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