The future: it’s going to be pretty darn bleak. That’s according to the movies, anyway, with almost every new sci-fi release evoking terrors with some grim vision of our planet ravaged by environmental disaster and our teens locked-up in ridiculously elaborate prisons to fight for our entertainment.
Clearly, Christopher Nolan didn’t get the memo. “We’re explorers, not caretakers,” frustrated pilot Cooper bemoans in Interstellar, Nolan’s latest sci-fi epic, a line which speaks of the director’s desire to put the optimism back into space-travel and get us all dreaming of the stars again. The result? A gripping and grandly ambitious adventure that is ultimately undermined by its own sentiment.
Inspired by the work of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, the film takes place in a dust bowl future where Earth is starved of resources and humans are drawing perilously close to extinction. A depleted population regresses to an agrarian society in the hope of improving sustainability enough to allow their descendants to survive; meanwhile, any aspiration to explore the universe has been long forgotten with schools now teaching the Apollo missions as a faked ploy to bankrupt the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
One man struggling to accept this restricted world view is Cooper (McConaughey), a former pilot turned corn farmer whose thirst for scientific inquiry has been passed on to his ten-year-old daughter, “Murph”. Following the directions of a possibly-supernatural gravitational anomaly, Cooper happens across a secret NASA base where his former mentor persuades him to lead a risky mission using wormholes to search for a habitable world that may save the human race.
This first hour trapped on a dying planet is slightly too clunky and contemplative as Nolan endeavours to give Cooper’s relationship with his family a firm grounding. But just as our interest starts to wane, our intrepid explorers finally burst free of Earth’s orbit, opening our eyes to the sheer wondrous scope of Nolan’s vision.
Shot in a pleasingly lo-fi style with emphasis on real-world locations (Iceland once again providing an excellent substitute for uninviting environments) Nolan has created some impressively inventive and immersive alien landscapes and interplanetary vistas that prove to be more than a match for the much-vaunted world-building work of Alfonso Cuarón and James Cameron.
We already knew Nolan could deliver viscerally gripping action on an unprecedented scale and the director re-affirms that status here, drawing the audience into the crew’s (which includes Anne Hathaway’s uptight scientist) plight as they encounter a string of tautly-executed obstacles on their mission.
For all the astounding visuals, though, this is a film about fathers and their daughters. Nolan’s previous work has often been derided as emotionless, but that’s not an accusation that can be thrown at his latest effort.
It evidently helps that he can rely on two powerfully down-to-earth performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain who lend a touching credibility to a heart-breaking relationship torn apart by NASA’s grand mission. This strong emotional core is often the film’s biggest asset and its highlight is a crushing scene in which the extreme time delay between his and Murph’s worlds forces Cooper to watch his children grow-up in an instant. It’s subtle and incredibly affecting, and comes in stark contrast to Hans Zimmer’s overbearing score that frequently blasts all of the drama out of a scene.
Yet, it’s a consequence of this sentimental tone that threatens to suck the film into a narrative black hole. In attempting to root the action in scientific fact, Nolan loads the dialogue with clunky exposition that regularly slows the pace; but after trying so hard to make Thorne’s theories on wormholes and space-time accessible he eventually undermines the science by constructing a plot that hinges on supernatural fantasy.
This is particularly evident towards the tail-end of a stretched 168 minute running time, when an exhilarating space race veers into high-concept nonsense that sits uncomfortably with the rest of the film. Nolan speculates on the creation of new dimensions and possible existence of higher-beings in a bid to provide an uplifting denouement, but it leaves only a bitter aftertaste.
But if you can force down the wild results of Nolan’s imagination there’s a lot to admire about Interstellar. The film is bursting with an unimpeachable ambition to be the ultimate sci-fi epic, and while it can sometimes test audience’s nerves with its awkward execution and sprawling vision, the convincing performances and resilient heart keep our eyes rooted to the screens and our dreams floating among the stars.
Run time: 168 mins; Genre: Sci-fi; Released: 7 November 2014;
Director: Christopher Nolan; Screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan;
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine
Click here to watch the trailer for Interstellar