Ever since he first came to prominence, Christopher Nolan has been mucking around with time. In Memento, he famously put time into reverse. In Batman Begins he flipped it back and forth. In Inception he stopped it in its tracks. And now, in this his first post-Dark Knight film, a massively ambitious end-of-the-world sci-fi fantasy in which Relativity might just be the hero that swoops to our rescue, he stretches time. For 165 long, lo-o-ng minutes.
Interstellar depicts a world that has quaffed its last drink in the Last Chance Saloon, climate change having tipped everything into a giant dust bowl. But cometh the hour, cometh the man in the shape of Matthew McConaughey, an engineer-turned-farmer who’s nostalgic for the technology that everybody else is blaming for our imminent extinction.
This is not the time to boldly go into further revelations about the plot, thus depriving you of any suspense as to just how McConaughey gets to make that giant leap for mankind, or whether his mission will actually succeed in pulling us all back from the brink. Suffice to say, you’ll need to strap yourself in tightly for a ride that includes an annoyingly cutesy variation on 2001’s computerized companion HAL, plus lots of smirky interplay between McConaughey’s drawling good-ol’-boy hero and fellow astronaut Anne Hathaway. And in place of pacy drama, we get long lectures on the cosmic power of love that even Terrence Malick might have rejected as too grandiloquent, often buried under Hans Zimmer’s music-of-the-spheres soundtrack.
Which isn’t to say that Interstellar doesn’t have moments of magnificence. This being a Christopher Nolan film, it often provokes ripples across the cerebellum as it ponders the big philosophical questions about our place in the unimaginable vastness of time and space. And Nolan’s depiction of the eerily beautiful hostility of space and alien surfaces is as awe-inspiring as you’d expect from this most meticulously visual of directors.
There’s a particularly gripping sequence involving an attempt to dock a shuttle onto a damaged and wildly spinning space station that beats anything in Gravity for knuckle-tightening tension. As well as the first-rate featured cast, including Jessica Chastain as McConaughey’s grown-up daughter and Michael Caine as a well-meaning, morally conflicted scientist, there’s a surprising roll-call of pleasingly familiar faces. And just as the heart begins to sink that the Universe’s big secret is going to turn out to be just that, The Secret, Nolan pulls back from that particular black hole of swirling anthropocentric mush to head off in far more interesting directions.
In the end, though, Interstellar suffers from Nolan’s increasingly pontifical desire to make a Grand Universal Statement rather than giving us a rollicking good adventure. The likes of Kubrick and Tarkovsky could get away with this kind of thing because of the sheer eccentricity of their imaginations, whereas Nolan, for all his reputation as a maverick visionary, is still wedded to the Hollywood way of doing things. Too often, cloying sentimentality rears its head, not least in the repeated readings of that tiresomely overused Dylan Thomas poem, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’.
Fascinatingly, Nolan begins the film with real-life talking heads of aged survivors of the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl, a technique similar to the way Reds grounded its drama in the grit of documentary. But it also put me in mind of Werner Herzog’s cynically funny mock-doc The Wild Blue Yonder, which, in contrast to Interstellar’s optimistic vision of post-climate change survival, mercilessly put paid to the idea that space travel might give us a hope in hell of finding a new home after screwing up this one.
Interstellar is on general release.
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Amongst his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.