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