Friday 4 August 2023

From the archive: "Interstellar"

Tonight, Matthew, Christopher Nolan is going to be Steven Spielberg. If
Interstellar proves anything definitively – and its early reviews have been mixed – it’s how the London-born Nolan, after a decade working within the studio system, has now been fully absorbed into the American mainstream, and schooled in its dominant imagery.

The film’s prologue abounds with baseball, foursquare family values, and corn both literal and figurative. Before heading out to a parent-teacher night, single-parent farmer Coop (Matthew McConaughey) is alerted by his father to the cute blonde overseeing his daughter’s history classes, the better to perpetuate earthly life. Sporting that manliest of monikers, Coop will eventually succeed in this mission, although it will be through means somewhat more elaborate than a mere roll in the hay.

Getting from A to B proves a complex business here. Every scene forms its own reveal; Nolan increasingly trades not in story so much as chicanery. I can probably get away with saying the action unfolds in some near-future, one in which violent dust storms and the attendant crop blight have dwindled food supplies; and that Coop isn’t quite the hayseed he appears, rather a grounded astronaut to whom NASA’s big brains turn when they need someone to pop through a wormhole and see whether life can’t be sustained elsewhere.

When Interstellar finally gets off the launchpad – fair warning: it takes an hour – it becomes apparent that Nolan, like Spielberg with Close Encounters and E.T., wants to reroute our gaze to the stars. Armed with a budget that might once have initiated its own lunar mission, he and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema have come back with a dazzling slideshow of galactic vistas, crying out to be exhibited in IMAX.

Yet if the design of Nolan’s films is getting grander and grander – in Interstellar, it’s by definition out of this world – I can’t help but feel he’s losing his grip on the small stuff: reality, for one. Consider this, for starters: Coop is alerted to NASA’s top-secret enclave not by a phone call or email, but only after following coordinates apparently encoded in the dust on his daughter’s bedroom floor. Yes, you read that right.

Something has changed here, and not necessarily for the better. Back when Richard Dreyfuss was mashing up potato in Close Encounters, there was an element of mocking, childish fun about it: Spielberg knew that anyone taking such signs seriously was liable to find themselves scooped up in a butterfly net soon enough.

Interstellar, by contrast, gambles its all on an audience being credulous enough to take this lunatic connection as seriously as Nolan himself appears to. (You could say he’s spent $165m giving fanboys another reason not to hoover their own rooms.) We’re meant to go with it, and applaud the director’s audacity, but it sounds uncannily like the kind of flimsy gibberish that shouldn’t get out of a pitch meeting, let alone carry a completed movie up into space.

As it is, the dust forms part of a thick top layer of mysticism – other components: a sombre organ score that suggests we’re taking High Mass; not one, but four citations of Dylan Thomas (we’re not going gently, or indeed subtly, into that great night); a tendency towards macho self-sacrifice that gets stupidly inconsistent towards the end – intended to make the film’s sci-fi components appear less ordinary than they actually are.

Inevitably, some of Interstellar was going to look secondhand in the wake of Gravity. Even so, we end up with a walking Kit-Kat who makes Robby the Robot seem a sophisticated piece of kit (much of the physical design is stuck at a B-movie level), a crew of minor faces waiting to be picked off, and – when it comes down to it – McConaughey and Anne Hathaway sitting down and talking us, at length, through the cosmic niceties of love. We often seem but a countdown away from McConaughey getting his bongos out again.

If you didn’t find it condescending, you could, of course, cheer Nolan’s determination to elevate an audience with his learning. Yet what’s the point if all such book-smarts do is trap filmmaker and audience alike in the realms of catastrophic over-complication? Interstellar turns out to be Armageddon with simultaneous equations where the movement and fun used to be, a film hellbent on taking the longest-winded, most illogical route across the universe. After nigh-on three hours of this airless brow-furrowing, you might wish Coop had just schtupped the history teacher, and seen how that had worked out for everybody.

(MovieMail, November 2014)

Interstellar is available on DVD through Warner Home Video, and to rent via Prime Video and YouTube.

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