The World is Not Enough
Christopher Nolan’s ambition for Interstellar was nearly as great as that which possessed NASA engineers as they devised the moon landing. He wanted to revive the so-called “four quadrant” movie of his youth, that is produce the kind of blockbuster that bunched a set of universal threads and wove them into a yarn that could be enjoyed by everyone, even you, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. Yes, Interstellar, with its big themes of humanity’s expansion and the necessary exploration of deep space, means to explore questions pertinent to us all, yet despite its grandeur, relative sobriety and background in theoretical physics, it neglects the unsung quadrant of the audience that yearns for conceptual clarity, non-expository dialogue and a film plotted in a straight line, regardless of what order we’re presented with events. Interstellar’s plot is mimetic of its physics; it’s warped and circular. The result is an ontological paradox that will delight fans of Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat, an habitual offender, while frustrating everyone else.
Yet Interstellar’s loop-de-loop plot isn’t the only paradox that bedevils an otherwise assured production. Interpolations from the world of demographics and thought-terminating assumptions about general audiences hamper its high-minded credentials.
The sheer scale of the movie, and its occasional majesty, recalls another trip – Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That was a film of the space age, an existential sojourn to the stars in an era when the future depicted, replete with moon bases and orbital passenger ships, seemed inevitable. Interstellar’s mission is to revive an interest in the possibilities of space travel that’s waned in the intervening years. An ecological catastrophe may be the pretext for public hostility toward the allocation of resources for space exploration in the film’s sometime future, but the attitudes decried by Matthew McConaughey’s educated pilot, turned utilitarian farmer, are of the now: Apollo landing deniers and shoe-gazing halfwits that think that the astronomical costs aren’t worth the horizon expanding benefits.
Nolan’s film is therefore a modern blockbuster in the best sense – a valentine to scientific endeavor and otherworldly curiosity. Unfortunately it’s hamstrung by a modern movie trope that the unsentimental Kubrick would have excised – the dreaded family restoration and notion that love is a conquering, transcendent force, capable of crossing time and space. Here it’s presented as both the bridge that links the past, present and future, and the one linking the movie with its audience. How, wonders Nolan from behind the camera, would we invest in McConaughey’s new world recce without his binding ties? Well in the 1960s the big questions might have been enough, but Kubrick made his movie in an era when audiences were interested in ideas not sentiment. It’s a time we may wish to drop into a black hole and revisit some day.
Still, despite these diluting compromises, Nolan deserves his space stripes for attempting to mount a journey into space, with enough science cladding for added respectibilty, that will induce wonder in a seen-it-all-before era of movie spectatorship. There are certainly sequences that give you pause, for the right reasons, but eye watering though they are, the human adventure is often cold, occasionally bordering on inert. McConaughey’s lead performance is committed and sometimes mesmerising, but all too often the words stuffed in his mouth have a mechanical sound, and when he’s not on screen, either clarifying something for the audience or having an abstruse concept explained to him in layman’s terms, the life drains from the picture. This is a serious, often somber journey, in which humanising the atypical travellers with esoteric preoccupations involves lumbering them with dull, melodrama-baiting complications.
Ultimately Nolan’s attempt at trumping Kubrick’s ultimate trip falls short because it lacks the old master’s laser-like focus and magnetic solemnity. It’s dangerous to have a 169 minute movie that pivots on looking at your watch when your characters lack colour (humanity’s black representative getting reduced screen time and early death in an unrelated aside) and your dénouement’s nebulous. The result may awaken the inner astronaut in some but will surely disappoint those who, like Nolan, grew up on sci-fi movies that had a little more vitality.