Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy, Timothée Chalamet, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Bill Irwin, Matt Damon
NOTE: This review discusses some of the major plot points of the film, so it's heavy on SPOILERS. Proceed at your own risk. May contain traces of nuts.
Christopher Nolan has come up with some extremely memorable films in his time; I have a lot of respect for him as a director. Inception remains one of my favourite works of science fiction in film. It was thought-provoking stuff, from way out of left field. With reviews that I'd read of his latest film drawing enthusiastic comparisons with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, I had high - possibly unreasonable - expectations of Interstellar. I'm afraid it didn't live up to them.
The story revolves around former astronaut and widower1 Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and his father Donald (John Lithgow) as they struggle to survive in a world where everyone is struggling to cope with an environmental crisis which seems likely to render humanity extinct. Despite living with an existential level threat, everyone still drives around in gas-guzzling pickup trucks and, as a friend of mine observed, drinks out of disposable cups. After receiving a mysterious message, Cooper gets the chance to put his astronaut training to use one last time and explore another galaxy for ways to save mankind. But he does so at the cost of leaving his loved ones behind.
My principal beef with the film is the degree of emotional manipulation going on in the script. It was a complete turn-off, and reeked of what I am beginning to think of as the Speilberg-by-numbers approach to moviemaking (remember, Spielberg was the director who was originally associated with this project and Nolan only became involved when Spielberg had to drop out and screenwriter Jonathan Nolan suggested to his brother that he should take over the reins). Every act has a predictably high (or low) emotional point, accompanied, just in case you weren't paying attention, by a huge swelling chord played on the organ which seems to be a clunking homage to the final ringing cadence of Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra from 2001. "Hey, remember those scenes in Kubrick's movie with all the mystical significance?" the music seems to be telling us, "This bit is supposed to be like that!" The music was a surprise in itself, given that it comes from a genius like Hans Zimmer. The score is, quite frankly, dull. To compensate for this the sound is turned up to ridiculous levels. Someone I know on Facebook happened to have an SPL meter with him in the cinema, and he reported that the audio was peaking at 120 dB, which is ridiculous and likely to cause discomfort, pain, and possibly even hearing loss. It's a deliberate stylistic choice by the director, apparently - but it reeked of showboating, or quite possibly of papering over the cracks.
The manipulative approach crippled my engagement with any of the film's characters, who left me cold. Because their behaviour and circumstances are so blatantly and clumsily contrived to make me feel in a specific way, I found myself not giving a damn about them. About the only appealing performance was Bill Irwin's voice and puppetry work for the robot TARS, a cynical and snarky mash-up of HAL from 2001 with a metallic Kit-Kat. Yet just like TARS's operational settings, I felt that the cynicism and snarkiness in his lines had probably been clinically calculated down to the last percentage point for the purposes of achieving emotional engagement with the audience. The contrived nature of this engagement is particularly evident when McConaughey's character discovers that his daughter's school uses text books that pronounce that the moon landings were faked. We're clearly meant to feel outrage at this, but the subsequent and wildly gratuitous "my wife would be alive now if you guys did more science" angle was about as subtle as a Saturn V launch. The propagandising really grates. Worse, the scene doesn't serve the development of the story particularly effectively. From a screenwriting viewpoint, do we care that Cooper gets Murph suspended from school? Does it have any repercussions on Murph, or Cooper? No. So why is this scene even in the movie?
I was asking that question a lot, to be honest. At 169 minutes2, the film is bloated with a number of scenes that could have been excised without harming the storyline. Indeed, the pace of the film feels slower than 2001, a movie edited the best part of fifty years ago - and just look at these stats on the number of cuts in trailers from back then to see how glacially slowly things used to happen on screen. My emotional response to several sections of the film was principally one of boredom. At one point, the astronaut Romilly (David Gyasi) is left to his own devices while the other members of his crew bugger off for twenty three years. I knew how he felt.
Then there's the paradoxical nature of the story. Humanity survives because it enables Cooper to go back in time and save humanity. The premise of the film wanders on to extraordinarily shaky ground in a few cases, not least the fact that the information provided to Cooper and Murph that initiates everything and leads them to the film's conclusion is supplied by Cooper. How this is done is lazy writing in the extreme; TARS basically becomes Cooper's magic wand: "TARS, do the complicated thing!" "Okay!" "Now do the other complicated thing!" "Done!" At the end of the film we see the same food crops (that we had earlier been told were threatened by blight and unlikely to survive) being grown without problems in outer space, apparently negating the reason why the move to space was necessary in the first place. Incidentally, it is another galaxy that Cooper travels to, not just another star system, so why isn't the film called Intergalactic rather than Interstellar?
The inept foreshadowing meant that I saw the "it was you all along!" ending coming a mile off. And the discussion about evil before the team met Dr Mann (Matt Damon) meant that all the time he was on screen, I was waiting for him to snap and try to kill someone. Which, in a tediously predictable fashion, he eventually did.
Although I was annoyed by the recurring external shot of the "Ranger" spacecraft encountering different atmospheres from exactly the same angle, it's the visual effects of the film that are what will stay with me. The black hole, rendered as accurately as current theoretical physics will allow, is spectacular and there are one or two very nice shots of Saturn, yes. (Remember that Kubrick originally wanted to have the final act of 2001 take place around Saturn, but the location was switched to Jupiter because the rings were too difficult to depict accurately with the special effects technology of the day.) And it's worth seeing the film just for that last baseball game.
But groovy visuals, accurate physics and getting a visual representation of an O'Neill colony on screen isn't enough to raise this film above the pedestrian. I was profoundly disappointed by it, and this is one of the very few occasions when I can only bring myself to award two stars to a blockbuster I've reviewed. Sorry, Mr Nolan.
Chris's rating: Two Stars
1 Yes, Nolan's now seemingly unavoidable main-protagonist-has-dead-wife trope is there once again...
2 Given the film's alleged budget, you're watching the director burn through $976,000 a minute.
3 Yes, I'm using footnotes in reviews now. God help us all.