A new Christopher Nolan film is always something to welcome. He’s been on quite a winning streak for a while now. And while I might prefer the original Norwegian Insomnia to his perfectly fine remake, and think that Christopher Priest’s novel of The Prestige is better than the film, I’m actually a fan.
Interstellar is a film that I’d been deliberately avoiding. There was that curious teaser trailer from a year ago, and then there have been more recent trailers, although I think I’ve only seen one, and even then I’ve only watched it once.
In general, I actually knew very little about the film’s plot. Obviously Matthew McConaughey’s character looked like he was going into space, and the film’s title suggests that it’s a bit further than Mars, but I really managed to go on knowing very little.
I don’t want to spoil anything in this review, so I just want to give fair warning that while I will be very careful revealing plot elements, I perfectly understand if you don’t want to read any further.
We’re at some indeterminate point in our future, and ex-pilot Cooper (McConaughey) is bringing up his family on his mid-western farm. He has two children, Tom and Murph. Their mother has died and he’s doing his best growing as much corn as possible because the Earth is dying – massive dust storms are killing the remaining crops. Society seems to have retracted as they put all their efforts into food production. We don’t get to see much of that society, but we must imagine that cities wouldn’t be pleasant.
But strange things are happening. Cooper daughter, Murph, seems to be seeing ghosts, he captures a drone that has lost its bearings, and his automatic combine harvesters need constant rebooting to function.
In a last ditch attempt to save the planet, a secret group of NASA scientists have been sending people through a strange wormhole near Saturn that has recently appeared. Wormholes are a theoretical way to travel inconceivable distances by taking shortcuts through space and time. The scientists believe that there may be a habitable planet in this distant galaxy. And if so, that might offer a future for the people of earth.
This is serious science fiction. Cooper is persuaded to leave his children behind and head into the unknown, piloting their last shot at finding a new home in this distant place. He will return, he promises Murph.
And to say much more would give away too much plot. But know that space and time are played with heavily. I wouldn’t like to say that the science is robust, but it’s certainly interesting. And there are definite parallels with 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Nolan deals with some familiar themes, and he cuts back and forward across galaxies seamlessly. This is a long film at 166 minutes, but it zips along. It might take a spaceship two years to reach Saturn from Earth, but we’re not going to be delayed by long shots of spaceships just flying. Indeed he’s very careful not to show us too much external detail at first. We get far more first-person shots. And the space elements are constructed to be as real as possible. Space is silent, and so are some chunks of the film. The rocket launch feels like it’s using stock footage of an Apollo mission launch.
The effects are of course wonderful. They take those we saw in Inception to another level. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is vital to the film, and it’s interesting how cues pass between scenes in a way that few other film-makers would dare. Nolan likes to work on film, and the credits proudly boast that it was shot and finished on film – although the heavy effects work mean that film would have been digitised before being output back to film. But I loved seeing the return of cue marks.
The performances are strong – particular McConaughey and Jessica Chastain’s character. Anne Hathaway’s character I found to sometimes be annoying, and I’m afraid that one speech she’s given didn’t really work – you’ll know it when you see it.
I also thought that occasionally we had slightly too much expository dialogue – including one sequence towards the end.
But this is a smart film – a bold film really. Because, like Inception, it treats its audience as intelligent.
Does it completely work? I’m not sure it does, but I really liked it regardless. The ambition is remarkable, and the scope is quite daunting. Like many Nolan films, it probably deserves another viewing too.
Well worth watching.
Note: Usually I’d link to IMDB with a film, but Interstellar’s entry is actually full of spoilers if you even look at some of the details, so I’ll avoid linking this time around.