Interstellar review

Interstellar opens with the introduction of a farm, and the imagery brings to mind such middle-of-the-road fare as Field of Dreams and the TV adaptation of Stephen King‘s The Stand. There’s nothing in this sequence that even approaches the bleak beauty of John Steinbeck or the great dustbowl poets of the Great Depression, though that would seem to be what director Christopher Nolan was aiming for. Shots of children escaping on flatbeds and dust clouds rising in the background appear to have been heavily influenced by well-known cinematic adaptations of depression-era literature, perhaps most particularly John Ford‘s Grapes of Wrath. But Nolan is no Ford.

Then, somewhat surprisingly considering the film’s subsequent trip into distant space, Interstellar never really ventures beyond the bland, generic territory established by its opening.

Nolan chooses to fill us in on his desolate near-future setting, in which widespread famine has spread across the slowly dying planet Earth, with a series of faux-documentary talking heads. These are comprised of a number of elderly characters monologuing about the years they spent growing up on these dusty farms, their narration describing the experience as we see visual representations of the very same thing. This is the kind of filmmaking tautology that Nolan returns to many times throughout the film, seemingly feeling that he should explain every moment to the audience with every tool he can get his hands on, no matter how blunt.

As well as being heavy handed and patronising, these faux-documentary sequences might well tip off the audience to key plot point from the end of the film, and thereby cancel out a great deal of potential drama. Those of a more curious disposition will no doubt guess why there is one recognisable actress among the talking heads.

The hero of Nolan’s Interstellar is NASA pilot turned corn farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), or Coop for short, a frustrated family man who wants more for his children as well as the planet he lives on. Earth’s days are numbered and humans need to find somewhere new to live, so thanks to a series of plot manipulations, all of them awkwardly ‘explained’ by the film’s final ‘twist,’ Coop ends up part of the Lazarus mission.

As his space voyage begins, Coop is aboard a ship headed towards a wormhole and in search of threepre-scouted planets that could represent a future for humanity. Joining Coop on this trip are a collection of NASA scientists and an ex-military robot named TARS. Despite going underground, both figuratively and literally, Nolan’s beleaguered NASA still appears able to achieve a lot.

TARS is one of the most remarkable missteps in a film crammed full of terrible miscalculations. ‘He’ is intended, it seems, to provide comic relief, and even has a humour percentage level that is reset by the crew for a a kind of running joke, but watching TARS proves to be about as funny or engaging as staring at a broken iPod for two and a half hours.

The level of craftsmanship and detail in the visual effects work of Interstellar is often exceptional but TARS is a rare low point, never seeming at all like he possesses an actual physical presence and regularly making implausible movements that carry no weight whatsoever. Michael Bay’s Transformers look like real, tangible inhabitants of planet Earth by comparison.

I accept that the conception of TARS was also intended as a nod to the now iconic HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan evidently sees 2001 as an inspiration, even if he seems to miss entirely that film’s textual depth and Kubrick’s fascination with profound speculative science fiction that led to that film’s success.

There’s an explicit riff on 2001‘s Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite sequence in Interstellar’s final scenes, but where Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke loaded both their narrative and themes with ambitious ideas, we here get a watered-down rehash with nothing new to add. 2001 reached for something highly complex and invested heavily in its nuance while Nolan settles for a trite idea glossed over with a thin veneer of attempted showmanship.

For all the vast stretches of awful, overwritten expositional dialogue that hammer home the filmmakers’ belief that Interstellar is a film about grand ideas and complex themes, the picture never truly engages with anything more than a very simplistic narrative concept and a rather tepid emotional statement: families and humanity itself are worth fighting for. Where Nolan and his co-writer and brother Jonathan should be texturing the film with emotional subtlety and significance, they ladle on syrup and so much explicit explanation of what is happening and how every character feels about it that the film grinds to an absolute dead stop. This happens on dozens of occasions.

Take, for instance, a scene in which Amelia, apparently played by an android version of Anne Hathaway, explains why the Lazarus mission should choose one particular destination planet over another. As the fate of every living thing on Earth hangs in the balance, this crew of scientists and one rather clueless pilot who needs wormholes explained to him like he’s an infant, try to apply logical reasoning… until they don’t. The conversation instead turns into a treatise about love and why it’s okay to make all-important decisions based upon a loopy hypothesis.

NASA scientist Amelia believes that her being in love might well be the result of energies passing through an extradimensional continuum.  “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space,” says the weird android, devoid of the talents that the real Hathaway would have brought to bear on the role.

All the while, Coop mansplains things to Amelia and points out that she shouldn’t be making decisions based upon emotions, even though this is how we’ve seen him approach every single problem so far.

Nolan has previously been criticised for his cold filmmaking, his lack of interesting female characters and an inability to make his films feel emotionally resonant, but based on Interstellar and scenes like the one described above, it might have been preferable that his films were nothing but distant and aloof. Nolan has filled this film with scenes that are all about emotion, it’s just that they’re all hilariously bad.

The Nolans’ modus operandi for creating Interstellar appears to have been: think up a dramatic sounding scenario; have the characters explain that scenario while a histrionic and out of place score attempts to drown out their dialogue; and then just end the scenario. And don’t worry too much about actually concluding the scenes or have each lead into the next, just have them end, and then just because they do.

This staccato structure, built from unfulfilling and unconvincing dramatic set pieces, has made sure Interstellar is something of a slog. If it it wasn’t for the moments of visually arresting space ‘action’ it would have been an entirely interminable experience.

Interstellar‘s projection has become something of a talking point, so I should mention that I saw the film from a 70mm print at the Odeon in London’s Leicester Square. It is now something of a rare treat to watch 70mm projected and while I found the film to be sorely lacking, the projection was, for the most part, top notch. That said, the print I saw, which had presumably only spooled through a projector a handful of times at most, was already marked with a couple of very noticeable scratches and quite a few small marks.

For me, this was a real reminder that even a relatively fresh print can still amass a great deal of imperfections, something that’s far less common with modern DCPs. That said, I fully encourage anyone thinking of seeing Interstellar to consider seeing it from a film print, if only because this might encourage cinemas not to throw away their film projectors just yet, and for the secondary benefits of this to the rep circuit from this. Maybe you might just think about heading to the cinema sooner rather than later to ensure you see a print at its best.

Interstellar will open wide in cinemas across both the UK and US on the 7th of November, with preview screenings underway now.