Among the many remarkable aspects of director Christopher Nolan’s career, the fact he is one of the few filmmakers able to get original and expensive films greenlit by major studios stands out. Sure, he owes his reputation to a comic book saga (which Nolan elevated way above the source material), but the quality of his work and capacity to blend complex ideas with popcorn entertainment has kept him in business.
Now Nolan aspires to reach new heights. Sure, Inception and The Dark Knight were as good as a Hollywood product gets, but it seems our brainiest auteur has his sight set on surpassing Stanley Kubrick. Interstellar is a phenomenally ambitious film that succeeds in turning quantum mechanics and theoretical physics into narrative framings, but fumbles on the depiction of real feelings on screen. That’s ok, we have too many of those.
In the near future, climate change and unchecked population growth has severely hampered the planet’s capacity to produce food. Increasingly frequent dust clouds threaten the crops and any resemblance of a normal life. Because of the changing priorities, most minds are focused on farming. Science and technology rank low in the world’s list of concerns.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) got a raw deal. Once an elite pilot, now must grow corn and keep his kids’ aspirations in check. This proves particularly hard with his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy first, Jessica Chastain later), a brilliant girl with a knack for science.
Father and daughter find their way to NASA (turned into a clandestine organization). As it happens in movies, the agency is in dire need of someone to pilot a spaceship and take advantage of a black hole next to Saturn. Earth is dying and to find a new planet capable of sustaining life is imperative.
This is barely the opening third of Interstellar. There are a couple of twists, but most of the surprises the film has to offer come from dramatic development. The main source of conflict is Cooper and Murph’s separation. The girl is unforgiving and the pilot’s efforts to come back to Earth are thwarted at every turn.
Much of the tension comes from time slippage: the passing on time in space can be different than on Earth. The family reunion is not the only thing in peril — the entire world is likely to perish if Cooper and co. fail to find us a new home quickly.
By clocking two hours and 50 minutes, Interstellar features plenty of pluses and minuses. The shortcomings are standard Nolan: underdeveloped female characters (seriously dude, the “dead wife” plot device has to go) and excessively broad depictions of inner turmoil. But the achievements outweigh the film’s deficiencies 10 to one.
Brain candy: Unlike about 90 per cent of contemporary cinema, Christopher Nolan doesn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator. Once Interstellar hits space, ideas like relativity, gravity and fifth-dimensional space come into play (the script was inspired by the work of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne). Not only that: just like in Inception, the filmmaker does an amazing job explaining fairly complicated physics concepts before using them to move the plot forward. That alone sets this film apart.
Carl Sagan would be salivating: Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her) turn utterly abstract concepts into visuals. They don’t only create a black hole, they go inside and around it, overcoming serious practical difficulties (the gravity of black holes is such not even the light can escape them). Even more amazing is the crafting of a fifth dimension (wait, what?) Without giving much away, a scene featuring gravity as the one factor capable of piercing the time-space continuum is mind-blowing.
A foreseeable future: The science included in Interstellar is sound at every level: The likely source of our civilization’s demise, the effect of prolonged space travel in humans, and plausible developments in robotics. Yet another nod to 2001, one of the most prominent members of the Endurance crew is TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), a robot that looks like a slab of steel but acts like a Swiss knife. TARS may not be anthropomorphic (besides a snarky attitude), but has the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and environments.
The reviews of Interstellar have been mixed, but that’s because the film is being measured by the same standards as, say, an Adam Sandler movie (if this was a Paul Thomas Anderson film, everybody would be fawning.) The truth is Christopher Nolan is operating at a whole different level. Look for the biggest screen in your area and go now. Give it a couple of days and go again.
Five headless prairie dogs (their minds have been blown). Interstellar opens tonight in selected theatres, and everywhere tomorrow.