Christopher Nolan has become quite a polarising and controversial filmmaker in the past six years of his career. It is interesting to see how his work is scrutinised and discussed to no end – both in real life and cyberspace. With each new title coming out, both fans and detractors arm themselves with same old arguments before moving into battle, which can be curiously described with Joker’s “immovable object vs. unstoppable force” speech from The Dark Knight. Powered with actual physics research and ambition exceeding both Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar is almost certain to divide audiences even further.
In this science fiction epic, the Earth is plagued by global natural disasters that affect crops and drastically reduce number of food to sustain the population. As a result, once gadget-hungry, war-mongering society turns back to its agricultural roots of “caretakers” and largely abandons technological progress. Matthew McConaughey plays a former NASA pilot who now lives on a farm and shares his passion for everything scientific with his bright daughter Murph. Eventually, Cooper comes back to his initial profession and, in quite unlikely circumstances, becomes a spacecraft pilot in a bold mission to save human race from extinction. This dangerous plan, which involves travelling through a recently formed wormhole, sends group of scientist to leave our solar system in a search of new home. Yet, Cooper never can quite forgive himself for leaving his family behind and this paternal guilt will become a crucial element in this quest.
Science fiction is a difficult genre to portray. There’s a fine balance between wonder and plausibility that almost every director needs to walk in order to create a convincing but entertaining cinema. One of Interstellar’s biggest disadvantages is, ironically, its size and scope. For the film of this budget and ambition ($165 million), it is impossible to create a fully intellectual visual experience. Instead, this interesting concept is aided by heavy dialogue-driven exposition to guide general audience through this project. While one can agree this addition might be sometimes dry and even clunky, this element is nevertheless a necessary to secure financing and, yes, box office returns.
The film finds it biggest asset in the very presence of Matthew McCounaghey. His Cooper is the warmest and most sympathetic character yet to appear in a Christopher Nolan film. He manages to navigate a calculated script and inject it with necessary humanity and genuine emotion. The connection he forms with his daughter is a strong and enduring one and that’s also thanks to both Jessica Chastain and young Mackenzie Foy (as well as Ellen Burstyn) who play the part at different points in time. Anne Hathaway moves even farther from her romantic comedy persona with a role of biologist Amelia Brand. While largely a secondary character, she is nevertheless burdened with the task to sell one of the tougher concepts of this film. As usual, the cast is very impressive; the director manages to recruit many bigger names to fill in smaller parts (including the ever-reliable Michael Caine). All of that helps to create a truly epic scope to this story.
Nolan, true to his own sensibilities, never allows his film to be too visually showy. While there are plenty of nods to Kubrick and other great artists of cinema, he chooses to retain his own controlled documentarian style. He puts the camera in seemingly neutral places and often doesn’t show off clichéd money shots for their own sake, in a way some other directors probably would. There are no balletic images of travelling space ships, nor elaborate kinetic action setpieces that the audience were treated to last year with Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Instead, a lot of the time is focused on portraying the mundane and every-day nature of space exploration routines. This dry approach will almost certainly not appeal to viewers expecting a more visually extrovert film. It will, however, enhance the sense of verisimilitude, especially after repeat viewings.
On top of that, there’s something terribly mechanic about the way Nolan constructs his projects. The director seems to be obsessed with dense screenwriting and rigorous structures that guide his narratives in a steady rhythm of dry expository dialogue and steadily increasing editorial pacing (often enhanced by overwhelming sound design). It can be quite a bullying experience for audiences used to more conventional breezy storytelling of classic Hollywood. As a result, his films can often boggle minds with their overwhelming flow of information. And it has very little to do with the message being too complex or elusive. In fact, he might be the only mainstream filmmaker whose films are much more enjoyable once we know the ending and Interstellar might be the best example yet in that respect. Packed with jargon and quantum physics theories, this 3-hour epic might alienate mass audience to an even greater degree than his notorious, but decidedly easier to swallow, Inception.
The biggest gamble the director is taking with Interstellar, however, is ironically the human element. His hard science-fiction approach will certainly impress cinéphiles as well as s-f fans. The loving relationship of Cooper and Murph and its transcendental meaning might push it slightly too far for some people. And yet, even quantum physicists are ready to agree that once you reach a certain threshold in pursuit of knowledge, the lines between empirical science and metaphysics become blurred and hard to define. After all, experts in both those fields seem to agree on the very conclusion that everything started with some sort of “primal information”. In this light, the supposed sentimentality Christopher Nolan is succumbing to is less about cheapening the concept and more about finding this missing but crucial divine ingredient.
This very emotional component is further enhanced by surprisingly tender and thoughtful score from Hans Zimmer. Gone are the propulsive ostinati of The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, the plague that spread over all of film music in the past decade. Instead, the composer employs church organ and gentle string sections (with occasional woodwinds) to paint his epic but intimate fresco. What’s additionally surprising is that Nolan decided to give his story some breathing space and there are large chunks of film with no music at all which is quite a departure.
As with two Batman films, a large chunk was filmed employing IMAX cameras and Interstellar marks the first time in history they were used to capture handheld footage. Quite a feat for Dutch/Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, given how heavy these things are. Special effects are absolutely first rate - every trick in the book was employed (with some new ones) to convince the audience of their absence. It is all helped by the fact CG imagery is largely used to compliment mechanical techniques, not to steal the show.
Ultimately, Interstellar is somewhat stuck between two worlds: the true hard SF and crowd-pleasing blockbuster. As usual, Christopher Nolan ventures into some interesting territory but also feels the inevitable urge to still hold audience’s hand. And while there is some impressive imagery conjured for this film, there is no fast-paced action to distract from its grand ambition. It will be interesting to see if the general audience is ready to accept a three-hour slow moving epic that really requires one to pay attention and what sort of place will it ultimately take in the pantheon of this genre. In any case, it’s certainly worth watching on the grandest screen imaginable. And perhaps more than once.
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