We’ve entered a time in which certain filmmakers – directors and writers to be precise – are being afforded a fairly free license to make the films that they want to make. Films on an epic scale, but with added smarts. The thinking person’s blockbuster.
With Interstellar director Christopher Nolan has firmly left the Batman franchise behind and struck out into bold new territory. You could argue he’s been doing this sort of thing his whole career: Memento, The Prestige, Inception – they all deal, to a certain extent, with time, memory and personal identity. And each film in his filmography is a big step up from the last.
Interstellar begins on an earth ravaged by dust storms, akin to America during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The earth has had it and it’s up to former pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to fly a spaceship through a black hole in search of a better world.
So far so epic. The setup has been done before, that’s for sure. But we’ve never seen Nolan tackle it. He starts by setting up the characters on earth, taking his time with them.
We see Cooper’s relationship with his children, particularly his daughter (expertly played by Mackenzie Foy) who seems wise beyond her years. Their relationship is key throughout, so pay attention early on. We also meet old NASA scientist (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway), also at NASA. Both attempting to solve Earth’s agriculture and environmental problems as best they can.
Once we head into space Nolan asks us to get our thinking caps on, for this story demands you give it your full attention in terms of space, quantum physics, the relativity of time and the nature of gravity.
That’s not to say it doesn’t pack emotional punch. With the voyages through space and time families and divided, perhaps to never see each other again, and their limits are tested. This affords the likes of McConaughey some big emotional moments (which we know he can do) and keeps us in the story. Hathaway, too, gets her time to shine.
That said, space film clichés remain. With space you’re always going to have someone who’s been left on their own for years and, with no one to talk to, gone mad/insane/to the dark side. You’ll have the desperate quest to get back to earth. You’ll have a few people selflessly sacrifice themselves for the mission.
But, to rein in my cynical side for a moment, it’s a decent film. Tense, thrilling, human, heartfelt. It makes you think and it tests you. There’s a strong emotional pull throughout, although it does have a somewhat melancholy tone, but perhaps that’s in the nature of the message that Nolan is trying to deliver.
This may seem patently obvious to say, but if you go into the cinema expecting to see Inception – or even Batman – in space, then you’ll be disappointed. However, as a cinematic experience it’s got action and thrill moments (a la Apollo 13 and Gravity), yet it also shares some ground with films like Moon, Sunshine and maybe Event Horizon – although the latter might be pushing it.
There’s a section in the final third where you think maybe Nolan has handed over the director’s chair to Darren Aranofsky, as it gets really quantum and asks the audience to take a bit of a leap of faith (or imagination). This could be considered a brave move, but Nolan is a heavyweight director these days, and more often than not, what he does works.
This could be one of those films in which you have a wholly different experience on a second viewing. Time will tell how it stands up in Nolan’s filmography. But, as far as space films go, it’s an intelligent one that asks a lot of the audience, but does so in a respectful way.