Interstellar

(mildly spoiler-ish review follows)

Christopher Nolan’s films have always been complex and challenging; in many ways he’s raised the stakes higher and higher for every one of his films, as they seem to expand and increase in size. Over the last decade, no other director has created a cinematic universe quite as fascinating and demanding as his.

Interstellar is very much part and parcel of that universe. Thematically, it is one of the strongest, most poignant and emotionally intense Nolan film yet.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former astronaut, living on an isolated farm with his two children: a teenage son called Tom and a strong-willed, bright daughter named Murph. Earth has been reduced to its most desolate state and humanity’s last hope is to try and find a new habitable planet in the vastness of the unknown universe. In a rather slow-paced, filled-with-despair first act, Cooper leaves his children and Earth behind, to explore space alongside three other doctors: Brand, Doyle and Romilly.

As a premise, it is rather straightforward and in fact, Christopher Nolan, as always, shows great care in setting up the story and establishing all the necessary ground rules for a sci-fi movie. The film brims with discussions of gravitational theory and wormhole travel; if you haven’t brushed up on astrophysics before the film, you may find yourself rather puzzled at some of the dialogue and scientific concepts used to advance the plot, but don’t fear: although this is science-fiction at its brainiest, it stays within the grasp of the audience, although that also greatly varies throughout the film. As expected, Nolan doesn’t make anything simple for anyone, and doesn’t want to make it simple, as a amatter of fact he is more than willing to leave the audience completely stranded on its own. With similarities to Inception in the extent to which he withholds information (and emotion), the first and second act of the film are a demanding exercise, as close to brain gymnastics as it gets for film goers. The way it alternates between space and Earth keeps the rhythm and the dramatic tension going, and that’s when it becomes apparent, in a completely unexpected but undeniable manner, that Interstellar is in fact a character piece, as the relationship between Cooper and his daughter Murph propels the story forward. Forget the big epic trailers you’ve seen: half an hour in, Interstellar turns out to be a very intimate film, an inner exploration of humanity looking outward, the examination of immaterial concepts wrappped up in a scientific theory. That is literally what the film is, and why it is such a stunning achievement: the use of physics, and space, and time, to describe an intangible relationship. It really is a courageous form of film-making -intricate to an almost silly level, yet incredibly powerful and resounding, because the emotional connection which underlies every single frame, every single plot element is there, and is believable. Many reviewers have said that this is Nolan’s most personal film yet, and I can’t help reusing those words. For all the technicalities and the science behind it, Interstellar delivers the most human, universal message yet.

The similarities with 2001: A Space Odyssey are glaring, obvious -yet if Kubrick took the audience on a journey through the history of humanity, Nolan’s response is to take us onto the journey of a character, McConaughey’s Cooper. Both he and Amelia Brand, in a brilliant performance by Anne Hathaway, carry the emotional weight of the film. Back on Earth that responsibility falls onto both the beautiful and equally talented Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain. Aesthetically speaking, Interstellar is gorgeous and feels distinctly different from Chris Nolan’s previous films. That’s probably because it is the first Nolan film which director of photography is not Wally Pfister -replaced by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Her cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. One cannot help but miss Pfister’s graceful sensitivity; on the other hand, the film is much grittier and more forceful than previous Nolan films. The lack of computer-generated imagery also feels like an enormous relief: always the pragmatist, Nolan replaces glossy and shiny visual effects with more old-fashioned, less eye-decieving effects. The result is a triumph of realism and credibility, without taking away any of the awe and wonder natually associated with space. In that sense it is fair to say that Interstellar is both a visual and conceptual tour de force. It is also the reason why it is highly likely that the film will stand the test of time, just like Memento and The Dark Knight before it, albeit this of course remains to be seen in the future.

There are very few movies that feel like such an utterly well thought-out, well-constructed experience. Of course with Chris Nolan that’s been the case many times before -he’s such a meticulous director, both in his style of film-making but also in the way his films are structured. Interestingly enough, Interstellar feels more conventional in the way the plot unfolds (three distinct acts) but it is naturally complex by the nature of its subject -interstellar travel and time-bending characteristics of wormholes. There’s also less of social undertones here than in his previous movies, except for the surprisingly accurate and poetic musing of Cooper’s: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt”. But for all that’s lacking, Nolan makes it up tremendously by ratching up the emotional stakes and never losing the thread of his main theme, even when physics and time go all haywire in the film -the relationship between Cooper & Murph. He also draws an interesting parallel to that relationship through the character of Brand, who has a tragedy of her own unravelling on the side. For that I will always be grateful to Nolan; for he has truly, once and for all put the spotlight on female characters, and on how strong they are. There’s a real sense that both Murph and Brand do not need a male hero to come and save them, and that they can nurture their own ambitions and goals regardless of how the male characters interact with them. It’s a refreshingly take to see this in a big-budgeted film, and erases what was frankly Nolan’s only flaw so far: the fact that his female characters haven’t always been as well-written as their male counterparts.

There’s a thousand other things that can be discussed and analysed in this film. It will take multiple viewings before any of us can claim to have fully understood it, and that’s partly why Chris Nolan is such a visionary director. Like his characters in the Prestige, he’s an illusionist brilliantly performing an act, leading the audience exactly where he wants it to be, and yet there is something about Interstellar, again, that feels more personal, and more real than ever before. Maybe it’s the fact that you can tell that he’s poured his mind and his heart out in every frame, or maybe it’s the sheer devotion of telling that story, and that relationship, within the realm of plausible and tangible science. Ultimately, Interstellar feels like a blend of Kubrick and Spielberg’s own interpretations of science-fiction, the highly intellectual and the achingly intimate, but with the added Nolan skills of seamless storytelling and multi-layered plots. Of course, drawing comparisons with other directors is rather unfair, as he has a distinct style that’s very much his own. But no matter what his influences truly were, it doesn’t take a whole lot of knowledge to see and understand that Interstellar is in a class of its own, and that it will very much leave its own mark on the genre. Like the rest of Christopher Nolan’s films, it really is one for the ages. I cannot wait to see where he takes us next.

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