Christopher Nolan, “Interstellar” (2014)
“Interstellar” managed to hold my attention for most of its 169-minute duration which was quite a feat as the plot is quite straightforward for a film helmed (and co-scripted as well) by Christopher Nolan, he who is famous for movie plots boasting multiple possibilities and ambiguous endings that can be interpreted in different ways. “Interstellar” is really no different from “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises” in this respect; it even boasts the presence of Michael Caine in yet another supporting role where he plays a mentor and father figure. Nolan must be praying that Caine gets access to a revitalising or age-reversing elixir from Merck or Pfizer for his own directing career to continue.
Before seeing “Interstellar”, viewers might be advised to watch Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” first to anticipate the younger film’s plot and narrative arc, its characters and some of its visual story-telling devices. The film begins as a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which the Earth can no longer sustain humanity: crops are failing, dust storms ravage the US Midwest with increasing regularity and Western civilisation is basically whatever people are able to remember and conserve. Former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConnaughey) lives with his father-in-law and two children on a farm: his older child Tom looks forward to inheriting the family cornfields and daughter Murphy (or Murph for short) believes a ghost is hiding in her bedroom trying to communicate with her. Cooper eggs the girl on to use her knowledge of science to solve the mystery of the identity of the ghost and both discover that the ghost is a mysterious intelligence sending messages in binary code via gravitational anomalities in the red dust. One of these messages tells Cooper to contact Professor Brand (Michael Caine) at a secret NASA facility.
Cooper and Murph meet Brand and his scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) who advise that a wormhole has opened up near Saturn. The scientists at the NASA facility believe fifth-dimensional beings exist in a universe beyond this wormhole. Cooper agrees to be pilot for Amelia’s team as part of the Lazarus Project series. Already a series of manned capsules has already used this wormhole and data sent back from these capsules indicate there are three habitable planets, named Miller, Edmonds and Mann after the astronauts who led the teams there.
Cooper’s decision estranges him from his daughter and the two part on very bad speaking terms. The plot jumps from Cooper’s departure from the farm to the launch of his spacecraft the Endurance, in a sequence that mimicks the famous sequence in the Kubrick film in which a bone flung up into the air becomes an orbiting space station. Thereafter the Endurance crew (which includes a HAL-like robot called TARS) follows the path set by Mann’s team, travelling through the wormhole and landing on Miller’s planet, close to the black hole Gargantua. The crew loses a member and is forced to scramble back, wasting 23 Earth years in what appears to be an hour. After wasting more crucial Earth time arguing about whether to visit Edmonds’ planet or Mann’s planet, the crew opt to visit Mann’s planet and in double-quick time – which amounts to another several Earth years – find Mann (Matt Damon), apparently the sole survivor of his team. Mann has an unpleasant surprise in store for Cooper, Brand, Romilly (David Gyasi) and TARS which jeopardises not only their mission but the future of humankind.
In a parallel story, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, then Jessica Chastain) is taken in by Professor Brand as a daughter substitute and becomes an astro-physicist and assistant to Brand. Brand’s personal mission is to solve the problem of how humans can escape Earth’s gravity but to do this properly, he requires information from a singularity behind a black hole. Part of the Endurance’s mission was to supply this data. Unfortunately much of this data was forged by Mann who wanted a spacecraft to rescue him. Brand dies, believing that he has failed, and Murph must pick up where he left off and solve the equations. In the meantime, the dust storms afflicting America worsen and her brother’s family is in danger of dying from a tuberculosis-like disease caused by too much dust inhalation.
With “2001: A Space Odyssey” as its inspiration, “Interstellar” has some of that film’s majesty and beauty, and some of its sequences can be quite breath-taking if nowhere near as psychedelic and mind-bending. The acting overall is competent though not outstanding. McConaughey and company do all they can to turn their characters into flesh-and-blood creatures and though McConaughey succeeds with Cooper, Hathaway and Chastain do not with their characters. Some actors are able to infuse sketchily developed characters with life and imagination and others need direction in this regard.
The drama feels quite forced with banal dialogue that tends to state the obvious too much and a familiar theme of love for family conquering a fear of the unknown and inspiring hope juxtaposed with Hollywood’s favoured view of humanity as essentially self-centred and mean-spirited. A parallel theme of deception in the plot tempers the more sentimental aspect of the idea of love transcending all barriers and makes the film’s final moments more ambiguous.
Inevitably the science in a film like “Interstellar” is forced into warp drive for the sake of moving the plot forward: a scene in which Cooper must try to redock his space pod with the main station is rather tricky, not least because an explosion has forced the Endurance into a rapid spin (there being no air in space so spinning spaceships can whiz about forever) so presumably Cooper must spin his pod at precisely the same speed as the Endurance to have a chance of redocking properly. Apart from the difficulties involved in calibrating his pod’s speed, and the fantastic odds against getting the redocking right on the first go, Cooper and Amelia Brand are spinning along with the pod fast enough that their heads might explode from internal pressures caused by the spinning. While that would be entertaining to watch, the film would be killed stone dead so artistic licence must be allowed.
The last hour is quite a doozy to watch if rather drawn out. Sadly (spoiler alert) we never see anything akin to the jaw-dropping / mind-slackening sequence in “2001 …” in which the Keir Dullea character’s space-pod is pulled into another dimension by unseen aliens in a psychedelic light-show, though the movie comes tantalisingly close. Viewers may feel the events plug plot holes rather too neatly; a few ragged loose ends might have made the film a little more credible. The finale is too simpering, happy Americana but one must remember that “Interstellar” is of a piece with “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises” where conclusions aren’t really quite what the viewers are led to believe they’re watching. Is Cooper really reunited with Murph or is the whole sequence a figment of his dying imagination? One imagines that this finale was filmed for the benefit of an American audience while audiences in Europe get to see a different finale in which Murph continues to wait in vain for her father to return while ensconced in an abandoned underground bunker because the dust storms have become a permanent fixture on the American landscape and the Lazarus Project has had to be shut down by NASA.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” continues to be relevant to the present day because much of it is deliberately left open-ended and unexplained, and therefore subject to endless interpretation which freshens opinion about the film and one’s own experience of it with repeated viewings. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s desire to leave No Loose Ends Untied or Unexplained, if only to make “Interstellar” easier for the bean counters in Hollywood to understand, makes their film too hermetic to the point where it starts to feel suffocating. If there is only one way to watch a film, then the film becomes a creature tied to its times and will quickly grow stale.
For all its spectacular packaging and visual delights, “Interstellar” is an ordinary work let down by poor characterisation, banal themes and plot, and ultimately a deterministic worldview that does not tolerate diversity in how viewers might watch and interpret cinema.