Review: Interstellar (2014)

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Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenwriters: Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Topher Grace & Elyes Gabel
Runtime: 169 min // Certificate: 12a

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vxOhd4qlnA]

As Christopher Nolan’s films have gotten ever haughtier – or, if you prefer, ever more “epic” – the narratives have increasingly gotten lost amidst the noise, the bluster and the hyperbole of each admirable but deeply-flawed story. Interstellar, the director’s ninth feature, is no different, taking this trend to its next, inevitable step. At once preposterous but predictable, ambitious but mundane, and romantic (in the traditional sense) but prosaic, Interstellar is one of those films that demands so stubbornly and earnestly to be taken seriously at every given turn that one can’t help but scoff at the sheer humourlessness of it all.

Set in a not-too-distant dystopian future, in which large swathes of the population have been wiped out by famine and blight, Interstellar tells the story of humanity’s last days on Earth. According to all measures, the current generation will be the last to survive on Earth, and so – in a desperate attempt to prevent total extinction – a small, secretive NASA installation in the middle of nowhere makes plans to relocate the survivors to a new planet, somewhere light-years away from Earth. Utilising a wormhole that has been discovered in the region orbiting Saturn, the plan is to find a habitable planet and use it to start afresh; either by relocating everybody or, if that isn’t possible, starting again from scratch with the use of already fertilised embryos.

Enter Cooper (McConaughey; Dallas Buyers Club), an astronaut who is asked by NASA’s chief scientist, Dr Brand (Caine; Children of Men) to leave his family and investigate the possibility of evacuating the Earth and relocating. With Brand’s daughter Amelia (Hathaway; Les Misérables) and two additional astronauts – Doyle (Bentley; American Beauty) and Romilly (Gyasi; Cloud Atlas) – by his side, Cooper agrees to leave; a decision that leaves his daughter Murphy (nicknamed “Murph”, and played by Mackenzie Foy – The Conjuring – as a child, and Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty – as an adult) feeling utterly betrayed. Promising to return to Earth at some point in the future, Cooper’s mission soon becomes compromised by his desire to see his family again, while each individual character is haunted by secrets of their own.

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Ok, so… where to begin? I mean, on a narrative level Interstellar is a complete shambles. Whether you admire the fact that Nolan attempts to tell stories that wouldn’t normally get a look in in modern blockbusters or not – and I do, for the record – he has absolutely no grasp whatsoever on the story he’s trying to tell. The film bounds wildly from one ludicrous notion to the next – the most noxious of these being that “love” is such a powerful force that it can transcend the laws of science – with a total absence of humour and self-deprecation. It’s like a vanity exercise gone wild, in which the two Nolan brothers – neither of whom can get a proper grip of their one-dimensional characters, never mind the four or five dimensions they try to tackle in the latter part of their film – desperately try to inject profundity and solemnity into each and every frame, resulting in something that is so unbearably smug, sullen and morbid that no amount of sarcastic interjections from a robot with more personality than all of the human characters combined can distract from the grotesque bumptiousness of the enterprise.

As a result of this, all of the vast ideas that Nolan introduces amount to absolutely nothing in the long run. I should point out at this juncture, just in case anyone accuses me of not “getting it”, that I have a lot of time for directors who try to tackle grand concepts in mainstream blockbusters, and I very much doubt anyone else could approach the building blocks of the universe in quite the same way as Nolan. Alas, his simultaneous obsession with pseudo-philosophical nonsense and his disdain for science in the latter half of his story makes for a film that is bloated to the point of sheer tedium. Nolan massively overstretches himself as he attempts to inject emotions and humanity into a film that is so bogged down in poorly-conceived ideas and barely-sketched social commentary that he forgets about the very characters who are supposed to represent said humanity. Indeed, when it comes down to the fundamental battle between mankind and nature that defines most of the film Nolan cops out and introduces a tangible human threat that makes no narrative sense whatsoever, thus sending the plot careering quite literally beyond the point of no return.

The problem, at least for me, is that there’s a decent film in here somewhere, but it’s been crushed beyond recognition by the sheer weight of a runtime that simply cannot be justified. The film is so laden with exposition (as this excellent article rightly says, Nolan is a storyteller who “worships at the altar of exposition”) that far from being intelligent or thought-provoking, it actually descends into the realms of mind-numbing, as each predictable twist in the plot is explained to us in the most mundane, wearisome terms. As such the characters aren’t people inasmuch as they are vessels through which the minutiae of the plot can be expounded and clarified. This wouldn’t be a huge issue if the film didn’t go on and on and on in the same aimless vein for almost three hours, with little actual focus or direction.

Perhaps if there was something interesting going on beneath the surface, and perhaps if the film didn’t drag on for what feels like an eternity, then maybe – just maybe – this lack of characterisation wouldn’t be a fatal flaw. Alas, this is a film that is nowhere near as clever as Nolan seems to think it is (the conclusion is so ludicrous that even though I actually managed to figure the “twist” out within the first ten minutes, I then dismissed my theory as being much too daft and lazy…) and as such we spend 169 minutes watching the cinematic equivalent of a group of otiose people masturbating unsatisfactorily without ever reaching anything resembling a climax. As a result, any goodwill that one might have for what Nolan is at least trying to achieve is expended long before the characters ever reach the wormhole that catapults them across the universe and up their own collective backsides.

Now, before I’m accused of hating on Nolan because it’s “cool” or because I want to be “alternative” or a “hipster”, I should point out that I don’t actually hate Interstellar, I just find it bitterly unfulfilling and drab. Audiences seem to be divided at the moment, between those who think Nolan can do no wrong and those who think he is an overrated hack. To me, both of these viewpoints widely miss the mark. When Nolan is at his best, as he was in Memento and Batman Begins, he’s a phenomenally engaging director. Like Tarantino however, he has let his ambition run away with him a little too much. He lacks an innate editing mechanism and as such his more recent films feel cluttered and unfocussed. Defend him all you like but The Dark Knight Rises is a total clusterfuck, and Interstellar isn’t much better. Nolan approaches his material like an overexcited child; everything gets thrown into the mix, and while the final meal is often flavoursome and unique, it’s also unsophisticated and stodgy. There’s too much happening, and Nolan can’t quite seem to keep a firm hold of any of it.

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Furthermore, unlike Nolan’s best work – which is cynical to the point of unflinching pessimism – Interstellar is unbearably saturated and bland. The characters talk like literature professors who’ve lost their passion for their subject (Caine’s character makes a point of quoting Dylan Thomas every five minutes, just to ensure we don’t forget how “2deep4u” it all is) while the plot becomes bogged down in trite platitudes about love and family. There’s a stark contradiction at the heart of the film – between the enigmatic and indescribable wonders of the wider universe, and the harsh realities of the fleeting human condition – that Nolan doesn’t even attempt to address in any meaningful way. To me, that is Interstellar’s greatest fault. There are a wealth of intriguing ideas that the film could’ve explored, but it instead descends into a treatise on the power of love at the expense of all else.

Are there positives? Sure; the performances are, for the most part, decent (though not spectacular), even though the stars themselves have very little to work with, and the film itself is as splendorous as it is possible to be. As a visual spectacle, Interstellar presses all the right buttons, and though the character work leaves a lot to be desired, it’s difficult not to become engrossed in the sheer majesty of what Nolan has created on the screen. Like Gravity, the film is often awe-inspiring, and a number of the action sequences are simply spellbinding. I defy anyone to sit through certain scenes, particularly in the latter part of the film, without being completely blown away by Nolan’s enviable eye for the epic. Unlike Gravity, however, it demands your attention for 169 laborious minutes, and no amount of cinematic marvelousness can keep a barren, lifeless film alive for that long, no matter how much interminable, pseudo-philosophical pap it throws at you to try and paper over the all-consuming black holes in the story.

Interstellar isn’t a bad film by any means. Alas, it also isn’t a particularly enjoyable or thoughtful one either. There’s no excuse for a film with such a limp plot and such poorly-fleshed characters to drag on for anywhere near as long as this does, and while I appreciate Nolan’s attempts to do something a bit different and inject his film with an aesthetic that has become lost in the age of the comic-book movie’s stranglehold on mainstream cinema, I think the absolute best I can say about Interstellar is that it is an admirable failure. Fans of Nolan’s earlier work might be disappointed by the film’s weak narrative, while those who have always disliked the man’s work will have many of their prejudices about his weaknesses confirmed. Personally, I’m somewhat indifferent to Nolan; to me he’s always been a great director but a repetitive and somewhat lazy storyteller. This film epitomises that belief.

★★

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