For all its hype, does Interstellar rank among Chris Nolan’s best work, or have we seen it all before?
Interstellar is a film not just about intergalactic space travel. It is a film about the big questions; what lies beyond our understanding of the universe? Are we alone here? How far will we go for love? What is love? These and other topics related to humanity, society, physics and philosophy are all themes that Christopher Nolan aims to explore with his latest ambitious project. Though in the end, it’s his desire to provide a conclusive narrative tying them together that spoils what would otherwise be a mesmerizing experience.
Set sometime in the near future, the film begins with Matthew McConaughey playing Cooper, a farmer and the typical Hollywood version of an American single father. In this future, Earth’s natural resources have become scarce and most of the world depends on corn as their sole food source. Farming is seen as the essential occupation for young men, being one of the last few options people have for survival.
Cooper is one of these men, although he is haunted by the memories of humanity’s past scientific achievements and laments their regression to a time before we dreamed of going to space. NASA now operates in secret, and a seemingly chance encounter with them (‘seemingly’ in the sense that Nolan then goes out of his way to give an explanation later on) sets up the mission which Cooper – conveniently also a former pilot – is assigned to lead. He will lead a team through a wormhole to find an alternative planet for our species to settle on.
While my tone may come across flippant, make no mistake about one thing: this is probably McConaughey’s best career performance. It is thanks predominantly to him that you will be brought close to tears more than once while watching Interstellar. When you aren’t doing that, the core emotion this film will evoke is awe, though the extent of this awe will depend on how familiar you are with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and, to a lesser extent, last year’s Gravity (Cuaron, 2013).
From a critical point of view, comparisons to 2001 are clearly inevitable. In fact the main difference between Kubrick’s classic science fiction movie and Nolan’s film is the latter’s reliance on human sentimentality to progress the story and bring it to its eventual conclusion. Both films deserve praise for their scientific accuracy, while at the same time asking you to suspend your disbelief as they speculate about what lies beyond our current knowledge. But where Interstellar is held back in this endeavor is in its need to constantly bring you back down to Earth. Contrast this with Kubrick, who went as far from traditional narrative techniques as possible in creating a dream-like, almost non-verbal experience contextualized primarily by its classical soundtrack.
Unfortunately Interstellar does not cover any ground that the almost 50-year-old 2001 didn’t. Areas in which it does differ do not significantly add to the experience, leaving no doubt that Kubrick’s film is still the superior one despite its age.
In addition, I can’t help but feel some of the awe surrounding the more modern space sequences in this film will have been robbed slightly by Gravity, which is also a more powerful overall movie for one main reason. Although it did include some sentimentality, it left you with no doubt that space was still the majestic main event of the whole experience.
Interstellar does not give you this impression, instead using every opportunity it can to reinforce its true theme: family. Behind the smoke and mirrors of its vast universal scope, it’s really only about one thing. And this is the true gripe I have with Nolan’s latest film. Visually it’s stunning. Emotionally it’s hard hitting. But in the end, it is essentially no more than a domestic drama told across the stars, with the universe at its whims, the main threat coming from whether or not Cooper will make it home to see his kids again; whether or not they’ll still love him when he does.
For me this goes some way to reducing the film’s appeal; for others it may instead heighten it. On my way out of the screening of Interstellar, I asked myself how I would describe it in a phrase and one line came to mind: it has the soul of a Kubrick film, with the heart of a Spielberg movie. To you, that may sound like heaven. To me it was more like, well… Earth.
7 / 10