Christopher Nolan is up to his usual tricks in his latest – Interstellar. It’s not dreams this time but something closer home – and the concept of home – like outer space, stars and black holes. The meditation on the concept of home was also indulged in by Alfonso Cuarón in Gravity. But Nolan’s usual tricks involve his unique perceptions of reality (right from Memento to The Prestige to Inception), his characters’ dwelling into philosophy, his principal character and the missing wife and so on. Nolan’s problems too show up here. His never ending penchant for exposition, the complicated science concepts and the open ended forum servers crashing endings.
Mathew McConaughey is Cooper, a former astronaut turned farmer living in a world with crops affected by blight and frequently ravaged by dust storms. It is established right from the outset that he is a man of science (and also doubles up as a man of philosophy; this is risen from the ashes McConaughey in a Nolan film we are talking about) teaching his daughter Murph to investigate things rationally and to move away from bad science. These exposition issues first crop up when he meets with Murph’s teachers in her school. The conversation centers around the age old conspiracy theory about moon landing but when he spews on MRI, it is disappointing to realize that this was all more about establishing the loss of the loved one and not as a primer to the lectures of science that we are in for with the rest of the film.
Yet, the film is gripping for the whole 170 odd minutes of its runtime. It’s an insane joyride similar to the multidimensional travel depicted in the film. It’s film that even supersedes Inception in many areas. It’s a fantastic piece of work both in form and function and a typical Nolan venture that will mostly only reward you on multiple viewings. This is the kind of stuff that made watching films fascinating. A bona fide big screen experience. But the higher art it aims for doesn’t always hit the mark. It’s lost amongst all the self-winking science (“That’s relativity for you!” *wink*). It is not only in the writing but literally enacted at one point. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) takes Cooper through the vehicle they are building and asks him to notice the peculiarities of it. They strut around it with the Professor and his daughter Dr. Amelia (Anne Hathaway) offering quizzing looks at Cooper as he tries to take it all in. Sometimes the film feels this way, as if the Nolan brothers are taking you around it and looking at you for your reaction, waiting for you to marvel at what a great thing they’ve built. They are a little too self-aware for us to be comfortable around them unlike the robots TARS and CASE in the film.
The dystopia (and it sort of is one) in Interstellar is also Nolan signature. It can be a little too painfully perfect. It is the most well behaved, ordered dystopia you’d have ever seen on film. There is a lot of Kubrick’s 2001 in this film but TARS and CASE are no HAL. Never in this film, set quite far into the future, do you get the feeling that the machines could turn. That’s why the events that transpire in the icy planet discovered by Dr. Mann hit you harder than any HAL-like manipulation. Nolan may have set his science light years ahead of any other film but he makes sure the age old cynicism is intact. It’s one of Nolan’s few humanizing touches in the film and used as an excellent plot device. Moments like these and the one where Cooper offers Romilly (David Gyasi) his earphones to ease up not only stand out but also reveal what this film needed more of. Romilly listens – as he is traveling to Saturn – to the sound of rain, swaying of trees. That heart, that visceral aspect is what Interstellar needed more of in place of some of its all round well distributed intellect.
Nolan as an auteur is well established. He may have worked on only one legitimate superhero series but all his protagonists have been superheroes in some form or the other. They overcome grave flaws and internal struggles – not to mention the missing wife or partner – to accomplish things heroic or equally magical. Right from Memento to The Prestige to the Batman films to Inception. Cooper is one such superhero on a mission to save mankind. And this brings out the Nolan who is absolutely fantastic with set pieces. The travel through the wormhole, the escape from Miller’s planet, that showpiece scene of him locking back into Endurance alone warrants multiple viewings. A lot of this film has to be seen to be believed and that’s of the good variety.
People suspect the science behind Gravity. But it is a film that makes you forget that for a bit and completely believe in the travails of an astronaut lost in space and searching for home. Ryan Stone’s inadvertent communication with a fisherman in Greenland has more impact than Cooper communicating with his daughter who’s aged by more than 20 years that were mere hours for him. TARS at one point tells Cooper something to the effect of how absolute honesty is not advisable in diplomatic and emotional relationships. Nolan follows that a little too diligently in keeping his science real. Gravity is another film that references Kubrick’s masterpiece. The third act of Interstellar is all 2001: A Space Odyssey. One can actually go out on a limb and call it the same thing. While Kubrick, for that era, chose a muted treatment, Nolan being Nolan and a plot and denouement hanging over him goes for all out gimmicks. That’s not to say it doesn’t work. Make no mistake, this film is all about the oohs and aahs inside a movie theatre. On that note, Interstellar delivers more than you could ever imagine. And yet, there is a sneaky feeling that Alfonso Cuarón did it better.