The Loneliness of the Long Distance Astronaut
It is one of those special, cherishable, all-too-rare times: yes, there is a new Christopher Nolan movie out, in the form of Interstellar. What can one say about the remarkable talents of this man and the teams he assembles around him? Together, they seem entirely incapable of making a film which is less than challenging, surprising, thoughtful and supremely accomplished.
The third film in what absolutely no-one is calling Nolan's In- themed series opens in an unspecified future where the Earth has become a worn-out wasteland, its bankrupt nations reduced to scraping what little food they can from choking, starving farmland. Humanity has lowered its gaze and its expectations, and one of those chafing against the situation is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA engineer reduced to trying to keep robot farming machines running.
Cooper's gifted young daughter, Murphy, has been complaining of a strange presence in their home, which Cooper realises is some kind of gravitic anomaly – an anomaly which leads them to the world's last launching facility. Here they encounter Brand (Michael Caine), who informs Cooper that the world's condition is terminal – humanity is on the verge of extinction, unless they can find a new home. Some unknown cosmic force has created a gravity wormhole within the solar system, through which a mission can be despatched in search of a new home for the human race.
Though it means leaving his family behind, Cooper agrees to pilot the mission, travelling through the wormhole to a distant galaxy, in the company of Brand's daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), a couple of other astronauts, and two endearingly bizarre robots. But can he bring himself to make the decisions which could save the human race, when the consequence could be that he will never see his children again?
Well, you always know roughly what you're going to get from a Nolan film – awe-inspiring technical virtuosity, a stunning, whirling artifice of plot and theme, casual mastery of genre tropes, and a certain lofty grandeur in every department (plus, more often than not, Michael Caine in a supporting role). All of these things are present and correct in Interstellar, which is, if anything, Nolan's homage to the classic SF films of years gone by: first and foremost 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also dealt with man's place in the universe and included a mind-blowing trip across space and time, but also the original Solaris, amongst others.
Interstellar pushes further than these, which were predominantly mythic undertakings – it attempts to portray travel to the furthest reaches of the universe in a relatively accurate way (no pun intended), and the realities of astrophysics form some of the lynchpins of the plot. This is a film in which wormholes, collapsed stars, time dilation and five-dimensional space are all central features, and there are times when it feels as though the vaulting leaps in space and time required by the narrative are too much for even Christopher Nolan to pull off.
That said, he pulls off some magnificent coups, and not the least of these is to keep the human characters centre-stage despite the bewildering ideas and stunning visuals also populating the film. All the performances are strong (Jessica Chastain also appears in a key role), but – with the possible exception of Michael Caine – none of them really manage to touch the emotions: the chill which touches the heart of every Nolan film, its lack of real intimacy, is as present here as in any of them.
Then again, this isn't entirely inappropriate, as Interstellar is partly about the immense size of the universe and its hostility to humans, and the effects the knowledge of this can have on explorers. Coupled to the mood of resignation in the Earthbound scenes, the result is a film which frequently feels incredibly bleak and oppressive,with an atmosphere which is almost funereal. That Nolan manages to turn this mood around by the conclusion is also an achievement.
That said, the film's focus on the father-daughter relationship means that the one between McConaughey and Hathaway never really quite gets the space to breathe, let alone convince. The final revelation of what's been happening throughout the film with the strange gravity anomalies is also very eminently guessable by even the least clued-in and genre-savvy viewer (or so I would expect). And the fact remains that high-minded, big-budget, thoughtful SF movies are much more likely to be savaged for getting above their station than more typical popcorn fodder – just look at what happened to Prometheus or A.I..
Well, hopefully I will be proved wrong and Interstellar will reap the same kinds of rewards and acclamation as Gravity, another film it somewhat resembles in places. (Although Interstellar resembles genre SF much more, and the big awards ceremonies never like genre movies.) Watching Interstellar, it feels like a love letter to classic SF films, to space exploration itself, and to so many of the instincts and drives that make people human at all. Pretty much an unmissable experience if you are at all interested in SF, space science, or the future.