Christopher Nolan’s overwhelming, immersive and time-bending space epic ‘Interstellar’ makes Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’ feel like a palate cleanser for the big meal to come. Where ‘Gravity’ was brief, contained and left the further bounds of the universe to our imagination, ‘Interstellar’ is long, grand, strange and demanding – not least because it allows time to slip away from under our feet while running brain-aching ideas before our eyes. It’s a bold, beautiful cosmic adventure story with a touch of the surreal and the dreamlike, and yet it always feels grounded in its own deadly serious reality.
It’s hard to talk about the story without ruining its slow drip of surprises. So let’s be vague. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) lives with his family – his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and two young kids – in a not-too-distant future where living off huge fields of corn is the only business around. Dust storms brew, and there’s an apocalyptic vibe, as if the Depression of the 1930s had been transplanted to a dying Earth.
Cooper has a strong bond with his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy). But when this former pilot is given a chance to head a mission into space, he grabs it. It’s all very Messianic. This rough-and-ready everyman’s destiny is to join a secret project to save the Earth directed by the ageing Professor Brand (Michael Caine). And so he blasts into orbit in the company of Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway) and two other scientists (Wes Bentley, David Gyasi). This is no bus hop to the Moon: their aim is to slip through a wormhole near Saturn and search for other planets capable of sustaining life. Let’s just say that their return ticket is flexible.
You might understand the science (influenced by the involvement of physicist Kip Thorne), but the chances are you won’t. Yet still ‘Interstellar’ inspires trust, and all the formulae and ample talk of wormholes is best taken as mood music. Also, despite the cosmic canvas, ‘Interstellar’ is still one of the most earthbound films to date from Nolan, and the one most in tune with its emotions. Even with Nolan’s early hit ‘Memento’ (2000), before he took on ‘The Dark Knight Trilogy’ (2005-2012) and ‘Inception’ (2010), we knew we were exploring fairly chilly movie worlds. Nolan is ably assisted in this respect by a cast you can believe in. The real star is McConaughey: his earthy grit and family-man vulnerability are well placed: we believe his tears when the reality of multi-decade space travel sets in. Meanwhile the father-daughter relationship between Caine and Hathaway hits home with a sharp brutality.
And brutal is the word: this is a sharp, tense experience. There are some staggering visual coups: an ocean rising up to form the largest wave imaginable; a space ship floating past the rings of Saturn; a late scene which turns our perceptions of space and time on their head. But alongside these thrills are moments of intense danger, and Nolan makes us feel the threat, honing in on mechanical problems and other everyday risks.
Parallels to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ are more than obvious; they’re ingrained: we’re invited to wonder at staggering imagery and listen to unnerving silence as well as Hans Zimmer’s organ-heavy score. Nolan even offers his own spin on Kubrick’s HAL 9000 by giving us a shiny, walking robot that’s by far the cutest thing on display. But where ‘Interstellar’ is more Spielberg than Kubrick is in the strained family relationships at its heart. Yet the final tone is all Nolan’s: the film’s devastating emotional strands refuse to give way to empty sentiment and are embedded in a fractured sense of a nightmare unfolding before the eyes. You’re better advised to come armed with an encyclopaedia, not a hankie, although in a seriously imaginative climactic scene – almost impossible to explain – science and sorrow are powerfully united.
Often when we talk about cinema being a ‘ride’, we’re hinting at a lack of substance, an absence of ideas, an opportunity to switch off. Not so here. ‘Interstellar’ is, in large part, a spectacle. But it also asks you to think hard, look hard and urges you to return for more. Why only ask for the stars when you can have moons, distant planets, extra dimensions, lectures on physics and a sobering shot of terror? ‘Interstellar’ has it all.