Christopher Nolan films come with a burden of expectation, but with Interstellar it’s a burden that is to a large extent self-imposed. This is a film presented not only as an event, but also as a tribute to the truly great science fiction films. It evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, but it’s not just a tribute. Nolan’s clear aim is to create a film that can exist as part of that pantheon. It’s a commendable goal to be sure, but it’s a damn lofty one.
A succession of devastating crop blights means that the human race is running out of food, while diminishing plant life means that oxygen is dwindling. Pilot turned farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is recruited by what’s left of NASA for one last incredible mission.
Dr Brand (Michael Caine) and his team have located a wormhole leading to another galaxy with possibly habitable worlds. One-man missions were sent through to the different planets in the system, and three responded with the green light. Brand wants Cooper to fly three scientists through the wormhole to provide conclusive proof, but will he ever be able to come back to his children?
The film gets off to a leisurely start as Nolan makes it clear that he will not be rushed through his introduction to Coop, his family (Mackenzie Foy is excellent as his daughter Murph), and the state of the world live in. It’s a compelling and plausible scenario; technology can’t help when the Earth can’t sustain us any more. McConaughey is perfect as the family man who despairs at mankind’s decision to grind through the motions in an attempt to get by.
Fittingly, Interstellar takes off when its mission does. Once the film leaves Earth, it’s jaw-dropping. Combining the realism of Gravity with the scale of 2001 and Ridley Scott’s Alien, Nolan, his effects team and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema have created an experience that is truly stunning. From frozen rocky wastes and flooded landscapes to the perception-bending wormhole, there can be no doubt that, in terms of sheer visual accomplishments, Interstellar is outstanding.
However, there are cracks in the canvas. The deliberate pace serves the film well when building to a spectacle, but less so when a plot twist is signposted a mile off. McConaughey provides an anchor for the story but he’s the only character who comes close to being fleshed out. We care about Hathaway because she works incredibly hard to make sure we do, but when the robots get more nuanced emotional moments, that’s a problem, and it goes against the film’s “love transcends space and time” message.
That syrupy message is part of the film’s problematic final third. At a certain point, the story starts regularly cutting between Cooper’s journey and Jessica Chastain’s character on Earth. As good as she is, it’s hard to shake the impression that we’ve stumbled into a different film starring her roughly twenty minutes from its end. There’s simply too much going on at this point, and it’s here that heavy-handed emotional notes, combined with the intertwining plot threads, make the final third too rocky to stick the landing despite the visuals.
There’s no denying that Interstellar is frequently awe-inspiring. See it on a big screen. See it on as big a screen as you can. We just wish that the script could have matched the 5-star ambition and style, as it doesn’t linger in the mind like Inception. It may well offer more rewards on repeat viewings, but on the first watch, Interstellar doesn’t quite reach what it’s grasping for.