Like his idol Stanley Kubrick, director Christopher Nolan often gets a bad rap for making technically brilliant, cerebral films devoid of emotion. It’s a harsh assessment, but also one that’s not entirely unfair – heck, even the director’s popcorn blockbusters boast a slightly clinical, detached vibe. But with his latest film, Interstellar, Nolan proves critics who’ve written him off as an incurably cold, calculating filmmaker wrong. Because this mesmerising sci-fi epic isn’t just a paean to humanity’s potential for greatness – it’s also easily Nolan’s most heartfelt outing yet.
Set in a near-future where Earth is increasingly uninhabitable, Interstellar introduces us to NASA pilot turned farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his children, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy as a child; Jessica Chastain as an adult) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet as a child; Casey Affleck as an adult).
After Cooper and Murphy make contact with a seemingly alien intelligence, Cooper finds himself guided to a covert NASA base. Here he meets chief scientist Professor Brand (Michael Caine), and is drafted to lead a mission crew – which includes Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway) – through a newly discovered wormhole leading to the furthest depths of space, to potentially find a planet capable of sustaining life.
By taking part in the mission, there’s a chance Cooper could save the entire human race. But there’s also the risk that he’ll never see Murphy or Tom ever again…
Interstellar is that rare beast: a sci-fi blockbuster that respects our intelligence. For most of the film’s considerable 169-minute runtime, Nolan and his co-writer (and brother) Jonah assume we’re smart enough to keep up with whatever scientific theories or bonkers plot developments they throw our way. True, they lay all their cards on the table at the end – ironically, something Kubrick never did – but even so, it’s nice to see a big budget epic that demands (and rewards) our attention.
Not that their script is perfect. The film’s Earth-bound subplots feel a tad undercooked, and some of the dialogue McConaughey and Hathaway are saddled with is clunky and unnatural (and not just the expository technobabble, either). Interstellar also refuses to be rushed; the momentum slows to a crawl during the middle stretch – Nolan and editor Lee Smith opting to follow the screenplay verbatim when others would have reached for their scissors – and this more meditative pacing won’t be for everyone.
And yet Interstellar ultimately powers through these and other minor storytelling flaws, partly because of the sheer sweep of Nolan’s vision, and partly because of the raw emotion involved. Your mileage will vary when it comes to the film’s unabashedly sentimental “love conquers all” message, however, the scenes between Cooper and Murphy will leave a lump in the heart of all but the most hardened viewers. Nolan is a father, and the influence of his own experiences as a parent can be felt not just in these scenes, but throughout the rest of the movie, too.
But then, McConaughey being a father himself also has plenty to do with it, too. As Cooper, he’s utterly convincing as a dad willing to do anything for his kids, and he’s equally believable as both a former NASA pilot and engineer. McConaughey brings a rare – and vital – combination of soul, swagger, and smarts to the role, so much so that it’s hard to imagine anyone else fitting the bill.
He’s not the only outstanding actor in Interstellar, either. For her part, Hathaway produces a credible turn in a thinly sketched role, while Chastain and Foy are outstanding as the older and younger Murphy, respectively. Aside from their uncanny shared likeness, Foy demonstrates acting chops beyond her years, and Chastain – like Hathaway – finds impressive depth in what could easily have been a two-dimensional supporting part.
But the real star of Interstellar is the visuals. This is hands-down the best-looking film released this year, and it’s in the running for the best-looking film of all time, too. The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is beautiful, the breathtaking digital effects are virtually seamless, and the production design – which includes the coolest big screen robots in recent memory – is spot on. Everything sounds great, too, thanks to Hans Zimmer’s majestic, organ-heavy score – the composer’s best in recent memory.
Interstellar isn’t just a movie unlike any other – it’s a Christopher Nolan movie unlike any other. Indeed, thanks to its unapologetic sentimentality and heartfelt performances by its cast, Interstellar sees Nolan finally tell a story that’s as emotionally engaging as it is technically brilliant. The result is a smart, moving sci-fi blockbuster that celebrates both the brainpower and heart that defines us as human beings.