Interstellar opens on an Earth that’s struggling to sustain itself. Frequent blights on crops and seemingly never-ending dust-storms force humanity to eke out an existence as career farmers. One such farmer, Cooper (McConaughey), a former engineer (and NASA test-pilot) is called up for a dangerous mission beyond our solar system to seek out out a new home for the human race.
(A heads-up: There’s some discussion of the later moments of Interstellar in this review, if you wanna go in fresh save it for later.)
In choosing to embark on this interstellar journey Cooper must leave behind his teenage son, Tom, and young daughter (and protege) Murphy. The scripting and direction in the film’s early sequences is refreshingly economical for a Christopher Nolan film and avoids the director’s usual pitfalls. There’s none of Inception’s repetitive talking-head exposition or the Batman trilogy’s insistence on front-loading halfhearted action sequences.
I was pleasantly surprised by the pace at which the film moved in its early stages. I was expecting to spend a long portion of its running-time on Earth explaining away the particulars of interstellar travel and Cooper’s mission, thankfully, we’re rocketing off on a space quest before the hour-mark.
And it’s the “getting there” that’s the fun of Interstellar’s cosmic journey. We’re shown, in detail, the exterior workings of the film’s spacecraft, The Endurance. It’s striking, the way the film shows off the intricacies of space travel; doodads decoupling, space things spinning and thingamabobs moving about up-close and in fetishistic detail lend a weight and plausibility to the proceedings.
The Endurance’s exterior is an incredibly detailed model, something that is a credit to the production – we get a feeling for the physicality of the craft as it ventures forth, an aspect that would be lost with a computer-generated model.
Instead what remains a question to us is the ‘big’ picture. The Endurance is almost exclusively shot as a series of moving parts and rarely as a coherent whole
There are few instances of panning from left-to-right as The Endurance makes its way across the frame. Nolan eschews much of the familiar cinematic language of space travel in favour of a ‘hit and run’ style of photography; typical of the director’s approach to filmed action, cosmic or otherwise.
For me, Interstellar was at its best when it was star trekking, Hans Zimmer’s score is all progressive rock organs and synthesizers – it’s very spacey – and at times, so loud that it drowns out the dialogue. This quirk might have been a goof on the part of the cinema, but it was effective at underscoring the sense of wonder when viewing the film’s lavish CG models of planets and stars.
Unfortunately for Interstellar (and us) the film isn’t all about cruising through space listening to Moog noodling. For Nolan the journey is not as important as the destination.
But what wonders lie beyond the wormhole?
Well, nothing that’s too unfamiliar actually. Like Inception before it Interstellar fails to make good on its ‘big’ premise. We’re shown two planet surfaces in the film one of which is made up entirely of salt water and massive waves. On the first planet time passes at a far quicker rate than on the spaceship. Every minute on sea-planet counts as seven of our human years. That’s about as far-out as these unimaginable worlds get.
Similarly, the second planet the crew visits – a glacial tundra – is far from alien (in fact it’s Iceland!) For me, colour-grading and matte paintings were not enough to shake the nagging sense of familiarity that these distant worlds stirred up. Like Inception’s banal dreamscapes before them the planets in Interstellar failed to transport me to somewhere unimaginable.
It’s a shame that the planets present little in the way of interest for the viewer. They serve as spaces for action, which Nolan brushes-off in his usual fashion. By the close of the film I felt as if these sequences got in the way of the most interesting aspect of the picture, family melodrama.
Cooper’s decision to leave his family and the earth behind, and the interstellar journey that comes with that decision compliment one another well enough. The warmth of family life is set against the sense of loss and foreboding that comes with space exploration. As Cooper travels further and further away from Earth he does so in years as well as distance, it’s a conceit that affected me, I felt for these characters and wanted to get back to them as badly as Cooper did.
The planetary exploration sequences ultimately feel like padding, taking us away from the melodramatic elements of the picture. They also sit in contrast to the last act of the film which results in a general sense of disjointedness. Interstellar isn’t light on ideas, but its kitchen sink approach undoes a lot of the first act’s strong groundwork.
Interstellar impressed me initially as it seemed to avoid a number of Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking shortcomings. However, as the film progressed it became clearer and clearer still that what I was watching was the science-fiction film equivalent of a peanut butter M&M; hard and promising on the surface but soft, gooey and nuts on the inside. It’s a feast for the eyes, but not for the mind.