Christopher Nolan is evidently a big fan of Stanley Kubrick. Even before his latest film turned out to be a shameless homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey , the signs were always there. There’s the careful precision of his plotting and editing. There’s his dedication to complex practical effects work, and the pursuit of “realism”. There’s the cold, clinical style of his camerawork, and the equally cold, detached attitude to characters and emotions. More than anything else, with Nolan as with Kubrick, we observe the story rather than experience it.

What’s weird is that Interstellar – a movie that directly lifts imagery and even story beats from Kubrick’s 1968 space classic – is probably his least Kubrickian film. It’s warmer and more personal, and Nolan finally tries his hand at those things called “feelings”. Inception , Memento and the Batman trilogy all had emotional motivations, of course, but I never actually experienced those emotions along with the characters. This is the first time I’ve ever really felt for the people in a Nolan movie.

Interstellar01

Can you touch this?

Feelings

We’re introduced quickly and effectively to Cooper, a farmer on a semi-apocalyptic near-future Earth, and his family – daughter Murphy and son Tom. Watching the struggles of this family, and their joys together, quickly endears them to us. A big part of that is probably the casting of Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, who is just so damn charismatic that it’s impossible not to like him. But the script is also so warm and natural, and the young actors so good, that it’s very easy to invest in this dusty world and the people who live there.

This is a ravaged, desolate planet, where food is scarce and nothing will grow except corn. There have been wars and famines, and society is barely hanging on. Perhaps most disturbing is that farming is considered so important, and other ambitions so undesirable, that children are taught the moon-landings were faked (another Kubrick reference, since he’s supposedly the one who faked them). Even if the film seems afraid to directly address global-warming – inventing a crop-eating blight instead – that’s the clear allegory, and it’s brilliantly-realised. Like the characters, this world is immersive and powerful and it sucks you in completely.

But then Cooper is recruited to blast into space and save humanity, and all that character and worldbuilding drops away, leaving nothing but cold, mechanical plot. The connection we felt between Cooper and Murphy becomes little more than a ticking-clock device, and his relationship with his son vanishes entirely. It feels like a different film, honestly. And, to be fair, this space-borne portion does feel more like Kubrick again. It certainly goes out of its way to look the part, with rotating white ships, robots that look like Monoliths, and an alien doorway orbiting Saturn (one-upping 2001 , which had to settle for Jupiter when they couldn’t get the rings to look right).

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It is very pretty.

Explanations

While he has the visual grandeur down, Nolan has no interest in replicating the mystery or wonder of his inspiration. Everything has to be explained – not just within the film, but literally, out loud, in dialogue. Even the quiet emotional beats from earlier are replaced by scientists making unsubtle speeches about how love is a powerful universal force. The plot remains elegant and clever – but the writing ceases to be either. It gets to a point towards the end where, twice, characters just magically seem to know things they have no evidence for, because gods forbid anything go unexplained!

This awkward writing really pulled me out of the film, and that’s a problem I also had with the film’s logic. It’s established that travelling between planets takes months, travelling between stars takes centuries, and leaving Earth’s gravity takes bloody massive three-stage rockets. Yet later on, none of this remains true – they hop between planets and stars seemingly in days, and can escape those planets’ gravity in mere shuttles. It’s not that the science is wrong – I have no problem with that, or I’d never like any fiction – it’s that the film sets up rules and then ignores them. Since travel-times and gravity are both vital to the plot, you’d think they’d want to keep them consistent.

But now I’m just nit-picking. The space-sections, for all their unnecessary exposition and silly rule-bending, are frequently spectacular and exhilarating. There’s some intense stuff, and some fantastic action sequences – there’s one scene in particular that will go down as an absolute classic. Nolan’s action seems to get better with every film he makes, and his spinning-corridor tricks from Inception translate even better into a space setting. You can’t help but hold your breath as ships skim the surface of strange oceans, rush through wormholes, and tumble through the void. Even the docking sequences – just two spaceships aligning and locking together – become dramatic, nailbiting tension.

Yet even here, in maybe the best sequences of the movie, there are things that don’t work. There’s a tendency to bludgeon the audience with the bombastic score, pushing these scenes from powerful to exhausting, and at least one scene is spoiled by its editing. What should be a major dramatic turning point is weirdly intercut with something unrelated, making both scenes feel inert and much less effective. There are many great parts, but they never add up to anything greater.

Conclusions

You can probably tell by now that I’m torn over Interstellar . There’s some truly brilliant stuff here. The visuals are breathtaking (behold the most accurate movie black-hole ever created), the early character work is Nolan’s strongest ever, and the action is often amazing. The overall message of the movie is powerful too – one of optimism and hope and human ingenuity. But it’s marred by its own cleverness. The film ends up being about its puzzles and plot, rather than its characters and world.

Matt-H-Could-be-better In truth, that’s how all Nolan’s movies work – it’s just that here, unlike The Prestige or Inception , we’re actually invested in the characters and their emotional journeys. That strong, character-driven opening actually hurts the film in the long run. When everything wraps up, in a rushed and unfulfilling montage, you feel cheated. In the end, Interstellar can’t decide if it wants to be 2001 or Gravity – a detached think-piece or an emotional thrill-ride – so it ends up being neither, and can’t do justice to either one.

The robots are awesome, though.

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Interstellar is out now in the UK and US. Our reviewer sent a robot to buy his own tickets.

  • http://dmosbon.postagon.com/ dmosbon

    Although I’m not totally at odds with your review there are things that I seemed to enjoy more than you Matt. I thought the emotion, from the cast, was believable and the empathy was there to be experienced. Time, fear and love were key to Interstellar. Time being relative (travelling between stars did take years BUT how is that referenced when there’s nothing to reference it too?), Fear was the stick that beat humanity into a downward gaze. While love was the driving force behind survival.

    I do, however, prefer the ending to Inception than I do Interstellar. Trying to be too ‘neat and tidy’ in its closing left things feeling too safe in Interstellar. I do believe that it deserves a second watch.

    • http://nerdtechuk.blogspot.co.uk/ Hurdy42

      I see what you mean about relative time, but they still have to sleep for two years to reach Saturn. It takes two years of their own ship-board time, regardless of how long that is anywhere else. Yet it only takes days, still in ship-board time, to travel similar distances once they pass through the wormhole.

      I agree that the themes were there, but I just wish they came together better. Cooper’s love for Murph doesn’t actually play into the ending in any meaningful way – he could have sent that message to anyone, and the only reason it was his daughter is because that’s who the tesseract decided to show him.

  • http://www.nerdsassemble.co.uk/ Emily King

    I can explain several of the sciencey things you take issue with.

    Blight is a problem that is on the increase, helped by climate change. Blight likes a warmer world.

    The reason you have a three part rocket to get ships off Earth is because the shuttles are clearly not running off of rocket fuel, but something more fusion related. You wouldn’t want to accidentally nuke the Earth just as you’re leaving it, because you engaged its nuclear load.

    I liked the ways things on the more galactic level were explained in the film. They tended to explain them to Cooper, who at the end of the day was just a pilot, not a cosmologist.

    For me the film was derived from elements of both 2001 and Silent Running.

    The visuals and coldness and existential, two places at the same time, crisis was 2001. All the warmth and the robots were Silent Running.

    And I now accept more than ever, after hearing the idea put forward at the last Kermode screening, that family is one of the most important aspects of Nolan’s films.

    But what I want to know is why no one tried to geo engineer Earth, when they seemed kinda fine trying it a bit with alien worlds.

    • http://nerdtechuk.blogspot.co.uk/ Hurdy42

      The problem with the blight, for me, is that it removes responsibility from humanity and shifts it onto a disease. It’s a climate-change film that never really acknowledges how climate-change is our fault.

      As for the “fusion rockets” idea, is that actually meantioned in the film? Because I feel like that poses even more of a problem since, if the humans have that kind of tech, why would they need the magical gravity equation? The whole film is predicated on the idea that getting heavy stuff into space is really really hard, and the humans don’t have a way around that.

      The family stuff is definitely there in a lot of Nolan’s work, and I feel like this is probably his best film in that regard – the Coopers felt like a real and loving family, and I loved seeing them together. It just fell apart for me later.

      Unfortunately I’ve not seen Silent Running, but the warmer parts of Interstellar (and the robots!) were the things that worked best for me, so I’m definitely going to have to check it out!

      • http://dmosbon.postagon.com/ dmosbon

        I believe the issue was not getting ‘heavy stuff’ into space but the fact that a secret NASA budget meant the issue of getting the population of the Earth into space would be a logistical nightmare – unless they solved the problem of gravity.

        Silent Running has to be seen! If you’re lucky it may be part of the Christmas TV schedule.