By and large, I’m a Christopher Nolan fan. I’m aware that Memento doesn’t entirely make sense but it was such an arresting and compelling device that I’m not minded to go back and try and pick it apart. All of the Batman movies are eminently watchable, with the middle episode being by far the best. Inception I thought was marvellous – a brilliant combination of eye-popping effects, bright performances, a few weighty themes to chew on, and an emotional story which didn’t swamp the narrative but which managed to hold its own against the noise and colour.
So, I sat down to watch Interstellar, at the BFI IMAX in a happy mood, but my overall impression, at the end of a lengthy run-time was disappointment. There is good stuff here, but key moments are flubbed, and crucially, the film doesn’t do for me what I’m pretty sure Nolan thinks it’s doing. It doesn’t stir my soul, it doesn’t mash my brain and it doesn’t even delight my eyes the way I thought it would. Let’s get into this. There will be some spoilers, but I won’t assume you’ve seen the film.
Firstly, the film borrows from earlier works with a magpie-ish zeal which makes Tarantino look like a hermit-like recluse who’s never seen a film in his life. Just off the top of my head, Nolan has stirred in chunks of Contact, Armageddon, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Gravity, The Right Stuff, Solaris, Disney’s The Black Hole and great dollops of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is the most damning comparison, but we’ll get to that later.
We open in a future world where an unspecified ecological disaster has created a crop blight, with the result that no wheat or barley can grow and so America (and we assume the world) is subsisting on corn. Given that we will spend only about a quarter of the film in this environment, Nolan attempts to avoid lengthy and tedious world-building. We are spared long professorial lectures about just what has happened and when (although long professorial lectures are coming, don’t worry) and instead just spend time getting to know Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper (no first name is given) and his family including John Lithgow who is given absolutely nothing to do.
But Nolan fills these early sections with set-pieces which are either obvious set-ups for pay-offs which result later in the movie (Murph’s “ghost”) or obvious set-ups for pay-offs which never arrive (Cooper wrangling a rogue drone back to Earth). Meanwhile, back-story which might actually help, like whatever the hell crash McConaughey is trying to get over, is scarcely referred to again.
But this approach means that I’m still asking vital questions about what is happening down on earth after McConaghey’s mission, and struggling to believe it all. The story we are told about NASA – unfunded, unloved, a misfit band of scientists still toiling away in isolation – is totally at odds with what they have accomplished – building enormous ships capable of interplanetary travel and devising a plan to save the lives of thousands of people. And the last-minute recruiting of McConaghey on to the mission also seems profoundly unlikely, no matter how much gravitas Michael Caine brings to his long professorial lectures (see I told you).
Once we leave the planet, things take a turn for the better. The world on board the various spaceships is better defined, even if, again what we are told is often at odds with what we see. This is our near future where the need for better farming has caused society to turn its back on science (because how could science help with making food? – that’s crazytown) and yet, this same technologically backwards culture has created miraculous double-jointed robots with Genuine People Personalities of the kind we can barely dream of (but which are a staple of science fiction movie-making).
There are other niggles here as well. Filming partly with IMAX cameras means that the aspect ratio keeps jumping about, and Nolan keeps shooting the ship our heroes are in from inside or from a “camera” “clamped” to its hull (I’m aware this was all CGI). That means it’s absolutely ages before we get a clear idea of what the thing actually looks like. We also have to hear about and not see the earlier missions. Not having any visual reference makes it hard to keep everything straight, and it seems an odd narrative choice to have one last rescue ship following twelve earlier ships, three of whom might have found something useful. These ships can transmit “data” but nothing useful about what the planets are actually like. You know, like “hey watch out for waves” or pictures of the surface. And vital mission strategy decisions seem to be taken by the four astronauts on the fly instead of being figured out before take-off. I guess this distributes the exposition more evenly, but the movie’s bigger problem by far is that I’m struggling to believe any of it.
Much has been made of the scientific accuracy of the film, and Nolan in interviews has claimed again and again that his pet physicist Kip Thorne wouldn’t allow anything in which couldn’t be justified scientifically. However, Thorne also seems to know which side his bread is buttered as he is developing a nice side-line in Hollywood and I suspect has let a lot of nonsense past. In particular, the planet on which time passes more rapidly for those on its surface than for those in orbit around it. This is a perfectly fine science fiction conceit, but it has nothing to do with relativistic time dilation at all as far as I can tell. If McConaghey and co accelerated away from crew-member David Gyasi at near light speed and then returned, they could find he had aged 23 years while they had been gone only a few hours, but nothing like this actually occurs.
Gyasi meanwhile is gathering “data” from the black hole for years on end. “Data”, you see is what Michael Caine needs for his “equations” which will save the human race. In my screening, Gyasi’s 23 years of isolation and loneliness were greeted with sniggers, but really it’s the Michael Caine / Jessica Chastain equation narrative which is most derisibly thin. Chastain works hard to sell it, but is given nothing to work with. Her breezy optimism is preferable at least to Anne Hathaway’s relentless earnestness. In a film sorely lacking in humour, her character is a particular dead-spot, and her freakish features, accentuated by her pixie cut make her seem distractingly alien in a movie which is trying so hard to suggest but not quite say that there are Mysterious Forces Beyond Our Comprehension Somewhere Out There.
Still, the adventures on Waterworld are at least exciting, and the decisions the crew have to make next are a neat dilemma. Arrival on Iceworld with Secret Guest Star Matt Damon also brings fresh pleasures, and if Damon’s evil secret is a) blatantly obvious and b) his plan makes hardly any sense, well we can put that down to Space Madness. In fact, pretty much everything from Saturn to Gargantua is at least good, and some of it is great action adventure, thrilling-escape-from-death stuff.
However, in its final act, when the debt to 2001 becomes a crippling sub-prime mortgage and when the film imagines it is at its most poetic, lyrical and spiritual, I actually experienced it as thuddingly, ploddingly literal. It surely can’t have escaped the attention of many viewers that McConaghey leaves Earth a) with a massive unsolved mystery in the form of those NASA coordinates spelled out by “gravity” and b) through a wormhole theorised to have been constructed by friendly aliens and that there is bound to be some causal link between these two and that link is McConaghey!
But even if the link between the two was a surprise to you, it is just far, far less interesting than what happens to Dave Bowman through the stargate, and at the same time the “data” is a McGuffin that makes no sense at all.
The coda on board a space station heading for the stars also barely makes any sense and the impression I am left with is that Nolan has badly overreached himself. This masterly creator of epic adventure tales, who also delights in playing with memory and reality, has failed to effectively realise most of the various worlds his story takes place in, has failed to create a sense of awe and mystery which his story depends on, is at best weak when it comes to the father-daughter emotions which the plot depends on, and has a very misguided idea of how scientifically accurate the whole thing is.
But a lot of it looks pretty and there is a good bit in the middle with mountain sized waves and a fist fight on a glacier and a demented docking manoeuvre and Matt Damon.