Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic falters at a few moments particularly in the latter part of its second act, but nevertheless manages to be an ambitious and powerfully told tale of a bleak future that’s soaked in a foreboding sense of realism.
Themes of parenthood are the emotional core of the narrative and the relationship between Cooper and his daughter Murphy are moving and heartbreaking. Solid performances lead by Matthew McConaughey and aided by the likes of Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain ensure that even the rare slip-up on the script’s part is salvageable… most of the time. But it’s the film’s visual style mingled with some incredible sound design that truly mesmerizes. As Nolan himself admits, a film titled Interstellar designed as a journey to find a habitable new planet needs to be the biggest and boldest picture he’s made. And whether it be a spaceship circling and entering a wormhole, or the crew traversing the icy cliffs of a potential new home, the environments are jaw-dropping.
Hans Zimmer’s organ-led score enhances virtually every scene that it backs, often taking the lead as the driving force behind some of the minor plot points. Brought on in the early stages of pre-production, Zimmer’s work inspires the production of the film and not the other way around, as is usually the norm. It’s a soaring soundscape, established early on and never exiting the viewer’s consciousness almost to a falt – for some, it threatens to be overbearing (Skye hates it!), though it works sublimely for me. Nolan and his team know when to cut it out, or interlace it with the sounds, or lack of, of the world the characters inhabit. Often we’ll cut to silence in outer space, which is just as well, but the timing is always effective.
The story places us in a world that’s drying up more and more by the year, and very soon the Earth will no longer be able to sustain human life. Cooper, a former NASA pilot, farmer, and father of two, stumbles upon a secure location thanks to his daughter’s “ghost,” a recurring theme that starts to cause slightly less head-scratching the more you watch the film. Cooper is enlisted to fly a ship through a wormhole in search of a new home for the human race, and he does so as much for the sake of humanity as for the future of his children.
But leaving his children behind is no small matter. In these moments, and as mentioned before those particularly involving father and daughter, Interstellar lets its heart bleed out. No other subplot in the film reaches the emotional level that Cooper and Murph’s does, a detrimental theme considering the film’s commitment to the ability of love to transcend time and space. Though it’s copped significant criticism for that, I think it’s less a comment on love as a tangible force and more as an agent for motivation and drive. Cooper’s journey into the fifth dimension via wormhole in the third act feels as much symbolic as it does a literal journey into his little girl’s bedroom. The character’s desperate plea to stop himself from leaving Earth is painful, because Nolan opts to deal with a literal race against the clock. By this point, regardless of what happens next, Cooper has lost that race.
But a lot happens prior to that. Note that there are significant examples of characters telling blatant and cruel lies in order to protect others or to simply get things done. The lies are used to justify things. There is of course, Professor Brand’s decades-long con, leading everybody to believe there’s a hope for humanity when really there’s not. There’s Doctor Mann, whose signal has been beaming up promising data from the world he’s been marooned on as part of the Lazarus missions. Then there’s Cooper, who tells his daughter he’s coming back (a lie even if it’s debunked in the final, moving conversation between Murph and Cooper). Even Cooper’s departure into the black hole, leaving Brand because there’s not enough room on the ship, is a rouse, given that Brand is completely unprepared.
Doctor Mann’s lie is the most overt, and the most poorly handled. The subplot involving Mann’s loneliness and betrayal makes sense to conclude the second act of the film, but its intent on highlighting the worst, most desperate needs of the human spirit is too heavy-handed to truly resonate. It’s here that, despite the utter beauty of the scenery, the film loses some of its spark. The dialogue delivered by Matt Damon is a classic example of telling and not showing. When Mann leaves Cooper to die, it’s as if Nolan is worried the themes he’s pushing aren’t clear enough. So Mann runs us through everything he’s feeling as he speaks into Cooper’s headset. His ultimate demise plays out rather pathetically, and it’s hard to believe that this man is as intelligent as the film makes him out to be.
Still, it leads to one of the finest sequences, as Cooper attempts to dock at a station that’s spinning wildly out of control through space. Nolan forgoes any of the silence he’d allowed earlier on for a sequence he wanted to make as epic as possible. The heroes celebrate very briefly before the next problem pops up, and by then it’s starting to get a little exhausting. Clearly Nolan wanted to cram as much into this as possible. It plays very much like the only space-hopping science-fiction film he’ll ever make, but time will tell.
The narrative falters late in the game as it alternates between an adult Murphy’s efforts to solve the unsolvable equation and Cooper’s journey through the fifth dimensional tesseract. While Cooper’s efforts to convince his past self to stay are emotionally complex, the background noise of having Murph deal with her stubborn and somewhat aggressive brother lacks the kind of punch needed. That’s got a lot to do with how little attention is given to the brother throughout the film. Tom doesn’t earn his antagonistic nature. It adds drama but ultimately feels less thought out than what’s clearly the more interesting, and fortunately central storyline.
Interstellar is, by and large, an ambitious, awe-inspiring journey built on a foundation of love between a daughter and her father. It stoops in rare instances of forced dialogue and occasional heavy-handedness of its themes, but its redeeming factors far exceed these moments. Powerfully acted, visually triumphant, and emotionally gripping, and with a soundtrack that only elevates it, Interstellar is a science fiction film worthy of its hype.
Film ’89 Verdict – 8/10