Already a divisive director, Interstellar might be Christopher Nolan’s most contentious film yet, partly because of the demanding complexity of its script and its intimate yet epic scale but also because of flaws throughout that make it an occasionally less than smooth ride to the stars which requires faith from the viewer that he will pull the strands together in the final act. Some may feel he failed in this task, while others will disagree and see it as a successful balanced whole.
Widowed engineer and former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is unable to shake the memories of the crash which ended his career, living with his father-in-law Donald, John Lithgow in a measured and warm performance, and his children Tom and Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) on their expansive farm where corn is the only crop which will grow. A blight has all but destroyed food production across the globe and decimated the human race leaving the survivors reliant on a reduced level of technology and enduring massive dust storms, the consequence of “six billion people trying to have it all.”
The emotional core of the film is the relationship between Cooper and Murph who is too much like her father, clinging to scientific wonder in a world where schools teach that the faked Moon landings were propaganda to bankrupt the Soviet Union and that to look to the sky is a luxury ill-afforded when farmers are more useful than engineers, but Cooper fuels her interests, requiring her to find scientific evidence to prove or disprove the existence of a “ghost” in her bedroom.
The parallel with the dustbowl years of the American depression is clear, and like that era a new golden age of prosperity can only be reached through innovation and ambition. For all the warmth between Cooper and Murph, it is he who is haunted, an emotionally distant man frustrated by the limitations of their existence which has curtailed the prospects of his children before they have even left school, yet even in a world which is winding down magic remains in a glimpse of a solar powered drone, in the patterns of dust left on Murph’s bedroom floor by her “ghost.”
Realise that contained within the pattern are co-ordinates, father and daughter track the location to a secret base, last vestige of the officially disbanded NASA, run by Professor Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine) and his biologist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway, her pioneering spirit no doubt a nod to aviator Amelia Earhart).
Prognosticating the end of humanity, Brand recruitsCooper to pilot a mission to explore beyond a wormhole near Saturn, explaining his theory that five dimensional beings have been communicating with humankind, urging its evolution to reach out beyond the solar system and find a new planet to settle. Brand has overseen the construction of a space station that would facilitate the first stage of relocation from the dying Earth but first he must resolve the problem of gravity. Failing that, he has a back-up plan: a “population bomb” of frozen embryos to populate one of the potentially habitable planets discovered by previous missions.
With an emotional goodbye in lieu of a more traditional launch sequence, Hans Zimmer’s atypical score, more akin to the echoing variations of Philip Glass, soars magnificently as Murph shuns her father for leaving her behind. McConaughey excels his role, the everyman torn between the love of his family and the call of the stars, unwilling to lie to them that the mission will save everyone when he does not even know how long he will be away nor how much his children will age while he sleeps, nor even if they will be successful, but unable to refuse his obligation to the future of humanity.
Assisted by two beautifully utilitarian AI robots, TARS and CASE, the crew of the Endurance, Cooper, Amelia, physicist Romilly (David Gyasi) and geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley) head through the wormhole in the first of the film’s glorious dimension-bending special effects to reach the system dominated by Gargantua, a supermassive rotational black hole whose time dilating presence shifts Cooper even farther from his already distant family.
The dense, layered narrative of scientific endeavour, exploration and visuals both audacious and stunning, worlds never before conceived or represented on the film screen, is framed by a more personal story of strained familial relations, but it’s an uneven ride.
Convenient plot points allow Nolan to condense what could have been an even longer film but are occasionally unsatisfying, in the juxtaposition of the now adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) determining the truth of her “ghost” with Cooper’s own epiphany across time and space bordering on manipulative but most obviously in the unnecessary fist fight between two of the astronauts which only serves to deflate the magnificence around them.
Looping around on itself in a way that will either delight or dismay the audience, strongly differing opinions are par for the course with Nolan and almost inevitable with this, his grandest film yet probably also his most personal which consciously sets its rigorous adherence to hard science against the unshakeable belief that love can transcend time and space, yet despite its flaws the film works its way into the consciousness, staying with the viewer far beyond the near three hour running time.
The process of understanding fifth dimensionality takes time and it becomes clear that Nolan’s folded, circular narrative and scientifically grounded yet necessarily fantastical paradox works. Like Grant Morrison’s work with five dimensional storytelling, the narrative is itself the superstructure by which the absolute unknown beyond our so-far limited dimensional awareness is defined.
In many ways a celebration of knowledge, learning, endurance and determination, while mileage may vary, the true test of both Cooper and the audience is the tesseract where it seems as if Nolan has jettisoned the scientific foundation of the film and entered the realm of magic, but perseverance reveals that the narrative is attempting something almost unique in cinema: an exploration of the fifth dimension, unfolding as a work of cinematic magic and awe which, like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to which it is indebted, will probably only improve with repeated viewings and, inevitably, time.
Interstellar is now on general release and scre
ening in IMAX