The world of Interstellar can best be summed up in a line from James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day. T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) says, “it’s in your nature to destroy yourselves,” and the earth, that barely yields the ability to provide us with food, is manifesting that destiny. When a black hole appears in our solar system there’s a glimmer of hope that we could travel across the galaxy to another planet that could yield human life. With co-writer and director Christopher Nolan’s characteristic operatics, visual innovation and esoteric musing on the future of humanity; Interstellar is bombastic, ‘must-see’ science fiction.
The opening stanza of Interstellar is the least successful screenwriting of any of the collaborations between the Nolan brothers (Christopher and Jonathan). For starters it undercuts the essential backstory of Cooper (McConaughey) and his rise to become one of the most lauded pilots in the U.S airforce by merely jolting the audience with a glimpse into the horrific crash that continues to rattle through his subconscious. When you’re seeing Cooper and his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy playing young Murph) stumble into humanity’s last efforts to avoid extinction, it’s just a parade of tropes and contrivance. However once the mission begins the explanatory exposition and the distracting convenience dissipates for the philosophical and literal trailblazing through the universe. As with the Nolan’s other work, the duality and duplicity of flawed men is on show, and when it’s infused with a dash of impending doom it’s taken to particularly sinister places.
Nolan has always enjoyed playing the with temporality and resynchronising time in his films to elude the audience’s presumptions. With the black hole’s manipulation of time space, moving back and forward in time is relative to the character’s position in the universe. So in that respect those laborious moments in the beginning of the film are somewhat redeemed as Nolan echoes their significance in the adjusted timeline. There are giant enigmatic and ambivalent phenomena, and their significance or ‘meaning’ could (and should) be argued until you’re blue in the face.
While Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is an undeniable influence (the scientific logic for the space travel and the environments that the character’s encounter being meticulously crafted); but Nolan’s buoyant hopes for humanity provide a vastly different perspective than that of his idol.
Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema is so good they named him twice (or so I just made up). After his previous notable work with the incredibly realised futuristic vision of L.A in Her; and the meditative steadiness of the intellectual, chess match of spy film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; it’s no wonder that top directors like Nolan (and Sam Mendes for the upcoming Bond 24) are enlisting his services. There’s an epic intimacy in his composition of characters faces, so you’re all but drowning in their emotions. Spaces of significance, such as the Cooper farmhouse feel loaded with memory in his delicate approach. And yet once you’re off world you’re hit with an adrenaline shot of thrills travelling through black holes, bursting through stratospheres and slicing through mountainous waves on planets on the other side of the galaxy. Those sequences on an IMAX screen are some of best moments I’ve experienced at a cinema this year.
There’s a kind of grave fate for great composers like Hans Zimmer or John Williams; once you identify their iconic sound you start to be able to hear their musical habits like clangs on symbols that jolt you out of your viewing experience. C. Nolan and Zimmer, like Spielberg and Williams, have become synonymous and their respective styles lend to gargantuan soundscapes. However unlike the immediately recognisable (largely thanks to sporting coverage playing them on repeat) scores of The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Inception, the score for Interstellar was forced into the background by the staggering visuals. It definitely added additional emotional grunt, but it was like one more grenade on a site that had been nuked.
Nolan regulars (Caine and Hathaway) are used to his character manoeuvres and seem conscious of the fact that their actions and consequences ricochet off of each other in his customary splintered narrative; however it’s the new additions to his troupe that are the ones who shine. They’re almost better in moments that aren’t interacting with other performers such as being forced to confront video messages from ageing loved ones on earth or the times they’re travelling in ships, looking out on the ultimate sublime of the universe.
The McConaissance remains intact thanks to McConaughey’s knack for being able to bring the dramatic truth to the underdeveloped Cooper. He’s an impulsive, ambitious dreamer and he’s a father reserved to being incomplete and askew since his wife’s passing. He’s frustrated with the purely agricultural existence of humanity that seems to have devolved as the planet’s rot becomes apparent. He’s really acting the pants off of almost every performer that’s in his presence, all except for a digital one.
One of the unseen stars of Interstellar is Bill Irwin’s voice work as the robot TARS. Apart from one of the most unique and spectacularly designed mutating, monolithic robots in recent sci-fi he has a range of settings that include tweaks to humour and truth that endlessly amuse. The user defined sentience plays perfectly with the brazen Cooper (McConaughey).
While there are times that Anne Hathaway has to wrestle with Amelia’s lack of dimension (particularly relating to diminishing her characters desire to be reunited with a lost love/space pioneer) the further the story progresses, she seems to tune into the role. As she’s required to explain less and emote more you cannot help but be simply transfixed by her eyes. Jessica Chastain plays the adult version of Cooper’s daughter Murph and as we revisit the once petulant and curious girl, we find that she’s grown into a scientific badass. Caring for and assisting Caine’s Professor Brand and eventually succeeding him, she’s ultimately the potential heroine for the human race.
Michael Caine plays an aloof physicist tasked overcoming gravity. It’s a more detached performance than I think we’re used to seeing from Caine, especially in his more recent roles for Nolan as Alfred, Cobb’s father in Inception and the illusion designer Cutter in The Prestige. The burden of knowing how slim our chances are for survival snap freeze anything remotely empathetic in the man.
Wes Bentley, yes that kid from American Beauty all grown up, has become an intense character actor used to temper the bigger performers with a simmering and often silent intensity. John Lithgow’s father in law character slots into the role of a primary caregiver for his grandchildren in the wake of his daughter’s passing because he knows that Cooper’s a stargazer. It’s a tender and pragmatic performance that while being a small part is significant. Casey Affleck plays the adult incarnation of Cooper’s son and is able to summon up the dismal life associated with ploughing out an existence on a terminal earth.
Interstellar is not perfect, but it’s the bold, electrifying and provocative cinema with rocket scientist smarts and a sentimental heart.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Fighter)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Wes Bentley, Topher Grace, Casey Affleck, Mackenzie Foy, Ellen Burstyn, Bill Irwin (voice), Timothée Chalamet, David Gyasi,
Score: Hans Zimmer