Friday, 7 November 2014


If there is a common thread in Christopher Nolan's varied filmic résumé — aside from the overarching quality — then realism is its name. Nolan has turned his hand to any number of genres and on every occasion has infused the final product with a scrubbed, earthy tone. His artistic leanings are evident, of course, and as his budgets have increased so, too, has the elegance of his framing, but, regardless of the content, this most unassuming of large-budget, high-functioning blockbuster architects is no stranger to dragging fiction back to ground level. 

Tellingly, DNA traces of Nolan’s newest project, Interstellar, are discernible throughout his back catalogue. It is rife with the restrained, yet thunderous, sense of scale that rendered his Batman trilogy so acutely brilliant; Bruce Wayne’s rebooted arc developed in a prism of relatively pared-down naturalism. Inception, a sci-fi tale of mind-bending proportions, appeared to possess some kernel of truth hidden, perhaps, between the strands of Dom Cobb’s tortured subconscious. Even The Prestige, a sumptuous period drama, ultimately plumped for (somewhat questionable) science over magic. With Memento Nolan tested intellects, in reverse narrative, to convey a fruitless battle against the crippling blight of encroaching amnesia. 

Now, by splicing together these disparate elements, the director comes close to eschewing his realistic bent. Nolan has reached out to touch the stars and, in so doing, delivers a film of quite startling magnificence, a benchmark that, for all his gifts, he may struggle to overcome. A story of love and legacies, apocalypse and genesis, dressed in the garb of soaring space opera, Interstellar bristles with a sense of pioneering wonder. There are hiccups, obviously, but, by the time of its conclusion, they seem little more than faint stars in the dark grandeur of space. No, what is created here plays out as a latter-day existential fable on the continuation of a species, our species, and the lengths to which we will go to endure in the face of a self-induced destruction. 

It is not without significance that Matthew McConaughey sits proudly at the heart of this Odyssean epic. A man now on the crest of his own rebirth — a ‘McConaissance’ if you will — the Texan is fresh off his Oscar-winning star turn in last year’s Dallas Buyers Club and a critically acclaimed role in HBO’s terrific True Detective series. 

Keeping his famously louche persona firmly in check, he portrays Cooper a former test pilot now scraping through life as a farmer somewhere in the American west. The time period is never specified, nor dated by props and styles (John Lithgow’s grizzled grandfather makes reference to an era during his youth that sounds remarkably like our present) but this is a near future few will ever wish to see. It is a time of dystopian dust bowls, failing crops, stalled technological advancement and the eerily realistic steady decline of Mother Earth.  

Discerning a series of ghostly communications in her bedroom, Cooper’s preternaturally intelligent daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, putting Twilight behind her), convinces him that the spectral movements signify important geographical coordinates. His sense of adventure awakened, Cooper soon stumbles upon the secret location of what was once NASA and a small scientific unit led by his former mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway).

He is swiftly recruited — a narrative expedience just about escaping ridicule — to pilot an inter-dimensional expedition tasked with searching for a sustainable homeworld beyond this one. A decade earlier, twelve astronauts secretly did the same, traversing a spherical wormhole in the shadow of Saturn to explore the galaxy beyond. Essentially lost in their mission, that original team’s probing has signalled three possible destinations and it is the task of Cooper, Amelia, Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and their twin robots, TARS and CASE — a pair of beautifully conceived, silver-plated sentinels who walk and spin like Ikea-designed disciples of minimalism — to investigate the leads. In the meantime, Brand will stay behind to solve the quandary of effecting a large-scale escape from this planet’s gravitational pull.

It is dense material which Nolan and his brother, co-screenwriter Jonathan, manage to distill for ease of understanding. In truth, however, his triumph stems more from the emotion driving the picture, something which represents a remarkably heartfelt departure from an auteur best known for his cool delivery. 

Mankind must strike out lest it be swallowed up by the dying Earth, a reality which will ultimately strain the ties of love, and loyalty, that define us. Cooper embarks on his quest for the sake of his children, though it is not a decision taken lightly. The stress of his departure, the horrible unpicking of a profound father-daughter bond, carries as much weight as any visual treat conjured by Nolan’s imagination. 

The dissipating currency of days, months and years, so natural a pillar of our existence, quickly becomes the expedition’s enemy. It nips at their heels, constricting the window available to complete the mission, threatening a reunification with all they hold dear. In a single quiet but devastating scene, the value of time is reinforced with cold certainty, true and tangible; it is no longer a mere mathematical abstract.

Indeed, this unending march towards oblivion also eats away at those left behind. Adult Murph — played with steely sensitivity by Jessica Chastain — and her brother, Tom, deal with the effects of childhood abandonment. Casey Affleck's taciturn sibling finds solace in guarding his father’s memory: farming and family. Meanwhile, Chastain’s heartbroken boffin directs her anger into the task of assisting Brand with his unending equation. 

At this stage, Interstellar is not so much a voyage of discovery as it is a desperate scramble to escape a burning skyscraper and the sudden emergence of a bleaker, less hopeful tone constitutes a sobering reminder that every part of humankind, including its frailties, its myriad deceptions, will continue if Cooper and the rest succeed in their search. 

The path travelled in the latter stages will surprise and bemuse in equal measures. Drifting into those incomprehensible complexities of the astral plane, Nolan’s plot charts previously unimagined territory. This embrace of something approaching high fantasy will irk those invested in grittier themes but should thrill anyone seeking a departure from the rote conventions of the genre. 

There is a point to this almost crazed exploration of, well, everything and Nolan has not opted to delve outside the edge of our understanding merely for the sake of it. It returns him, before the end, to that which started all of this: bloody-minded, indefatigable survival.

As one might expect, Interstellar is a colossal film awash with the richly striking imagery that its creator seems to prefer, whatever the context. Instead of the luscious, HD-ready palette usually employed by long-time Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister, Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera captures, in tandem, the overpowering vastness of the cosmos and the fading cornfields of the world’s breadbasket. The former setting, however, provides the truest showcase for the breadth of Nolan’s vision. 

A tiny shuttle skirting the edge of Saturn; hundred-foot waves crashing across the surface of a water-bound planet; frozen clouds overhanging ice sheets that stretch to the horizon and beyond; only the most cynical will be unmoved by the appearance of these awe-inspiring starscapes and distant, unknowable worlds. They populate an otherwise spartan void on the far side of Gargantua, the increasingly crucial black hole, a roiling and terrible leviathan into which Cooper leads his crew, seeking answers as well as simple refuge. 

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” says Caine in voiceover, tying Dylan Thomas’s beautiful words to the hardiness of the human spirit. “Old age should burn and rage at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” 

To resist fate, to defy the certainty of our own demise, Nolan suggests, humanity must push onwards, furiously, as far as it may carry itself. Powerful, insistent, difficult to ignore, Interstellar reminds us that we might just do it when the time comes. 

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