james debate
james debate

Thursday 27 November 2014

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Produced by Emma Thomas, Lynda Obst, Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine
Studio Legendary Pictures
Running time 169 minutes

interstellar christopher nolan matthew mcconaughey spielberg


The genre of science fiction comes with a great deal of stigma these days. For most people that term conjures thoughts of camp, frothy diversions like Star Wars, or easy gratuitous action like Transformers. All lasers, pointy ears, and cheesy dialogue. This is not always the case.

In many ways the science fiction commonly seen these days more closely resembles what one would describe as the "fantasy" genre, something more akin to Lord of the Rings than grounded in the real world. But in its purest form, with far greater emphasis on the "science" part, it is a genre that is capable of genuine artistic and human substance.

Stanley Kubrick's classic 2001: A Space Odyssey is generally held to be the standard bearer of such intellectual science fiction. Ordinarily we hate to review a film by drawing comparison with another, but in the case of Christopher Nolan's new film Interstellar it feels entirely appropriate. After all, Nolan is by his own admission a big fan of, and has taken huge influence from Kubrick's film.


2001 was a reflection of its time, buoyed by the Moon landing and boundlessly optimistic about the potential of human technological achievement at the dawn of the space age. Man had walked on the Moon and it was genuinely expected that Mars and the rest of the Solar System would soon follow.

Conversely Interstellar is a reflection of our time; grounded firmly in the dirt of Earth, made pessimistic by years of stagnation, a general mindset that space exploration is a waste of money with the problems we have here on Earth. This is the generational hangover from the age of the Moon landing that has forgotten and long since stopped caring about the drive of human achievement. This is the world depicted in Interstellar.

Without wanting to give too much away, Interstellar is set on a dying Earth, where man has become so preoccupied with just trying to survive that they have long since stopped dreaming of what lies beyond our planet, and don't even teach children about the exploits of the 20th Century. The parallels with our present situation are obvious. The core conceit of Interstellar is that this mindset is wrong, that even more so during the darkest times we need to keep pushing the frontier forwards, and that rather than a waste of scarce resources, moving beyond our world might even be our salvation.

Interstellar therefore can be seen as a rallying cry to return to the pioneering spirit that characterized the era in which 2001 was made. But the influence of Kubrick's film goes far beyond mere thematic overlap. Nolan lays on the homage thick, almost to a fault. The retro aesthetic visuals are a clear throwback to the mid 20th Century Apollo era of exploration, while many of the same musical cues from 2001 are replicated here without much subtlety. 2001 used music to depict space as having an awe-inspiring, almost religious sense of majesty; blaring church organs, sweeping symphonies contrasted with the dead silence of space. The sound design in Interstellar borrows heavily from this, with similar motifs, and sure enough barely gets 30 seconds into the film before blasting you with an intimidating church organ.


But aside from the obvious visual and aural tributes, what Interstellar takes most from its predecessor is the strict commitment to scientific accuracy and focus on narrative over the broader action sci-fi tropes you see in most films. Nolan made the wise decision to bring renowned theoretical physicist Kip Thorne on board as an advisor and executive producer, and it shows. This is a film that features special relativity, multidimensional mechanics, and a depiction of the still highly theoretical worm holes and black holes so groundbreaking that the work done on this film has spawned two scientific papers for peer review. For sure there are some scientific inaccuracies and loopholes, the likes of which we won't bore you with here, but the attention to detail is nevertheless impressive.

What sets Interstellar apart from your average science fiction film is that it doesn't depict anything, no matter how wondrous or unbelievable, that can't be reasonably explained by real science. The aim of a film like Interstellar is to engage the viewer intellectually, to be more thought provoking than purely viscerally exciting. But that's not to say that it is always cold and technical, there is a very prominent human element to this film, particularly with regard to familial bonds. This is very much an emotionally engaging film as well, to the point where it can sometimes be too sentimental (more on that later), but when it works it makes for some beautiful moments.

To be absolutely clear, this is a hugely ambitious work that holds itself to the highest of standards. A film so epic in scope and technical complexity that there are few examples in cinema history to which it can be genuinely compared. And yet, it tragically manages to fall short of the "masterpiece" status to which it so clearly aspires.

Cast & Production:

First the obvious: from a production standpoint Interstellar is, like every Chris Nolan film, a masterclass. Nolan is a director of the very highest calibre. There are scenes in this film that will take your breath away with their kineticism and emotional charge, scenes that will make you want to weep and laugh, scenes that will frighten you and fill you with existential horror. Nolan is passionate about his vision here, and it's impossible to watch Interstellar without feeling a longing for those pioneering days of old, or those yet to come.

Interstellar is also visually stunning, of course, and beautiful to listen to. Hans Zimmer's score is dead certain to win an Oscar nomination next February.

The ensemble cast is very impressive on paper. Matthew McConaughey is one of the hottest stars in Hollywood right now, and sure enough he does a fine, if unadventurous job in the lead. His is the relatable human element without which a film so technical could not survive.

He is joined by big names and Oscar favourites such as Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, and the always excellent John Lithgow. Bill Irwin is particularly excellent as robot TARS, easily the best written character in the film. Then on the other hand there is the disappointing Oscar winner Anne Hathaway, a talented enough actress who nevertheless seems out of her depth here, far too frail and mentally vulnerable to be believable in this role. Meanwhile the Matt Damon cameo in a small role just seems out of place for having such a big star randomly pop up late into the film.

Writing & Dialogue:

Ultimately what lets the film down the most is the uneven script by the director's brother Jonathan Nolan. The dialogue is often too cheesy, and pacing problems recur frequently. Then things really start to get grim when the script starts forcing in some pseudoscience hooey about "love" and how it's a transdimensional force or something. Such unscientific nonsense in a film that otherwise adheres so strictly to real science is just jarring, a bit of a game-breaker. But that's not even the script's worst sin.

The worst part is the exposition. It turns out there is a reason why so few people try to make films about complex astrophysics and cosmology, namely that it is very difficult to explain to your average cinema-goer in a way that doesn't break immersion or sound really awkward. One of Kubrick's masterstrokes in 2001 was that he was smart enough to not even try. The studio wanted him to include a narration over the climactic scene explaining what was happening, but Kubrick rightly insisted on leaving it ambiguous and open to interpretation. Ultimately what Kubrick realised is that a little bit of mystery, and the audience's imagination, was always going to make for far more compelling viewing than some forced narration from the screenwriter, especially when the material is as inaccessible as this complex science.

Chris Nolan used this to good effect himself in Memento and Inception. It is mind-boggling then that he gets it so wrong in Interstellar. The climactic scene here, where McConaughey finally realises what's happening, is often cringeworthy. After 3 hours of appropriately natural and sparse dialogue McConaughey starts narrating every thought that comes into his head in real time, and then bizarrely breaks it down into child-like little analogies for the audience to understand. At one point McConaughey is literally screaming the answer to the films mysteries at the audience. It's painful to watch, Lord knows what they were thinking when they wrote this.

Ultimately it's just one scene in a long movie, but it makes a big difference. It breaks the number 1 cardinal rule of storytelling: show don't tell. It smacks of pandering and cheapens the film's artistic integrity. It's dialogue that screams to the audience "we think you're dumb, so we're going to spoon-feed you an interpretation so simple a monkey could get it". It's either a lack of faith in the audience or in the quality of the film making, but either way it is a sour note for the film to end on, and it does make a big chunk of the difference between whether this film goes down as a classic or largely forgettable.


So ultimately after expecting great things, it's hard not to be disappointed.

From an intellectual standpoint, Interstellar works so hard on being this generation's 2001, aspiring to be a truly seminal piece of intellectual science fiction to rank alongside the greats. But either through a lack of confidence in his own film making, or trust in his audience, Nolan's storytelling falls short at a very basic level.

Still, it is undeniably compelling filmmaking. The unique blend of intimate and infinite hits powerfully, while Nolan's technical excellence behind a camera makes for some utterly enthralling moments of cinema.

Whatever the case, we will say this: after seeing Interstellar we couldn't stop thinking and talking about it all week, so it must have done something right.

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