Nolan’s latest effort is visual spectacle with a more than capable cast yet Interstellar falls short of the mark of a masterpiece. An ambitious attempt that could have been much better with some changes to the story. (8/10)
Storytellers often assert that there is no such thing as a new story; every tale has been told and what we consider ‘new’ or ‘original’ is simply a reimagining of older forms, an amalgamation of elements borrowed from a variety of sources. Depending on your perspective then, Interstellar is either a brand new type of cinematic project or a very old one. The first science fiction tales did not concern the galaxy spanning empires or the death of entire galaxies – they focused on simple, character driven stories and the characters’ successes and failures were every bit as important to the story being told as the fate of the universe. If that sounds familiar, then you’ve successfully recognized that Interstellar is a modern day return to the roots of the science fiction genre but with a few clever innovations; there is a grandeur to the film’s scope, spanning a century and several galaxies, yet at the same time, the camera is very firmly trained on the individuals. This duality often leads to some confusion in understanding how the movie wants to be perceived but Nolan seems partially aware of these conflicts and for the most part, navigates them carefully. Unfortunately, for both him and the project, he is unable to reconcile the fundamental divide between the film’s two sub-genres at the points in the story where that reconciliation would have been most valuable.
The idea behind an emotionally charged sci-fi project is refreshing in itself, a welcome change from the more action centred science-fiction blockbusters most of us are accustomed to. As a genre, science fiction has a reputation for poor pacing and for spending too much time in establishing its settings and exploring its themes at the expense of good character development. Nolan’s dual focus solves some of those issues but introduces new ones – it feels like there are two competing sources of dramatic tension in the movie: Cooper’s emotional conflict centring on his desire to return home as soon as he can and the ticking time bomb that is Earth. At some stage in the movie, the competition between the two comes to a head and the audience will be almost forced into choosing what they care more about – are we lamenting Earth’s imminent destruction because our planet will be dead or because it means that Cooper’s quest will be doomed to failure. It feels as though Nolan wants the answer to that question to be “Both” but one gets the sense that they are instead mutually exclusive, which ends up being to the movie’s detriment. Yet, this is minor problem in the larger scheme of the movie – the real problem lies in the movie’s climax. The ‘hard’ science fiction nature of the movie almost requires that the movie’s climax be resolved in a manner fitting that genre, i.e. that it be scientifically logical (not necessarily, scientifically possible but at least scientifically plausible) yet given that the film is also largely character driven, a purely scientifically provided solution would feel cold and removed from the protagonist’s own conflicts and thus would be unsatisfactory from that perspective. It’s a difficult situation for Nolan to be in and instead of choosing one or the other, he opts for an awkward combination of the two and the end result is that the movie’s climax comes across as confused and forced and instead of being its crowning jewel, becomes its Achilles heel.
The film also disappoints its character development aspect. The character of Cooper feels bland and vanilla and the few signs of agency and life that the character demonstrates can be attributed to McConaughey’s performance more than the character itself. McConaughey adds considerable flavour to the character but it isn’t enough to keep the character interesting consistently in a class example of a story in which a lot goes on but nothing really happens from a character perspective. McConaughey’s time as Hollywood’s newest male darling is well-deserved after his performances in Dallas Buyers Club and True Detective though even his most ardent fans will admit that this isn’t his meatiest role. He carries the mantle of leading man well and a big budget feature film like this will give him exactly the kind of exposure to more mainstream audiences that his career could use. The rest of the cast too tries to do the best with the material they are given – Anne Hathaway is instantly likable as the spunky yet somewhat naïve younger Dr. Brand while Michael Caine’s role feels very much like every other role he has had in a Nolan film. The only disappointment from the cast, and this is naturally a relative term, was surprisingly from Matt Damon. A part of the trouble is that the character itself seems really strange – what kind of person turns homicidal a million miles from home? Damon tries his best to help the audience understand the mindset of a character that just seems bewilderingly antagonistic but there is only so much he can do with his limited screen time and the end result is a performance that could have been great but ended being a little bit of an anti-climax.
As a visual spectacle though, the film does not disappoint. One of the film’s greatest victories in this area is its ability to combine scientific accuracy (to some degree) with visual form that the audience can understand and Nolan’s cinematography is its hero. In film like Interstellar, it is absolutely crucial that the audience understand the scale of the endeavour, both in the sense of what the film is trying to accomplish as well as the sheer time and space the story encompasses. The cinematography consistently provides the audience with a clear, coherent view of what is happening but more importantly it capture the sense of wonder and slight disorientation at seeing visual constructs that are both larger than life and at the edge of imagination. Naturally, this aspect of it only really shines once Cooper and the crew have left Earth but from that point on, Interstellar does not miss a single opportunity to create a foreboding awe of space and new worlds, something most if not all works of science-fiction strive to accomplish. Yet, just as the cinematography is the film’s crowning glory, it is also unwittingly its downfall; these scenes of grand, almost incomprehensible worlds and space phenomenon all help to create a setting that could be conservatively called epic yet the story cannot fit the shoes that the setting provides it with. The end result is that you have a setting truly worthy of a cinematic masterpiece but the story within is disappointingly mundane both in its premise as well as in its conclusion.
Matthew McConaughey – Cooper
Mackenzie Foy – Murph
John Lithgow – Donald
Anne Hathaway – Amelia Brand
Michael Caine – Professor Brand
Jessica Chastain – Murph
Matt Damon – Dr. Mann