The Visually Stunning “Interstellar” Fails to Reach the Heights of its Lofty Ambition

Despite a stellar cast and a consistently strong director, style outweighs substance in Christopher Nolan’s post-apocalyptic adventure. Luke Ostler & Simon Evans investigate…

Interstellar, Film Poster, Matthew McConaughey, Christopher Nolan, 2013 must have been an upsetting year for Christopher Nolan. Recent history’s paltry selection of quasi-realistic space films has long presented an opportunity for a truly stellar effort to blast the competition out of the water. The long list of those that have flattered to deceive includes Paul WS Anderson’s dire Event Horizon, 1998’s overblown, duelling blockbusters Armageddon and Deep Impact (both best wiped from the memory), and Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris, a decent effort that eventually succumbed to its own claustrophobic eccentricity, with only Duncan Jones’ Moon making a decent fist of things.

So Nolan can’t have been celebrating when last year’s Gravity not only knocked the lot out of the planetary ballpark but qualified as the best ever non-fantasy space movie. With this single addition to the pantheon, poor Interstellar is suddenly faced with the near-impossible task of matching the competition.

Many must still have faith in the picture’s prospects, considering the extent to which Christopher Nolan has seen his reputation skyrocket over the last fifteen years; the Brit is now the go-to guy for blockbusters that combine box-office performance with critical acclaim, and has developed a profile on the level of a James Cameron, Steven Spielberg or Alfred Hitchcock. But is this colossal reputation justified? Leafing through the back catalogue, Memento and The Prestige are well-constructed parlour tricks, the Dark Knight trilogy weighs in above average, while Inception is a visually stunning, aurally captivating and superbly performed load of utter bunkum. In fact, only 2002’s Insomnia exudes all-round quality, featuring Nolan’s trademark technical excellence, a sharp script and the last great Al Pacino performance. Again, the omens for keeping up with the Gravitys aren’t strong.

Interstellar, Film Poster, Matthew McConaughey, Christopher Nolan,

“…Interstellar is visually and aurally sublime. It’s a very rare pleasure to see a motion picture shot on film these days, and this movie truly shames Hollywood for its recent digital capitulation…”

Nolan has certainly assembled a starry cast for his space epic. The currently ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey leads as Cooper, a widowed ex-astronaut dad who farms corn on a post-apocalyptic earth (afflicted by a dusty blight that’s rapidly making agriculture impossible; less dramatic than zombies, but perhaps more terrifying for vegetarians), joined by his two children, played by Mackenzie Foy and Timothée Chalamet, and a grumpy father-in-law (John Lithgow). So far, so farm, until the welcome second act unveils itself when Cooper and daughter stumble across the remnants of NASA by somehow decoding binary co-ordinates in a pile of dust. It’ll make more sense when you watch it, but not a lot. This gives Nolan a chance to once again feed his near-fetishistic love for Michael Caine, in the guise of a scientist who reveals a desperate mission to save mankind by locating a habitable new home.

The casting is a mixed bag. The majestic McConaughey can do no wrong right now, and this performance is no exception; the 45-year-old’s showing is so strong that the scenes in which he is absent seem flat by contrast, and it’s easy to believe in the early scenes of fatherhood. Mackenzie Foy in particular, as Cooper’s young daughter Murph, forges an on-screen relationship with McConaughey that sparkles so much that her later, older incarnation fails to meet the same standards. Jessica Chastain seems miscast as the older Murph, wasting a decent physical resemblance with a distinctly missing je ne sais quois. Casey Affleck does better as the later version of Cooper’s son Tom but, like Chastain, is lumbered with a poor script. Lithgow struggles in the opening act, while Caine is reasonable as always, but Anne Hathaway, in the co-star role as one of Cooper’s on-board scientists, fails to sparkle through the dulling filter of relentlessly expositional dialogue.

Unless you suffer the misfortune to see the jarring IMAX version, Interstellar is at least visually and aurally sublime. We might have mentioned this once or twice in the past, but it’s a very rare pleasure to see a motion picture shot on film these days, and this movie truly shames Hollywood for its recent digital capitulation. A thing of beauty like Interstellar serves as a reminder of the anonymous televisual dross most films now settle for. But to truly produce the perfect blockbuster the visuals need to be matched by the soundtrack, and Hans Zimmer doesn’t disappoint with an organ-infused epic that rivals his very best work. It’s a daring decision to feature the organ so prominently in a blockbuster soundtrack, but what a spectacular success. Even with your eyes shut, this film is well worth the price of admission.

Interstellar, Film Poster, Matthew McConaughey, Christopher Nolan,

All kinds of fascinating worlds await the astronauts in their journey to save mankind, several of which have probably been spoiled for you already by a toxic combination of the trailer, social networks or one of the many inconsiderate reviews that are doing the rounds. If we didn’t respect our readership as much as we do, we’d say it serves you right for reading them.

For all its majesty and spectacle, Interstellar has two rather striking problems. When McConaughey and posse depart Earth the story continues to gravitate back to terra firma, but with the superstar absent there doesn’t seem to be a single human of interest left on the planet. One telling sequence sees the action cut between one set of characters desperately trying to save themselves from being marooned on a lifeless planet, and another set burning a cornfield on Earth. If you think one of those sounds exciting and the other boring, you’re probably right, and at least you’ll feel like we didn’t necessarily tell you what to think this time. The second issue is the philosophical and nigh-on impenetrable closing section, which exhibits Nolan at his worst, laying on corny Hollywood clichés and pretentious nonsense in equal, sickly servings. Christopher Nolan’s flawed masterpiece fails to hit the heights of Gravity.


Words by Luke Ostler & Simon Evans

Interstellar, Film Poster, Matthew McConaughey, Christopher Nolan,Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughe, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, Matt Damon, Michael Caine
Released: 2014 / Genre: Science-Fiction / Country: USA
More reviews: Latest | Archive
About the Author
Luke Ostler and Simon Evans are the perfect film reviewing team: one's a trained journalist, the other a bona fide film buff!

Related Posts

  1. Jon Rutledge Reply

    a well made film lacking in emotional substance.

  2. Cristov Reply

    Absolutely loved it. Couldn’t fault it. It’s cast a very big shadow over future Sci-Fi movies IMO.

  3. Keith & the Movies Reply

    It blew me away

    • Dan Reply

      Not style over substance? Or style AND substance?

      • Keith & the Movies Reply

        No, I think there is a lot under the hood that left an indelible mark on me both emotionally & intellectually.

  4. Cult & horror movies Reply

    You say INTERSTELLAR in IMAX is “jarring”. Could you elaborate?

  5. CineGirl Reply

    I loved the IMAX version and I’m glad Nolan has embraced IMAX over 3D. For a cinematic spectacle the film ticks all the boxes in my opinion. Nolan sets his stall high and I’ve got to give him credit for that. Interstellar is a blockbuster with the sort of attention to detail you don’t get from Michael Bay and his ilk. He also treats his audience with respect and doesn’t try to spoon feed us. I love that about Nolan and can’t bring myself to criticise him for trying to do too much with this incredible story. Like Prometheus, there is a lot to chew over but I believe it’s a wonderful piece of work. A great film.

  6. Rex Reply

    Not flawless by any means but still the best blockbuster of the year. The exposition is jarring but not the use of Imax cinematography. I was in awe!

  7. Dan Reply

    Is Interstellar Christopher Nolan’s worst film?

    • Colin Biggs Reply

      I would say no.

    • Margaret Reply


    • Karlton Reply


    • Alex Reply

      No way. His best? Maybe. His worst. Definitely not.

    • Mike P Williams Reply

      It’s better than The Following, but there’s no way you can conceivably compare the two, right? It’s one of his weaker features.

      • Angel Reply

        it’s not better than Following.

    • Kristov Reply

      …If everyone loved it, it would have been forgotten about in 6 months time. It’s an instant cult classic. I think the fact it’s split opinions to such extremes speaks volumes regarding its impact on cinema…

    • Aaron moran Reply

      It can never be his worst film in my opinion because the sheer ambition of it trumps a film like Insomnia every time.

      • Dan Reply

        Totally agree…and Insomnia remains by least favourite film by Nolan.

        • Garry McConnachie Reply

          Same here. I never have the urge to rewatch it like I do with Inception, The Prestige or TDK

    • WhatdoUwatch Reply

      far from his worst

    • Angel Reply

      Unfortunately, YES!

  8. Dan Reply

    Is Interstellar Christopher Nolan’s BEST film?

    • RoyaleWithCheese Reply

      It’s basically the best and the worst nolan film. It’s like inception. Like its on us, is he dreaming or back in reality? both the interpretations are correct

    • Ted Saydalavong Reply

      YES & NO. Yes because it’s his most passionate film. No because it got too many flaws. Technically it’s flawless though.

    • Al Robinson Reply

      I think The Dark Knight is still his best. But, I think Interstellar could someday gain Nolan’s biggest fanbase.

      • James Dunn Reply

        There seems to be a big split in love it/hate it. It’s surprising. I think some people don’t appreciate creativity

        • Al Robinson Reply

          Yeah, and that’s a shame. Creativeness can be missunderstood, like Interstellar.

    • Cristov Reply

      Yes. I must have seen a different film to some people. Where are these flaws?

    • [email protected] Reply

      I still fancy Batman Begins as his best film, though Insterstellar is better than a lot of critics want to think.

    • Adam Mulgrew Reply

      His worst? It’s probably his best for me. I suppose Insominia is his ‘worst’, though still good.

    • jack woodridge Reply

      Not his worst. As the filmmaker he is today – ie. the man who can ask for any budget and the studio will provide it – it’s not his worst. He’s come a long way since Following but his worst remains Insomnia. Whether or not Interstellar is his worst film, I’m not too sure. It has flaws but you’ve got to give it credit for its ambition. I’m not so sure everyone loves 2001 on first viewing, maybe Interstellar has the potential to become Nolan’s greatest enigma (and his best film).

  9. Callum Reply

    I’ve heard people say this is Nolan’s worst film. I can’t quite believe it. This, for me, was his best. A sheer cinematic spectacle that gives you something to contemplate while delivering entertainment value.

    • Movie Martin Reply

      I might have agreed with you one or two years ago but things changed after Gravity. Cuaron showed that cinema spectacle didn’t need such baggage. Nolan layers it on and makes far too many mistakes. The film is deeply flawed because Nolan and his brother complicate things.

      This is one of the best reviews I’ve read on the film. Nolan may well have made his worst film with Interstellar – and this is coming from someone who wasn’t jumping on the bandwagon while all the fanfare of teaser trailers etc. were being slowly released.

      • Callum Reply

        Gravity had notes of substance (eg. Sandra Bullock’s somewhat ambiguous backstory) but it kept things visceral with an uncluttered narrative. Interstellar adds meat to the bones. In fact, I wouldn’t say the two films are similar apart from the setting in space.

        • Movie Martin Reply

          Gravity had a clear goal to utilise 3D that stripped the story of excess. I’m not sure Nolan had the same sort of uncluttered vision with Interstellar beyond wanting to make something that could somehow emulate 2001. It’s an intention that’s doomed to fail and stinks of an out of control ego.

          • Callum

            You can fault Nolan for making a few mistakes along the way but I wouldn’t hit him with the ego charge. I’m so glad a director like him has the courage to take the blockbuster further, to give his audience the credit that they do have a brain cell and to entertain and invigorate both the knowledge and pleasure centres. It takes balls and imagination as well as talent to even attempt something like this. Okay, you can pick at its flaws if you want but I see past them. I see a director showing mainstream Hollywood how intelligent action-adventure cinema can be done. And he even does it while maintaining an auteur’s sensibility. Thank god for Interstellar, and thank god for Christopher Nolan!

  10. James Dunn Reply

    Interstellar is an incredible movie, the visual effects and the sound are all spot on. The relationship between Cooper and Murph gives you something more than your traditional and predictable love story between a man and woman. Hans Zimmer created a mindblowing score, moving away from his normal rhythmic strings and loud brass section and on to an almost frightening organ. I know I’m a minority on that but it’s a masterpiece. Matthew Mcconaughey gave a performance worthy of any award. I felt Anne Hathaway’s performance felt a little vacant, under-developed. Christopher Nolan makes excellent non-linear movies and this is no exception.

  11. Greg Mitchell Reply

    I saw it in IMAX and was totally blown away. Incredible.

    • Callum Reply

      Me too!

  12. Ross Birks Reply

    It’s easily my least favourite of Nolan’s but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it. Ambitious, admirable, flawed.

    • Dan Reply

      And given that you’re still thinking about… I wonder what your opinion will be after second viewing? A possible “grower”…

      • Ross Birks Reply

        Seen it twice. Second time was much better. But the inherent problems were also clearer/more painful. Still want to see it again

        • Callum Reply

          Three times a charm.

  13. Ted S. Reply

    “jarring IMAX version”? What do you mean by that? I saw it on a 70mm IMAX and it’s spectacular.

    • Callum Reply

      I agree. So glad Nolan has embraced IMAX and not jumped on the 3D bandwagon! Even Scorsese was sucked in.

  14. ruth Reply

    I think your title here sums it all. I was a bit more generous in my rating but generally I wasn’t WOWED by this film either. Yes the visual is gorgeous but for me, the story wasn’t as engaging.

  15. Evan Crean Reply

    When talking about good space films, you forgot to mention Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (which I think is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen). I agree with Nolan having an inconsistent track record too, although I don’t consider Inception bunkum. You’re right that Jessica Chastain is miscast as the older Murph. She is missing a little something. Casey Affleck does better with the material, but he barely gets any screen time by comparison. The film is beautiful, however I thought the epic organ score was melodramatic and at points overwhelming. My biggest issues are that the film gets lost in scientific mumbo jumbo during the last act, and that McConaughey’s character spends all this time getting back to his daughter just to leave her in an instant on her death bed. That was just stupid to me. For a movie trying to be emotional, Interstellar just comes off just the opposite.

    • Fran Reply

      Yes & yes, especially yes to what you said about Sunshine. That awe.

  16. Holly Reply

    I think Interstellar is some time good but fail to create an rush.

Leave a Reply