I like Christopher Nolan. He seems like a decent enough kind of guy. I like his films. Some I have even loved. There aren’t many directors who produce work which successfully bridge action and drama, at least any who are working today. It’s honestly impossible to know where he will go next. A film where the lead character can’t remember what happened a minute before, he’s done it. A tale of magicians set in the Victorian age, with a bit of experimental physics thrown in, he’s done that too. Maybe a film about mind invasion and coin spinning, he threw that one out in the midst of completing reinvigorating the superhero genre.
But the cracks have started to appear. As success has come his way, with both critical success and box office acclaim, and he has become the darling of the award season, the films have become longer, more overblown, and built on unstable foundations. Character connection has become a secondary thought for a Nolan film. 2010’s Inception seemed to have a finale that lasted an hour and tried the patience of everyone involved. The Dark Knight Rises suffered from the inclusion of too many characters, stretching out plot-strands and lacking focus as he rushed to a climax which engulfed the problematic saccharine sentiments which he attempted to coat around it.
And so onto Interstellar, Nolan’s latest film, I was as excited as I was wary in equal measures. The bad habits which had set in his last few films were threatening to claim ownership of the term ‘Nolan-esque’ where it had previously stood for intelligent, tight measured cinema. The questions hung heavy in the air as the film rolled onto the screen. Would he be able to hold things together with becoming the cinematic equivalent of a juggler attempting to conduct an orchestra and answer a ringing mobile phone in his back pocket at the same time? Would he summon a mighty, overblown score from Hans Zimmer? Would he cast Michael Caine again?
It starts slowly. Matthew McConaughey takes centre stage and remains there throughout. This was only the start of the problems that I was to encounter over the next three hours. In recent years, McConaughey has impressed in a range of smaller independent work, both on screen in the likes of Mud, Killer Joe, Dallas Buyers Club and in HBO’s True Detective series, amassing a body of work which many actors would be proud of over a lifetime in less than a decade. As Cooper, a former astronaut now a farmer and widower with two children, he is bitter, regretful and emotionally cold.
As much as McConaughey has impressed in recent years, he struggles here. His delivery and range are limited once placed firmly in the spotlight. However, he isn’t alone in a film where the majority of actors are either underused (Casey Affleck and John Lithgow who deserve better in supporting roles which are pushed firmly to the edges of the script), or give extremely lukewarm performances (Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine who play a father and daughter team of scientists).
However, much of the blame has to be levelled at the script. Nolan has shown throughout his output that he is never short of ideas. This is what people love about Nolan. He is an ideas man, going for your cerebral reaction as much as for your nerves, gut or heart. However, the dialogue here at times is laughable, which when combined with the lack of peril produces an inertia from which the film never recovers from. In addition, the constant ringing refrain of Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night throughout the film has all the gravitas of a clanging bell.
I’m going to overlook the science aspect. The film may have its heart in the right place, and becomes more a story of Cli-fi than Sci-fi. Much has been written about the involvement of producer-astrophysicist Kip Thorne, and the attention to detail in terms of wormholes, and black holes. Even to an untrained eye, it seems scientifically shoddy. We live in an age where everything is debated and torn apart within minutes on the Internet and its surprise to see a flurry of articles focussing on this aspect of the film. I’ve always tried to apply an ‘accept everything’ policy, as long as it’s replicated on screen. So, if you are sending people through space, then OK, I’ll accept it, as long as it seems reasonable with the boundaries of the story. But there needs to be a sense of wonder, a sense of excitement that exudes from the characters. Here, they race through worlds, time and space, without much more than a frown or a concerned glance. Anne Hathaway reacts to the delivery of some tragic news as if she has just been told she can’t have a cup of tea as there is no milk!
Interstellar certainly isn’t original. There is very little that any fan of cinema wouldn’t recognise through the likes of 2001, Contact, Alien, or even M.Night Shyamalan’s Signs. Nolan has proved he can be original previously in Memento or Inception, so we can’t expect everything he does to break new ground but with Interstellar, if it wasn’t going to be original, then it just needed to connect and for me, it failed on this level.
It is clear that Nolan thought that he held a trump card in the numerous references to love. It’s thrown into the film like a smoke grenade which leaves an unpleasant odour and clouds any further reactions that should be taken from the development of the plot. We are informed that love is an artifact of a higher dimension, and that it transcends space and time. It is shoehorned in to give support to a standard family relationship which should have struck a chord with any film-goer and to establish a romantic subplot which has no place in the film.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a total disaster. It’s certainly a spectacle, but it’s an empty, hollow one. It’s loud, it bangs and clatters its way to a finale. It’s visually impressive without breaking any new ground. In a world where films are coming to resemble computer games, it gathers praise in this sense and in visual terms, it doesn’t do anything wrong. The effects shy away from a world of green screen and use the gorgeous location settings to illustrate new and invigorating worlds.
But ultimately, it’s a lost cause and the worrying signs are that Nolan doesn’t address the flaws in his recent work. It races towards an overblown finale, which in terms of storytelling and the relationships established over the film does just fit. There appears to be major gaps at the close as it skips over key outcomes which, if you had invested care over the previous three hours, you might just have appreciated seeing played out. Hopefully, though it leaves Nolan nowhere else to go but smaller, tighter work and the reclaiming of more appropriately ‘Nolan-esque’ work.