Interstellar

(SFX Magazine, Future Publishing)

You wait years for a serious-minded space blockbuster, then two arrive almost at once. Following Gravity, a tight adventure story where people in space struggle to get back to Earth, here’s Christopher Nolan’s sprawling epic about astronauts seeking a new home for humanity as Earth is buried in swirling dust-storms.

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an ex-pilot turned farmer in a future world that officially denies humans went to space. A ghost haunts his house and daughter Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn, due to the decades-spanning story). The ghost leads Cooper to the remains of NASA and away from Earth. Together with his companions, including Anne Hathaway, Cooper braves wormholes, time dilation, seas and glaciers, and higher dimensions.

As he did on his Batman trilogy, Nolan sets out to make a film apart from established screen genres. Avoiding silver-suited futurism, Nolan places the first act (and chunks of the others) in a blighted rural America where dust-clouds engulf farmhouses and cornfields, drawing on The Grapes of Wrath and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. Most of the elderly people who appear in the film’s talking-heads interludes are survivors of the “Dustbowl” years in 1930s America. In other words, these people are talking about their real memories, embedding Interstellar’s imagined future in the historic past.

Like Gravity, Interstellar feels like a battle between audience-friendly Hollywood and the coldly rational underpinnings of hard SF. On the one hand, the film conveys the terrifying vastness and loneliness of space. The image of the tiny human vessel crawling through the void might have impressed Kubrick. He’d surely have liked the film’s most stupendous image, of a sea humping up into truly mountain-sized waves on a world where neither land nor life belong.

And yet the film also insists on staying with its story of one cosmically-separated family. Hathaway’s scientist can make Herzog-like statements about the indifferent universe (“Is a tiger evil because it rips a gazelle to pieces?”) but she later talks of love as a Star Wars-style force. Cooper’s journey leads us to a bootstrap-levitation ending which feels like 2001’s Stargate reimagined by an especially soppy Spielberg. The timey-wimey handwaving and dubious character resolutions could have been written by Steven Moffat.

Other problems, though, are obviously Nolan’s. The multiple repetitions of Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do not go gentle into that deep night,” soon get laughably portentous, much like the closing speech in Dark Knight. Even before Interstellar’s sub-stargate ending, the film runs short of steam. The last act has long anticlimactic sequences which aren’t exciting or interesting, for all the brawling on glaciers, breathless intercutting between different worlds (a la Inception), and Hans Zimmer’s score trying to ramp up suspense.

And yet for all its disappointments, Interstellar makes it easy to turn off one’s critical faculties and just enjoy the bigness: the waves, the glaciers, the cornfields, the whole super-sized package.