I hate movies like Interstellar. No, not bold, aggressively ambitious movies filled with equal parts gargantuan ideas, a childlike sense of unceasing wonder and heartstrings tugging emotional wallops – which is exactly what Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi magnum opus offers – but rather movies where their best, most discussion-worthy moments cannot be mentioned without leveraging huge spoilers. And no, I will not be that guy.
And trust me when I say that there will be lots of discussion following this film’s release, even if part of it will just be science geeks like myself explaining to our friends all the complex theoretical physics and quantum mechanics that Nolan and his brotherly co-writer Jonathan employ to tell their epic tale. Gravity induced time dilation, time paradoxes, 5th dimensional space, wormhole theories and more are all tackled here, and may leave many a layman a tad bit discombobulated as the game cast, led by a tragically heroic Matthew McConaughey, spin science lessons into narrative.
This will be off-putting to some – of that, there is no doubt in my mind – but if you’re the type of person that watched Carl Sagan’s (now Neil DeGrasse-Tyson’s) Cosmos TV show and wished that it could have 20 times the budget, 10 times the dramatic heft, 5 times the white knuckle action scenes and 1 times the McConaughey magic, then this is the movie for you. Or rather, the movie for me.
See, I cannot begin to speak of what other people will experience with this daunting piece of filmmaking, but as a life-long science-fiction geek (emphasis on the science part) who grew up reading Arthur C. Clarke, the aforementioned Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Joe Haldeman and those other masters of the genre, I can unequivocally say that it blew my mind. It’s not as psychedelic as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and not as restrained in its ambitions as Zemeckis’ Contact (which, coincidentally also starred McConaughey), but exists somewhere in the middle ground between the two. Essentially, what the Nolans have crafted here is a tale that stands on the shoulders of all the literary and cinematic giants that came before and then takes an astronomical leap to its own place in the heavens. Not that there’s anything heavenly about this story to begin with.
Set in a near future where a crippling, population-decimating food crisis has left the Earth caked in dust and abandoned hope, McConaughey’s Cooper is a brilliant ex-NASA pilot, forced into farming corn like the rest of a desperate humanity teetering on the precipice of extinction. And with this death-scramble, human society has lost all sense of hope and exploration – more concerned with scratching a living in the dust than dreaming of conquering the stars. But through a series of strange phenomena involving Cooper’s irrepressible and effervescent daughter Murphy (played with a natural charm by Mackenzie Foy), the ex-pilot is led to Professor Brand (an effortless Michael Caine) and his stoic standoffish daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway proving her dramatic chops again). Soon he is roped into their secret plan to save the world by doing the nigh-impossible: Traversing a mysterious wormhole discovered near Saturn to send an expedition to a series of potential replacement planets in a far off galaxy.
And you really don’t need to know more about the story than that. What you do need to know – and which you can probably guess from the film’s trailers – is that this Nolan-guided tour of the cosmos is a thing of beauty. Humbling images of celestial majesty abound on every other frame as cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema proves himself more than up to the task of stepping into the well-worn shoes of Nolan’s regular collaborator Wally Pfister. With the assistance of some jaw dropping visual effects, decidedly terrestrial shooting locations like Los Angeles and Iceland are transformed into starkly arresting and uniquely alien vistas. Seldom have I raged at Cape Town’s lack of IMAX as I did when greeted by these cinematographic marvels.
But Interstellar is not just head-swooning science and glorious visuals backed up by a soaring score from composer Hans Zimmer. At its core also lies a flensing social commentary on humanity’s current mothballing of NASA’s space programs in favour of monetary pragmatism. Most importantly though, it’s also a story of raw human emotion, diving into themes of paternal love, of the power and pitfalls of hope, of the unceasing pioneering spirit of our species.
And standing in the center of it all is a towering performance from McConaughey. Although stuck in default heroic lead mode for most of the movie (which is really not a bad thing), the recent Oscar winner occasionally reminds us that the McConnaissance is still in full swing with a series of gut-wrenching scenes between him, Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain (and to reveal their characters would be spoiling) that will set your eyeballs a-sloshing. In a film that boasts the type of widescreen cinematic wonder that Interstellar does, it ends up being a very personal, very human bit of acting that stands as its finest moment. And there are several fine moments in its 165 minute running time that will have you either gaping in wonder (the blocky robot TASE is just a genius invention) or clenching your stool in suspense. Pun fully intended on that last bit.
There are unfortunately also some not so fine moments. Nolan occasionally tries to shine a scientific light on some of the aforementioned emotional beats, and the results are sometimes a bit clunky – Anne Hathaway’s dissertation on the universal constant of love has an especially corny tilt (and I’m not just talking about the maize farming). Also, without getting too spoiler-y, I will just say that the film’s third act occasionally dips into rote Hollywood action thriller melodrama that feels fabricated to just meet an action scene quota. The biggest fumbles though occur in the film’s final moments with three painfully obvious (one of which is almost laughable) lapses in logic.
But these final straight stumbles are not enough to totally detract from what is without a doubt an exceptional film. And I mean that in the literal sense, as a $200 million tentpole that is more akin to a big budget science show with its early measured pace and quantum physics geekery is definitely the exception in today’s popcorn movie landscape. Just like a real-life expedition to space, Interstellar is fraught with peril and occasionally bumpy, but it’s also a superlative technical achievement that stands as a testament to imagination and ambition that can take us on an unforgettable odyssey with one hell of a view.
Interstellar opens at cinemas this Friday, 7 November 2014.
Last Updated: November 6, 2014