Interstellar review: Christopher Nolan boldly goes to infinity and beyond

The movie isn't just for genre fans, it still has considerable emotional kick

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The Independent Culture

Christopher Nolan makes films for the big screen. In an era in which many other directors have lowered their ambitions and the argument is frequently made that the best filmed drama is to be found on Netflix or HBO, he retains a child-like faith in cinema as spectacle. Nolan shares the desire of early movie pioneers such as Georges Méliès or DW Griffith to astound and entrance audiences.

His movies invariably have moments of bathos and pretentiousness. In their lesser moments, they can seem silly but they also induce a sense of wonder.

He is no Michael Bay, letting off explosions and making noise for the sake of it. His blockbusters always pay as much attention to character and ideas as they do to special effects. They explore questions of family and identity, love and loss.

Interstellar, his new $160m sci-fi epic, is the quintessential Nolan movie. Made under the supervision of leading theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, it launches a twin-pronged attack on our emotions and on our intellects. It bombards us with abstruse ideas about gravity, matter and time while also offering old-fashioned, hyper-charged family melodrama. With a running time of almost three hours and special effects that trump those in Gravity (which seems like a chamber piece by comparison), this is a true epic – one whose thrilling ambition is only  partially undermined by its sudden final-reel nose dive into bathos and absurdity. Nolan aims very high indeed. In the process, he has delivered a cerebral and original blockbuster.

This is a story of deliberate contrasts. The narrative begins not in space but in the dusty midwest. The crops are failing and food is scarce. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a rugged farmer who looks as if he has stepped out of a John Steinbeck novel. In a post-apocalyptic world where families are struggling to put food on the table, the idea of space travel seems absurd. Cooper is told by his kids’ Luddite-like school teachers that he is part of a “caretaker generation,” one whose only goal is survival.

These teachers warn Cooper that his son, Tom (Timothée Chalamet), has little chance of going to college. There is no call for explorers or pioneers. His destiny is to stay home and tend the crops, which are dying anyway. As for space travel, no one takes that seriously. The received wisdom in the brave new America in which Cooper and his family are eking out an existence is that the Apollo missions were “faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union”. There were no lunar landings – it was all masquerade and propaganda.

The screenplay (co-written by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan Nolan) has certain elements that would barely have passed muster in a creaky old episode of The Twilight Zone. We learn that Cooper, in spite of his Tom Joad-like appearance, is, in fact, a Flash Gordon-like former test pilot and engineer. After seeing strange signs in the farmhouse, he and his 10-year-old daughter head off across country and stumble on a secret Nasa base in the desert. Here, he  is signed up by his old professor (Michael  Caine) to join a space voyage in search of new habitations for humanity. Among the astronauts is the professor’s daughter Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway). The hitch is that he may never see his own children again – and, if he does, they may be very much older than he is by the time he returns. (Cooper is heading toward planets on which every hour that passes counts for seven years back on earth.)

Nolan is very sly in the way he interweaves sci-fi and family drama elements. There are continual references to “love” and family ties as key drivers in humanity’s fight for survival. The reason the scientists can push themselves so hard is precisely because they are fighting to protect those closest to them. At the same time, Cooper is at least partially motivated by his own selfish desire to escape his own backwater existence. He yearns for the adventure.

McConaughey’s performance is almost as strong as his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club. He conveys both Cooper’s bravado and pioneer spirit, and his yearning for the children he left behind. Nolan isn’t afraid to squeeze out pathos from the scenes in which he cries his eyes out watching video messages relayed from his family. Hathaway is likewise affecting as the scientist torn between her professional responsibilities and her feelings. Back on earth, Jessica Chastain shows her familiar steely drive as the physicist who looks to the most emotional events of her childhood to solve the scientific problems that have dogged her colleagues for decades. In a cameo, Matt Damon makes one of the great screen entrances of recent times. Caine reprises the wise, old grandfatherly type that he always seems to play in Nolan movies.

The film-makers give a very far-fetched story an air of verisimilitude by featuring interview footage with various old-timers (including one played by Ellen Burstyn), incorporated to reminisce about the events we are seeing as if this is a documentary.

As in Gravity, the film-makers use the silence of space to accentuate the eeriness. Hans Zimmer’s music, heavy on organs, has a sacred feel. The film combines lengthy passages of the vessel gliding through galaxies as the astronauts discuss their strategies for saving humanity with exhilarating set-pieces in which they are dragged through wormholes in time.

This is a film that will provide plenty of grist for sci-fi enthusiasts. It boasts its own HAL-like computers/robots – including the very sardonic TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin). It features lots of hardware, plenty of explosions and large amounts of jargon-filled dialogue. Non-physicists will have to take the information about time travel on trust. Humour isn’t Nolan’s strong point, something underlined by the fact that the robot gets the funniest lines. Interstellar, though, isn’t just a movie for geekish genre fans. It’s a weepie as well, one that verges on the preposterous at times but that still has a considerable emotional kick.

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