By Patrick Dane
There is something admirable about people who take on something that exceeds their grasp. More often then not, these instances don't end in total success and despite that, we still give praise for the intent. For instance, a Kicker missing a 65 yard field goal might still get clapped off the field for having the guts to have a go at it. That sentiment is largely how I've ended up feeling about Christopher Nolan's latest offering, Interstellar.
Set during the potential death throes of humanity, it's become clear that Earth isn't a long term solution for the species. Crops are failing, dust storms are affecting people's health and humans are now just the "caretakers" of the planet. This is an irksome notion to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), once a top pilot, now forced to farm and provide food for the starving species. His place in the world changes though when he receives a cryptic message and it soon becomes clear he must lead a small crew into a wormhole near Saturn to try and find a habitable planet. The problem is that due to distance and relativity, he is going to have to leave his two children behind for decades, potentially. It is an interesting set up and the whole first part of Interstellar is about legitimising Cooper's relationship with his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). There are sweet moments between the two, but the first act can feel marred by a meandering focus. The film also has to fall back on exposition and scientific theories to set up the universe, which begins to feel heavy handed during the elongated set-up.
Once off the ground though, Interstellar does finally take off, following the crew of the Endurance, (McConaughey, Anne Hatheway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi and even a comedy relief robot) as they go where no human has gone before.This is the playground where Nolan shines. Space finally gives him the vastness to show off the visual flair and scope that he's become known for. His new partnership with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema makes for an intriguing match. One that is mostly successful too, especially when the two are allowed to get imaginative with vast vistas and stunning interstellar photography. As with most Nolan films, his universe is tangible with every space ship feeling like it has mass, every landing like it has weight. This, of course, is due Nolan's devotion to practicality, which does give the film a supportive heft. Interstellar displays a directorial confidence that is rare on this scale. It feels like a singular vision and it is one that can be a joy to look at. (Even if there are some scenes where the colour balance is just a little too extreme for my tastes.)
Now, I'm going to say something that is going to sound incredibly stupid, but bear with me. This movie is not 2001: A Space Odyssey. I wouldn't usually come out and say movie x isn't movie y, but here it feels warranted. The comparison has been made plenty of times in the run up to Interstellar and it definitely isn't the first time the Nolan and Kubrick comparison have come up in the same conversation. The truth of the matter though is that Interstellar distances, rather than brings the two closer, highlighting a distinct difference in execution and intent. Interstellar is a modern blockbuster with emotionally driven character arcs at its heart, not intellectually ambiguous musings on the notion of humanity. At least, not as successful ones.
While, at times, the character motivations and the constantly changing objective of the mission make the narrative more obtuse, there is no ambiguity to the intentions of the film. There's no deep meaning that film scholars will be mincing over for the next 50 years. Everything is up on the screen for all to see, with a rather universal message about the notion of love at the core. Nolan is telling a story about these characters, focusing more on the emotional struggle of the crew of the Endurance, Cooper's family and themes that emerge from their drama. On that level, it's effective and that is totally fine! When Interstellar embraces itself as a blockbuster and allows itself to indulge in a little convention, it can be emotionally satisfying. Although, when it's trying to be intellectually resonant, which is for a significant portion, you can begin to feel as if its goal is just a little further than its reach.
Where the film does falls down quite significantly is in it's landing. It has an incredibly troublesome third act that only helps exacerbate previous problems with the narrative. As the film approaches its climax, it throws some very obscure ideas at the audience that feel contextually removed from the previous narrative through lines. The ending is 'out there' enough that it will no doubt be perceived as having extensive meaning, but in reality, it is just an 'out there' idea that borders on the realms of nonsense. There is worthwhile emotional payoff, but it is never quite profound enough to justify its concept. In the end, the finale ends up feeling more oddity than Odyssey.
Now, having said all that, I'm happy to say Interstellar is a rare movie and one well worth witnessing on a big screen. We don't see this kind of slow burning sci-fi on this scale any more and I'd like to see more attempts at it. Science fiction films are alive and well in our cinemas, but to have one come from a confident auteur attempting this level of ambition and scope… well, it's infrequent at best. Interstellar is obviously trying to fry bigger fish than your "average blockbuster" and that ambition is a charming quality.
The problem is though, that when you push the bar of what you are trying to achieve further, your chance to miss that mark is much greater. People applaud the effort, but there will always be a sense of missed potential. The further you move those goalposts, the more potential there is to lose. In Interstellar's case, it feels like there was a whole bunch potential left on the table. This is not the 'masterpiece' that it so clearly wants to be, but that is totally okay. It is a great modern blockbuster with ideas bigger than its reach. That is enough in this case. More than enough, even. I fully recommend going on the journey Nolan has crafted here. It is wonky and nonsensical at times, but it is prone to moments of emotional clarity and enthralling scope. This is a big complicated puzzle with some enrapturing puzzle pieces. It's just by the time the credits roll, it doesn't fit together to make a completely satisfying picture.
Patrick Dane, once a would be filmmaker, has somewhat accidentally found himself as an entertainment journalist over the past two years. You may recognize him from around these parts, or you may not. Who's counting? From E3 to SDCC to the Top Gear track, Patrick has explored the world of entertainment wherever it has taken him. He is always happy to talk words at you. Hopefully the ones above will suffice your needs.