To Boldly Go Where Nolan Has Gone Before: Interstellar Reviewed

James Ubaghs reviews Chris Nolan's space travel epic

It’s long been slim-pickings for fans of quality, big-budget serious sci-fi. There are exceptions now and again; Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake, two thirds of Sunshine, last year’s Gravity if you want to count it, and a handful of others come to mind. But for the most part contemporary Hollywood science fiction is trapped in a mould of established properties, bloodless apocalypses, and wafer thin space operas.

Christopher Nolan takes a stab at the long neglected hard sci-fi genre with the utterly massive- in every sense of the term- Interstellar. There are flaws and plot holes to be nitpicked, and Nolan’s ticks and methods are becoming a little too predictable, but at the end of the day it’s hard not to commend his ability to somehow wrangle the 200 million dollars needed to make a bombastic blockbuster about relativistic space travel.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a former NASA pilot now living as a farmer with his precocious young daughter Murph and teenage son Tom (he also has a dead wife, because of course). Their near future Earth is slowly but sedately crumbling away. Past conflicts, other hinted at disasters, and the devastating effects of a crop parasite, have all led to a folksy vaguely Idiocracy like society, that largely shuns science and progress, in order to focus on growing enough of the food needed for bare survival.

Strange phenomenons at the Cooper farm eventually lead him to the remnants of NASA, now operating in secret, as future taxpayers won’t stand none for this high-falutin science-y crap. There Cooper meets with Michael Caine’s Dr. Brand, who informs him that the Earth is dying and the only way to save humanity is to find a new habitable planet. Thankfully a wormhole connecting to another galaxy- one filled with potentially habitable worlds- has recently appeared around Saturn.

Cooper is recruited, along with Anne Hathaway who plays Brand’s daughter, and a few other astronauts to travel though the wormhole on a last ditch mission to find a new home for humanity. Due to the effects of relativity, time dilation will occur for the astronauts; time will flow much slower for them in space, while years and decades pass on Earth. Cooper more or less has to choose between abandoning his family and saving the human race.

Interstellar is Nolan’s attempt to address his not unfounded reputation for chilliness, and the Cooper, Murph relationship is the gushy heart of this surprisingly sappy film. Spielberg is an obvious point of comparison for what Interstellar is attempting- and indeed it was originally a Spielberg project- but a closer fit would be an on form James Cameron. This is big muscular spectacle, that awkwardly and loudly splices in treacly sentimentality that doesn’t entirely feel human. It’s crudely but broadly effective. If you’re the sort to get weepy eyed at the paternal relationship formed between an Austrian cybernetic killing machine and a pre-teen boy, then Interstellar will play just fine for you.

The weepiness is a change of pace, but other issues are well in line with Nolan’s last few ginormous films; primarily an over reliance on verbal exposition. Concepts are explained, and explained again, and then explained once more for good measure. Trained astronauts probably shouldn’t have to clarify these concepts to each other once they’re in deep space, but still, it’s less tedious than it was in Inception. Having astrophysics over-explained to you is far more bearable than having the arbitrary rules of a mundane dream world constantly drilled into your noggin.

The dialogue does get awkward at times, and Hathaway in particular is burdened with some pungently over ripe – and thematically key- monologues, but the high calibre cast more or less gets away with it. McConaughey does fantastic work in conveying the longing, and emotion that Interstellar is so eager to convey. Indeed it’s hard to imagine it working with a chillier Bale or Dicaprio in the lead role.

It somehow works for all its clunkiness. 2001: A Space Odyssey is an obvious influence on the film, but Kubrick’s masterpiece was a genius bit of cinema, that managed to convey ambiguous mountains of info with an absolute minimum of dialogue and exposition. Interstellar instead is closer to the 1950’s literary golden age sci-fi that inspired Kubrick’s film; pulpy novels of minimal characterization, and blunt technique, that served as frameworks for exploring heady concepts, and themes centred around the supremacy of scientific progress.

There’s lots here to love for sci-fi fans; super massive black holes, sardonic Asimovian robots, and mind-bending distances in space and time masterfully conveyed. Visually it’s gorgeous, Nolan’s best looking film to date, and his commitment to practical effects leads the spacecraft and alien worlds a pleasing sense of physicality. The organ heavy Hanz Zimmer score bombastically underlines the somewhat silly but compelling operatic grandeur of it all.

At times it feels like watching a grim and more technologically plausible episode of Star Trek. Collected professional space explorers debate philosophy, and science, and engage in problem solving, and quote classic literature, in this case Dylan Thomas. Of course it all gets a bit preposterous, but that’s half the fun, and it somehow manages to thread the needle between its detailed geekery, and its crowd pleasing father-daughter mushiness.

Nolan makes too-big-to-fail “ideas” cinema. His films are massive blockbusters that are smarter than average, but that’s all relative once you’re aiming to rake in a billion dollars. See Interstellar on the biggest screen possible, and enjoy it for what it is; a slick 200 million dollar slab of spectacle about relativistic space travel, shot on film, and filled with practical effects. It’s goofy self-serious fun, that doesn’t merit all the tedious on-line discussion its sure to generate, but that still makes it the best big budget sci-fi film in years.

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