Director Christopher Nolan's latest opus follows in the reality-bending footsteps of Inception, his previous sci-fi head-scratcher, only this time he's exploring outer (rather than inner) space with Interstellar. Set in an unspecified future time period, the Earth is gradually succumbing to a creeping and incurable blight which is killing essential crops and poisoning the atmosphere. Humanity is slowly but inexorably heading for extinction, a prospect not lost on Cooper, a former NASA test pilot who's had to become a farmer (much like everybody else) in order to keep the dwindling sources of food alive, for the sake of his two kids as much as the planet itself.
Mankind's thirst for knowledge and inspiration has been whittled down by the blight as much as any crop has; the US Federal intelligentsia has decreed that the Apollo Moon Landings were faked in order to stop people from dreaming about the stars and to make sure that they concentrate on real world problems. But when Cooper's young daughter Murphy discovers a series of strange gravitational anomalies they reveal the co-ordinates of a remote location, which the inquisitive Cooper can't resist investigating and he stumbles upon Earth's last hope: the Endurance mission. Having operated in secret for years, a hidden NASA operation sent out teams a decade ago to search for a new world to colonise, and the Endurance is tasked with following up on the leads from the prior project. Cooper is drafted on the spot as the mission's pilot, and he reluctantly leaves his family behind to lead his team into the abyss to find the salvation of the human race.
Interstellar is another in a long line of Nolan's famous cinematic misdirections. None have been as overtly tricksy as the magnificent Memento, yet he's made it his business to deliver $200-million-dollar sleights of hand. Where we'd been led to expect another grand space odyssey in the best traditions of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, Nolan has instead crafted a very human tale that comes as something of a contrast to the antiseptic emotional environs of Kubrick's 1968 classic. The comparisons are apt enough from a visual and aural perspective, as Nolan paints centrifugal ships cartwheeling soundlessly through space and the robot helpers are decidedly monolithic in design. And Hans Zimmer's sepulcral score - ever a measure of simplicity, presenting what few motifs it has with immense pipe-organ notes - often evokes a few bars of Ligeti's Requiem and Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra which only underlines how important 2001 is to Nolan's aesthetic, right down to the emergency instructions visible on a headrest which recalls the now-legendary 'space toilet' instructions that Kubrick insisted upon for his movie.
But that's not to say that Interstellar is some sort of rebooted 2001 for the 21st century, because for all of the superficial similarities Nolan's film has a different viewpoint on how mankind will ascend to the stars, looking beyond rational humanist goals and concentrating on the unbreakable bonds of family. It looks at the lengths that parents will go to to protect their children; in some cases they shield us from the uncomfortable truth, while others confront reality head-on even to the detriment of their immediate relationship. For all of Interstellar's galactic sweep and eye-popping IMAX grandeur, it shares some of Contact's cinematic DNA and posits that the further that we travel into the heavens the stronger our faith & love for each other will become.
Interstellar effectively conveys the underlying themes and ideals of the story (whether one responds to them or not is a different question entirely), but my issues with the film lie more with the nuts and bolts of the storytelling itself. Nolan has a predilection for telegraphing his big reveals much too early and this was no exception, not only with the source of the gravitational anomalies in Murphy's room but also the broader resolution of the entire narrative. And while Nolan loves to come up with these big ideas, all too often he breaks them down into the simplest possible terms which makes them feel mundane and matter-of-fact, as if travelling through wormholes in space/time were an everyday occurrence. One supposes this is necessary to acclimatise the average audience member to such concepts, but even though I'm no rocket scientist I still felt like I was experiencing 'Black Holes for Dummies' at one point. Thankfully the movie isn't a constant ream of explanations because this premise is inherently more familiar to cinemagoers than the dream-heist hook of Inception, which required so much in the way of exposition it became a distraction.
It's also slightly unfortunate that the most charming and entertaining characters in the film are the sentient robots TARS and CASE rather than the humans themselves. Don't get me wrong, the flesh-and-blood cast members do their jobs competently but their characters are so stoic and stubborn that it's hard to truly empathise with them - but I'll concede that perhaps there's not much room for levity when the fate of the planet is in your hands. Matthew McConaughey is on form as the idealistic Cooper, while Anne Hathaway's is curiously subdued as Brand, the mission biologist. Wes Bentley is the mission geographer and David Gyasi is the mission physicist, and neither make enough of an impact to warrant talking about further. Sir Michael Caine is on hand as Professor Brand, father of Hathaway's character and director of NASA, his paternal presence in keeping with all of his other appearances in the Nolanverse. Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck get smaller roles as Cooper's grown-up children.
Still, for all of the storytelling kinks it's easy enough to get swept up in the majesty of Nolan's visuals, which was one of his main goals with this film unlike his more plot-driven Dark Knight trilogy. His commitment to a practical, hands-on style of moviemaking invariably results in a film that is full of tangible details instead of ones and zeroes masquerading as real life, presented in such pin-sharp quality on the 15/70 IMAX version that it's truly a sight to behold. The audio plays its part too, with the scenes in Murphy's bedroom underpinned by an uncomfortably deep, resonating bass note, and where we're conditioned to expect swooshes and bangs and crashes in the exterior space shots there's only silence, which makes the stark beauty of those images even more apparent.
In summary, Interstellar is a beautifully presented grab-bag of familiar cinematic devices & themes, ranging from the Spielbergian trope of the fragmented family unit to Carl Sagan's humanist ideals for the future of mankind, all filtered through the prism of Kubrick's unerring technical precision. Ultimately it never quite finds its own voice and it doesn't transcend its component parts to become something greater, getting bogged down with the process of explaining all this stuff to the audience via some rather dour characters - but it's still worth seeing on the biggest, loudest screen that you can find, just to take in the sheer scale of it all. Nolan's reach has exceeded his grasp on this occasion, yet even his misfires are more emotionally involving and thought-provoking than most of the big-budget action extravaganzas served up by Hollywood today.