On the Silver Screen – Interstellar
Christopher Nolan’s sci fi epic Interstellar hits UK cinemas. Matthew McConaughey’s Joseph A. Cooper goes on an unprecedented voyage to the other side of the universe via a wormhole to look for solutions to the problem of Earth being unable to sustain the human race any more.
Due to the nature of this film and how hidden the plot remained during the trailer process it does make discussing it in any level of detail without spoiling everything immensely difficult so what I’ll do is give a very basic outline of what I thought in the coming paragraphs and then following my summary and rating will be a spoiler filled section where I go into a lot more detail as to the ins and outs of the plot. If you don’t mind being spoiled then read on after the rating and if you want a general feeling on how much I liked it before you see it yourself then read until the rating and return to read the rest after you’ve seen it.
First I’ll state the obvious, at 169 minutes this film is very long. It’s too long I’d say with a clear half hour or so that could easily be cut with no real negative effect on the overall experience. When it was well into the third act I felt my interest waning with quite a bit of running time still to go. It’s not something the film ever recovers from and makes the last 45 minutes or so something of a struggle to sit through.
As may be obvious from reading my site, I love science fiction and really like to see sci fi concepts explored in TV, film, books, comics or whatever medium you can think of so something like this is right up my alley. When it comes to the science, this film certainly delivers and it’s clear that Jonathan and Christopher Nolan did lots of research to try and visualise everything as realistically -according to current understanding of the theoretical principles at work- as possible. It pays off with plenty of really stunning visuals and a detailed exploration of high concept science fiction ideas.
This film can easily be described as conforming to the hard science fiction style -for those who don’t know, hard science fiction is characterised by emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail as defined on wikipedia– which I found to be very refreshing given how rare that seems to be these days. Many science fiction films make up their rules as they go along without any adherence to what actually might happen in reality. This works for those films but it can come across as waffling nonsense or downright stupidity in many cases. I did really appreciate the level of scientific detail in this film from something simple like having no sound in the vacuum of space to a detailed exploration of relativistic physics and how that directly affects the story of the film.
I don’t recall ever seeing the passage of time relative to perception be used in such a way. The characters approach this in an interesting way by having time be one of the resources they have to consider to accomplish their mission. Categorising time along with fuel, food and other supplies is a clever way of simplifying the complex ideal and letting the audience understand that doing certain things costs them a lot of time in the same way that fuel is expended. The dying Earth being faced with a ticking clock helps reinforce this.
Space travel is difficult in this film with precisely calculated maneuvers required to do just about anything. Everything has to be considered from fuel consumption to atmospheric entry angles and it’s exhilarating to see such a realistic approach to space travel in a modern science fiction film. It reminded me of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine in the respect of how precise everything had to be and the real danger of being out in deep space.
Unsurprisingly this film is very exposition heavy. There are many scenes where the characters sit around and ponder the scientific implications of their actions as well as explaining in detail what they are about to do and the projected effects of those actions. If exposition isn’t your thing then you will hate this film as there is a lot of it. Normally I’m not a fan of this level of exposition but I often found myself fascinated by the level of detail in the scientific discussions and I found the dumbing it down by a simple analogy approach amusing. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is used as the audience avatar in those situations with his background not being as scientific as those around him therefore removing the issue of everyone explaining things they should already know to one another.
In terms of narrative, this film isn’t all that complicated on the face of it. Once Earth ls left behind the structure becomes somewhat similar to a video game in that there are 3 levels to navigate with the planets that must be visited and an endgame involving saving the human race. It is always clear what has happened and what the characters are going to do next. This helps make the film more engaging and allows the visuals to tell much of the story.
Visually the film is incredible with many of the effects shots provoking a profound sense of awe and wonder. Scope is the main focus of many of the visuals and it’s truly amazing to see the small ship juxtaposed against massive planets or other stellar vistas. The planets visited look unique and inventive as well with particular note given to waves that rise to the clouds. Also notable is the wormhole visual as something I won’t soon forget.
There are lots of characters in Interstellar, some of which are better than others. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is probably the best with a distinct nobility to him that makes him an ideal lead for this story. His devotion to his family acts as shorthand for the larger issue of saving the human race and a lot of time is spent establishing the bond he has with his children. There are many references to his wife who died at some point in the past which ably represents all that Earth and humanity have lost and needs to have repaired.
Michael Caine portrays Professor John Brand, the idealistic scientist with designs on saving humanity and the main force behind the expedition in the first place. Much of his dialogue is concerned with explaining his plans or talking about how he’s going to solve the equation that can save the human race. For the most part he’s a catalyst for the film’s story rather than being directly involved in it but he does have some good moments delivered with standard Michael Caine excellence.
Anne Hathaway plays his daughter Amilia Brand who accompanies Cooper on his mission. She is fiercely determined to accomplish this mission and save humanity for what turns out are incredibly personal reasons that I won’t spoil in this section of the review. She is a little nondescript as characters go but does a good job of bringing the audience along for the ride.
Much of the rest of the character identities would constitute something of a spoiler so I’ll table discussion of them in this part of the review. Pretty much all of the comedy comes from Bill Irwin’s sarcastic robot TARS. I liked this character and wished there was more of him as he kept the film from being entirely morbidly serious.
Aside from the monstrous running time this film has an ending that really doesn’t work for me. To me it seems like too radical a departure from the accurate science in the rest of the film and sticks out uncomfortable. I do give Nolan credit for giving this a try as it was incredibly ambitious but it doesn’t land in the way Nolan probably wanted it to. I’m not sure what could have been done to fix this but props for giving it a try.
A very well put together hard science fiction film with a simple story and beautiful visuals. It’s rare to see a film so concerned with portraying accurate science and exploring complex scientific ideals in a high budget blockbuster.
A weak ending brings this film down somewhat and the running time is excessive but for the most part it is engaging and thought provoking. Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine give stellar -pun not intended- performances and elevate characters that feel somewhat generic in some cases to a level that they otherwise wouldn’t reach.
Going by my feelings now I’d say that this is Christopher Nolan’s best film to date but it still has significant flaws and the levels of exposition definitely won’t suit everyone.
User Review( vote)
I omitted talking about some of the characters because it might be seen as a spoiler so I will start off by doing so here. Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck play the roles of Joe Cooper’s adult children who enter the story after Joe lands on a planet with a relativistic time differential where each hour that passes there is 7 years on Earth. This means that when Joe leaves the planet 23 years passes for his children which spirals them into adulthood.
This is handled very well with Casey Affleck’s Tom managing to all but forget him and focus on the survival of his family on the doomed Earth. There’s a clear difference between the young ambitious Tom and the older bitter version who has had to face the reality of raising a family under the harsh conditions of Earth. Affleck does a good job of portraying the practically minded Tom who holds the survival of his family in a higher regard than the human race.
Jessica Chastain’s Murphy -or Murph- resents Joe because she feels abandoned by him but also shares his keen scientific interest which causes her to be intrinsically linked to Earth’s survival in a way that I will go into shortly. She spends much of the film unable to resolve her abandonment issues which feel founded due to the lack of communication on Joe’s part. The audience is privy to the real reason why he hasn’t responded in decades but from her perspective she doesn’t know if he’s dead or not.
There are hints of a rivalry of ideals between the siblings which mostly manifests itself by Murphy begging him to move his family before the constant dust inhalation kills them. They don’t share all that many scenes together so they don’t make as much out of this subplot that they could. They do effectively show the different perspectives on the survival of the Earth.
As I said above, the ending is ambitious but really doesn’t work all that well. Early in the film the young Murphy tells her father that she believes that a ghost is haunting her room which seems to be backed up by random things flying off her bookshelf onto the floor. Furthermore these objects seem to form patterns that make up messages through either binary or morse code.
It turns out that at the end of the film, Joe is thrown into a black hole which allows him to visualise 5 Dimensional space and see Murphy’s bookcase at every point in existence which allows him to manipulate it in ways that move the plot forward. It turns out that he’s responsible for giving himself the coordinates to find NASA and be sent on the mission in the first place. He also supplies Murphy with the data she needs to solve the problem of how to save the human race.
It is clever in the sense that it makes the story circular and forms an unbreakable time loop that makes the story happen but it feels at odds with the rest of the film. It even turns out that the wormhole was created by evolved humans from the future who understand that they have to create these events so that they can exist. Narratively this all works and makes sense but conceptually I feel that Jonathan and Christopher Nolan peppered the narrative with so much accurate science in an attempt to ensure that the audience accepts this random foray into the realm of magic.
In order for this to work, the film seeds the idea that love isn’t simply an emotion and is actually a concept that transcends time and space which allows Joe to connect with his daughter’s timeline. I had real problems buying this as a concept and it seems somewhat cheesy to suggest that love conquers all in the universe. It’s a twist that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Doctor Who and I really don’t mean that as a compliment. The level of imagination and creativity involved in attempting such a concept is impressive but it doesn’t translate well to film and looks somewhat ridiculous when put onscreen.