“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” – Robert Browning
Robert Browning’s phrase is one that plays an integral role in Christopher Nolan’s atmospheric 2006 thriller The Prestige. It’s also a saying that’s applicable to the filmmaker’s career to date. Starting with Memento, his breakthrough film in 2000, every film the British-born filmmaker has directed has been more ambitious than the one preceding it. Interstellar, Nolan’s eighth film, is without doubt, his most ambitious yet. It’s a science fiction epic that explores the very nature of gravity, time and the cosmos, an emotional story about the relationship between a father and a daughter, a giant special effects extravaganza, and a big step forward in big budget filmmaking. It might just be the most ambitious Hollywood blockbuster ever made—a bold and exhilarating epic whose sweeping scope is driven by Nolan’s singular vision.
But Interstellar might also be the first instance in Nolan’s career where his reach truly exceeds his grasp. For all its strengths, this is also a film whose storytelling flaws are easily pinpointed. Because of this, I suspect that it’s destined to be the film people will remember years from now as the one in which Nolan reached for the stars and fell short.
Interstellar is set sometime in the near future on a dying Earth rife with droughts and horrendous dust storms. Almost every major crop on Earth has disappeared, save for corn and okra. Because of this, farming has once again become the primary occupation of humanity. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is one of these corn farmers. Back in the day, when mankind looked towards the stars instead of the dirt, Cooper used to be an engineer and pilot for NASA, training for missions. But after the Earth’s atmosphere become inhospitable, the government disbanded NASA and all other expensive scientific programs to focus on farming, Cooper moved to the farmlands with son Tom (Timothee Chalamet, Casey Affleck) and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain).
A chance meeting with an old scientist friend named Brand (Nolan staple Michael Caine) leads to a revelation that NASA is prepping for a last ditch mission to save mankind. A wormhole has been discovered outside the rings of Saturn. This wormhole could lead to another galaxy with planets that could potentially sustain human life. “Mankind was born on Earth. It wasn’t meant to die here,” says Brand when persuading Cooper to pilot the mission.
Because of the laws of time in different worlds, Cooper knows that going on the mission could mean years, even decades away from his kids. He’s difficult to persuade at first but the fate of humanity is too big a cause to risk. Reluctantly, he embarks on the mission alongside Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), scientific officer Romilly (David Gyassi), mission leader Doyle (Wes Bentley), and two sassy robots named TARS and CASE.
Nolan has explicitly stated during and prior to the making of Interstellar that Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey has been one of the defining influences on his career. Like 2001, Interstellar features sequences of such grandeur and majestic beauty that the experience can be overwhelming. Scenes of the crew’s spaceship, the Endurance, travelling by the rings of Saturn, through a wormhole, into the atmosphere of a planet with solid ice clouds, or another with waves as tall as mountains, are nothing short of staggering. Along with rising star cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nolan has crafted one of the most aesthetically pleasing films ever made. This is all the more impressive when you consider that the majority of the film was shot on film using practical effects as opposed to CGI. Hans Zimmer’s gorgeous score, his best in some time, accentuates this effect. Yes, there are moments where Zimmer succumbs to his bombastic tendencies but for the most part, this is a very different type of Zimmer score—melodic and even pensive. And although Interstellar isn’t heavy on action sequences compared to Nolan’s Batman trilogy or Inception, the four or five set pieces we get are studies of how to stage tension and suspense.
The big problems of Interstellar start with its script, written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. Though the picture runs a lengthy 164 minutes, it still feels rushed, with many characters barely developed—some simply serving as exposition deliverers. This is especially evident during a sequence where three scientists have a lengthy debate about the dynamics between time and gravity. A lot of this went over my head and I suspect will go over the heads of anyone without a degree or extreme interest in Theoretical Astrophysics.
The majority of Interstellar may concentrate on the space mission but this is intercut with scenes of adult Murph (Chastain) and Tom (Affleck) as they struggle to survive on a dust-covered Earth. While these sequences serve to emphasize the passage of time on Earth, they also mar the film’s narrative propulsion. This isn’t as problematic as the direction the film takes during its final act—something I will not reveal here. Let’s just say the contrivances and implausibility of this act requires such a massive leap of faith from its audience that I suspect this is what will drive half of the film’s audience off a figurative cliff. It’s what I struggled with initially and what I still struggle with.
In spite of these problems, the emotional core of Interstellar is its chief strength and at the center of that core is McConaughey. The recently-minted Academy Award winner appears in nearly every scene of this massive movie and he holds it all together so gracefully and with such presence that I’m tempted to rank this performance higher than his Oscar-winning work in Dallas Buyers Club. A scene where he breaks down while watching a video of his children growing up in his absence is devastating.
With its copious expository dialogue, thin characters, convoluted plotting, science babble and lack of action scenes, Interstellar is bound to be a frustrating experience for anyone with a short patience or those more attuned to Marvel’s brand of processed and comfort food. But it’ll also have them filled with wonder and in awe of its sheer scale and dazzling set pieces. To reiterate a point I made earlier, Interstellar is destined to be the film many people will regard as the one in which Nolan reached for the stars and missed. Whether this will be its lasting legacy or not, only time will tell. It’s a tough miss but I’m glad a film like this exists. I’m glad there’s a filmmaker like Nolan in Hollywood, a filmmaker who works within the confines of the studio system and uses his power to make movies that push the boundaries of blockbuster filmmaking.
Even with its gross imperfections, and corny “love conquers all” moments, Interstellar is 10 times more interesting and intellectually stimulating than the last 10 Marvel blockbusters put together, no matter how enjoyable they are. This is an extremely rare type of film—one that frustrated me but simultaneously compelled me to want to see it again. Whatever you do, experience it on the largest possible screen.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck
Producer: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Lynda Obst
Running time: 169 minutes
Companies: Paramount Pictures
Rating: PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language.