Much like an endangered animal or plant, of which sightings are confirmed but few and far between, coming across a much-hyped tentpole movie which possesses a compulsively-watchable story, exquisitely-well drawn characters, an epic sense of time and place (in this case, literally), richly expressed both visually and thematically, and a solid sense of intelligently-articulated, emotionally-resonant humanity, is a rare thing indeed.
Many films promise to deliver this elusive, hardly-glimpsed beast unto us, but few actually follow through, with just a handful of acclaimed directors able to keep that many storytelling plates in the air long enough to produce the required result.
Christopher Nolan, of course, who both directed and co-wrote the screenplay for Interstellar with brother Jonathan, and is responsible for such jaw-droppingly brilliant cinematic experiences as The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, is one of these gifted individuals, a man who intuitively knows that there is no point bringing forth an engrossing spectacle if there is nothing, Wizard of Oz-like, behind the curtain.
Fortunately for those of who appreciate our filmic extravaganzas with an extra helping of “great and powerful Oz”, Nolan has the vision and skills to bring forth grand artistic statements that are every bit as satisfying being savoured as they are in the delicious, often letdown by other lesser mortals, anticipation, and naturally enough for those of us who love to dwell on the ins and outs of a film, a great deal to chew on post viewing.
Interstellar is so close to emphatically ticking all these much-sought after but rarely seen boxes, that you can feel like you can reach out and touch it, a gloriously-immersive almost three hour long experience that only occasionally and fleetingly disappoints while delivering one of those movies that leave you gazing as the always hastily-posted credits in wonder and admiration.
Set in an environmentally-ravaged near-future Earth, where only two crops, okra and corn are feeding the beleaguered remnants of humanity, many of whom have had to devote all their time to farming just to survive, Interstellar is at its heart a love story across time and space between a devoted father, engineer/pilot-turned-reluctant farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Murph (played at various ages by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn).
Despairing at the prevailing view that theirs is a “caretaker generation”, who must put aside innovation, ambition and a spirit of pioneering adventure in favour of simply putting one uninspired foot in front of the other, Coop, as he known to everyone including father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) and his old teacher, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), is chafing at the bit to do Something, Anything, big and notable, a restless yearning that does not consume son Tom (played at various ages by Timothée Chalamet, Casey Affleck and William Devane) who is more than happy to tend to what is left of Earth’s rapidly-declining fecundity.
There is no immediate sense of complete apocalypse with schools and hospitals still in operation, baseball games being staged (albeit with popcorn rather than hot dogs, something which irritates nostalgic for the past Donald who can recall a time of consumer plenty which even he admits wasn’t sustainable in the long term) and people seemingly going about their everyday lives.
But the ever increasing dust storms – the film is interspersed with documentary-like footage of real survivors of America’s dust bowl of the 1930s recalling the hell they lived through, streams of grimy, dispossessed refugees in search of a better life elsewhere (it’s made clear there isn’t one) and the fires burning away nutrient-empty crops that will feed no one, tell of a world in slow-motion collapse, one which is ill-equipped to support humanity in any form for much longer.
After mysterious forces, which may or may not be extra-terrestrial or supernatural in origin – who they are is explained later in a mostly satisfying way – draw Coop and Murph to a remote spot out in the hills near where they live wherein lies the hidden vestiges of NASA (helmed by Professor Brand) working on a plan to save humanity by sending them to a new home in far-off stars, in this case, very far-off stars, the would-be once-again adventurer is pressed into service piloting a four-person mission to scout out three possible interim worlds to which people can flee.
A voyage which would ordinarily take decades, if not hundreds of years, is considerably shortened by a wormhole which appeared just near Saturn about 50 years earlier, a possible gift from humanity’s unknown benefactors, which whisks everyone off to a far-distant galaxy dominated by Gargantua, a black hole rendered, like much of the film, is awe-inducing grandiose terms (a tribute to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema whose sweepingly stark but beautiful visuals, grant space its much-deserved sense of majesty, epic wonder and faint hint of menace).
What happens once the team, which includes Brand’s fiercely-intelligent Amelia (Anne Hathaway), arrives in humanity’s possible new galactic digs, which have been scouted in advance by fearless solo scientists like Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) is best left to be experienced in the cinema but suffice to say it is a story which combines as much philosophical discussion of science and faith, which are seen not as adversaries but as complementary bedfellows of a sort, as it is does heart-in-your-mouth adventure.
The only time that Interstellar, which is loftily-conceived and largely well-executed, falters is towards the end when a series of unexpected events, and profoundly unsettling revelations about the hitherto-unquestioned nobleness of their mission – a number of people are driven by less than stellar motivations, an unconscionable indulgence in such a perilous age – leaves it largely robust narrative veering towards farcical hyperbole and all-too-mystical moments.
Any tendency to overblown grandiosity is mostly nipped in the bud though by exemplary performances throughout, most notably by McConnaughey and Foy/Chastain, who are, as noted, the emotional epicentre of a film which is fundamentally about what drives us as a species to keep pushing forward, to survive, when all hope seems lost.
An impulse which is summarily dismissed by Damon’s nuanced Dr. Mann as nothing more than an evolutionary imperative, is instead rendered by the tender yet fraught bond between father and daughter, who work together as a team even while separated by unimaginable distance and great gulfs of time, as an affecting touchstone by which our humanity can be measured.
It is this rich, emotional warmth which sustains the more outlandish elements of Interstellar, a film which, while not entirely perfect, nevertheless comes the closest this year to being that rare and elusive beast – a blockbuster film which not only deserves the often-overused term, but makes the most of it, delivering as much substance as it does spectacle, and reminding us in the process what it means to be truly human.