I’m going to make this clear from the start, I’m writing this just over half an hour after stepping out of a screening of Christopher Nolan’s latest offering, Interstellar, so these are very much first impressions and I’m pretty sure there is a lot more in there than one screening can entirely grasp.
The story, what I can reveal of it here anyway, concerns an expedition from a dying Earth to find a new world on which to settle humanity. Matthew McConaughey is our guide on this journey, as pilot turned farmer, Cooper, who is chosen to pilot the expedition and we see the effect it has on him, his co-explorers and his family as the film goes on. To say more would almost certainly reveal too much.
Once again Interstellar marks Nolan’s claim to be the next blockbuster-auteur, and possibly the most coherent one since Hitchcock at least, as it not only takes in the epic sweep possible with big stars, big studios and big special effects, but attempts to deal with big questions and human issues, while continuing to fit in with Nolan’s oeuvre. Particularly it continues in the vein of Inception, but, for me, strikes a more successful balance.
What is most striking is how Nolan mixes big budget sci-fi movie making with bigger concepts while injecting some genuinely gripping emotional content as well. It is this emotional side that is really the linchpin of everything that happens and how the film deals with all the issues raised.
The emotions are certainly helped along by having a fantastic cast. McConaughey, along with Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain and youngster Mackenzie Foy, do a great job of making you forget they are big stars and become genuine characters, while Foy is a revelation as Cooper’s daughter Murph.
This leads to some of the most emotionally engaging moments I’ve experienced in a film in a long time as there are tears, laughs and tension all to be had simply through the actors delivery of the script. While the robot characters are the best I’ve seen on screen since the droids of Star Wars and are voiced excellently by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart.
Of course, this being big budget sci-fi there is also marvel and wonder, as well as threat and tension, to be found in the special effects and more action based sequences. This makes for a film that, despite a near three-hour running time, never drags as we are constantly seeing something happen, whether it’s the initial exposition or the later emotion, exploration or tension, things never stop developing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Interstellar doesn’t always feel entirely original – there is a lot here that draws on past sci-fi fare, with a particular touchstone being 2001: A Space Odyssey, but there are also nods to many other films, including, as one of those who watched with me pointed out, Contact (though having not seen it I can’t personally be sure) and there is certainly something of the blockbuster spectacle ambition of Star Wars in here too and a sprinkling of Moon and Silent Running too.
But, where Interstellar differs from 2001 in particular is the sense of emotion it injects into proceedings. So while we marvel as Dave Bowman goes through the ‘stargate’ and, possibly, sees the evolution of humanity, as Cooper’s exploration develops we feel a real connection to him and his place within it, along with the same sense of wonder, which makes for something that is definitely more instantly satisfying – though whether it continues to grip like Kubrick and Clarke’s classic remains to be seen.
What makes Interstellar work quite so well is how it combines many of the elements seen in the best past sci-fi films and uses them all to great effect, I’d say the only downside is that the plot, at times, becomes more predictable than I think Nolan would have liked and some of the scientific concepts take quite a lot of explaining, but this really does feel like a minor quibble as the film is never less than gripping and, what could be a problematic ending is, in Nolan’s hands, still successful and his status as a true blockbuster-auteur continues to grow.