crop blights and dust storms. Corn is perhaps the last viable crop for most, the population is persuaded through education that space travel is obsolete and NASA is regarded with shame - it's taught in school that the Apollo Moon landings were faked. Instead society now expects the majority of the population to now concentrate on farming to sustain humanities existence on a hostile and barren homeworld. Cooper, now uses his engineering skills from his time at NASA to produce acres of corn at his farm, occupied by himself, the father of his deceased wife, Donald (John Lithgow), young daughter, Murphy or "Murph" (Mackenzie Foy) and teenage son, Tom (Timothée Chalamet). Every year is a fight to yield crops in a futile attempt against the onslaught of nature, Cooper knows this all too well but remains as optimistic as can be expected for his children. McConaughey turns his Texan charm on in his portrayal of Cooper; he's an all-American hero, cool and calm, a maverick pilot, witty and wry whenever the moment calls for it. Cooper knows deep down knows farming is not his calling, or the calling of human kind in general. To him human beings are "Explorers and pioneers, not care-takers."
He leaves his young children tearfully as if conscripted into war, he knows he may never see his family again but this is a call he must answer. After reconnecting with NASA and Cooper's old mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Cooper is charged by his former colleague with leading a desperate mission into the depths of space in search of a new home for humanity. Accompanying him is Professor Brands own daughter, Amelia Brand, a motivated Anne Hathaway, scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) and two wise-cracking, morphing slabs of chrome, TARS and CASE - robots programmed with humour to provide companionship to the lonesome galactic travellers. Following a previous MIA voyage, Cooper must use a wormhole located close to Saturn to slingshot the Endurance into a far off galaxy where carefully selected planets are waiting to be probed for habitation. But the biggest fears of the Endurance crew are not spaghetti-fication or stumbling into a cave of face-hugging aliens. The real enemy of Interstellar is the environment, time and space itself, which is felt throughout the latter two thirds of the film, so palpably it is almost a physical presence.
Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
- Professor Brand
Magnificently crafted shots, courtesy of Swiss born Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, of an ancient and mystic universe with murderous and incomprehensible wonders like Gargantua, the black hole rendered in gloriously stunning CGI characterise Nolan's lonely space. These are more than a nod to Kubrick's classic '2001: A Space Odyssey' - not to mention the utterly monolithic appearance of TARS and CASE. The interior of the Endurance evokes comparisons to Ridley Scott's 'Alien' franchise, with a gloomier, grimy 80's sci-fi feel. It's in this dark, cold environment with eerie, low shifting lighting that some of the most personal moments of vulnerability and human frailty are seen.
The crew can only describe the new natural phenomenons they experience through scientific understanding as they are ravaged slowly but continuously by time, space and most notably the loneliness and longing to be home with their families. Throughout the film we see shots along the outside body of vehicles as they depart or arrive, but none more poignant than the when Cooper tearfully leaves his family home in his dusty blue pickup, causing Murph to run out to chase him down to no avail. Little do they know that Murph will grow into a reclusive, angry but brilliant Jessica Chastain, obsessed with aiding the mission from Earth, under the mentorship of Professor Brand, and scorned by the thought that her dad may have abandoned her. The bond between the two, although McConaughey and Chastain are never in a scene together forms one of the core themes of the movie; the power of familial love the bitterness of sacrificing it for a higher purpose.
Gargantua; a murderously, incomprehensible force of nature.
Interstellar (4K UHD)
The sheer haunting majesty of deep space vistas should send a chill down the spine of most multiplex patrons, the nightmarish wormhole and the looming behemoth, Gargantua thrill and unsettle in equal measure. The tone is suspenseful and lingers somewhere between wonder and fear throughout the movie with very little rest, save for the calming, so-close-to-human quips voice of TARS as he and Cooper exchange quips. A welcome break from the deafening exposition dumps from Romilly and Doyle that may well go over the heads of a sizeable portion of the audience. Nolan's real enemy has always been the sheer volume of expository dialogue which could be doubly true for this film. With so much deep science to explain you could think Brand's line "time is a resource, just like food and water" would have been Christopher and co-writer Jonathon Nolan's mantra.
Unlike 'Inception' which blended bizarre, melting and folding landscapes into otherwise normal sets with action packed gun fights, 'Interstellar' features no such fights. Instead, Nolan focuses on gritty technical struggles of docking into violently spinning spaceships and astronauts fumbling with airlocks set to a score by legendary Hans Zimmer which is nothing short of phenomenal. This is what elevates the action 'Interstellar' to the edge-of-your-seat, high tension experience it is. Whilst space is silent, Hans Zimmers orchestral score roars and booms. Within the score a ticking clock motif tugs at our nerves at our protagonists most dire moments reminding us that every moment lost scrambling for safety many hours, days, months, even years Cooper could be spending with Murph and Tom.
We used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.
Time as a resource.
Despite the copious amounts of scientific diatribe and debates on the observable existence of love, 'Interstellar' does provoke some genuine emotional reactions. McConaughey's tear-jerking scenes featuring the father attempting to catch up with his growing and ageing family back on Earth carry some weight and are amplified by his talent as an actor. Years ago we never would have thought of this type cast, mid-weight bringing us to tears with weeping and facial expressions alone. However, the emotional core is eclipsed by the spellbinding visuals at times, like a space pod sinking into a black hole. Zimmer's score goes above and beyond to not only create pulse-pounding, nail biting action scenes but his wailing violins cut through the heart strings. 'Interstellar' tells a personal story with grounded themes of love, longing and legacy amidst an unfathomably large narrative. Although some of it's nuances may be lost in its telling and some faith may be shaken by the final few moments of the picture, there is still so much that stuns, stirs and inspires throughout.