Interstellar is the astounding new $160 million sci-fi epic from Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan. Made under the supervision of leading theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, the film (bound to be a front runner in this year’s Oscar race) launches a twin pronged attack on our emotions and on our intellects. It combines abstruse ideas about gravity, matter and time with 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 that (thankfully) is the utter antithesis of Transformers-style franchise filmmaking.
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 when families are struggling to put food on the table, the idea of space travel seems absurd. Cooper is told by his kids’ school teachers that he is part of a “caretaker generation,” whose only goal is survival.
The screenplay (co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan) has certain elements that would barely have passed muster in an old episode of the Twilight Zone. We learn that Cooper, in spite of his Tom Joad-like appearance, is, in fact, a former a test pilot and engineer.
After seeing strange signs in the farmhouse, he and his 10 year old daughter Murph 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 beautiful 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. McConaughey’s performance is almost as strong as his Oscar winning turn in The Dallas Buyers’ Club.
He conveys Cooper’s bravado and pioneer spirit as well as his desperate yearning for the children he left behind. Nolan isn’t afraid to squeeze out the pathos from the scenes in which he cries his eyes out watching video messages which 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.
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The filmmakers give a very far-fetched story an air of verisimilitude by borrowing Warren Beatty’s tactics in Reds and featuring interview footage with various old-timers (including one played by Ellen Burstyn) who reminisce about the events we are seeing as if this is a documentary.
As in Gravity, the filmmakers use the silence of space to accentuate the eeriness. Hans Zimmer’s music, heavy on organs, has a sacral 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’re dragged through black holes in space or worm holes in time.
This is a film that will provide plenty of grist for sci-fi enthusiasts. It boasts its own HAL-like computers - the very sardonic TARS and the quietly spoken CASE. There is lots of hardware, plenty of explosions and and large amounts of jargon-filled dialogue. In a cameo, Matt Damon makes one of the great screen entrances of recent times.
Interstellar, though, isn’t just a movie for the 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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