The experience of seeing this film is one that is best left untainted by knowledge of what is to come, therefore this review will steer clear of spoilers as much as humanly possible.
You know something is different when the title show up at the beginning of the film. Interstellar is a departure for Christopher Nolan. It feels hugely different from his other films these last few years. Yes, there are some of his hallmarks on display but there’s something else there that makes it feel remarkably fresh: Hope.
One of the most prominent running themes in the film is that of man extending beyond family and out towards humanity, the idea of achieving not only for yourself or your children, but for all mankind. This idea is important when severe shortage of resources has not only caused massive depopulation but also reshaped humanity at a very base societal level. Nolan manages to balance this grand theme amazingly well with the intimate and interpersonal as the film expands exponentially outwards whilst simultaneously further building the intimate relationship between father and daughter (an inspired choice). It’s definitely the central and most important relationship in the film and one of Nolan’s best realized overall. Family has never been this important to his films and its prevalence here therefore feels all the more impactful. At the heart of all of that lies love.
Nolan usually explores several themes and concepts in his films, some might say too many. Interstellar is no different. In addition to the previously mentioned ones there’s also isolation, historical revisionism, relativity of time, experience in different dimensions, selflessness and selfishness.
The film has a hugely impressive cast, there’s A-list talent in every position but no one feels wasted as they serve the philosophy of the film: It’s not just about the individual, but the whole. Still there are plenty to pick out, Matthew McConaughey is fantastic as the everyman. He’s a different Nolan protagonist, one not mired in guilt and self-pity, but with his own feelings relating to fatherhood that McConaughey emotes effortlessly. Hathaway is likewise great, as a capable scientist who goes above and beyond, while Jessica Chastain very nearly steals the entire film, she’s hugely compelling in her role (which would be a spoiler to go into in any real detail) – in fact, the female roles handily outweigh the male ones. Perhaps what Nolan needed to create wonderfully compelling women was to shed himself of his noir influences, of which the film is completely removed from.
Working with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (a producer on the film), the Nolan brothers create a near-dystopian future that feels lived in and realistic, continuing a streak of grounding fantastical ideas in reality. Interstellar sees them stretch perhaps the furthest that they have and the results are really great. Information is conveyed efficiently and rarely with a sense of exposition, while Nolan’s knack of hammer home his points through deft repetition are firmly in place. What’s new however is the humor and levity. Yes, were on a very important mission to save humanity but it’s easily the funniest film Nolan has ever made, with well timed gags mostly coming from the two robots, which are of a highly unique and squarely old-school analog sci-fi design, TARS and CASE, who are actually quite compelling characters on their own. On a narrative level it also rarely does the expected, keeping you on your toes as to where all of this is going
It’s not as snappy as something like Inception or The Dark Knight and while there’s definite narrative drive, it doesn’t barrel forward with the same intensity. It’s more about emotion, mood and ambiance, layering on the importance of what’s being done. Of course there are these scenes of tension and action, but even when the stakes are gargantuan, i.e. the literal fate of humanity hanging in the balance, the scenes involve only one or two characters. The running time is also huge (169 minutes) but it carries it remarkably well, no moment feels wasted and it never drags on the way to its highly emotional climax.
Visually the film is absolutely amazing, the seamless blend of practical and computer generated effects create a world that is both stunning and feels palpable. The vistas portrayed and the cosmic phenomena are rendered in such vivid detail it’s easy to forget that you’re looking at something fictional, despite how otherworldly they look. The film frequently shows things that look and feel completely new and every single instance wows.
Perhaps one of the primary factors that make this film feel different from Nolan’s Hollywood work is the absence of long time collaborator, cinematographer Wally Pfister. Pfister gave their previous films an instantly recognizable look that’s not here. That’s not to take away from the work that Hoyte Van Hoytema (Bond 24, Her, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) does here, it’s great in its own way, just different. A large part of the film is taken up by intimate moments between two or three characters, so Van Hoytema’s strengths are played to.
The music is an interesting beast, with frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer composing, but again things are different at the behest of Nolan. The score is unlike anything Zimmer has done before, one might expect tense strings, banging drums and thumping horns but instead the brunt of the motifs are delivered with haunting organ play. It’s masterful and some of his greatest composition work ever. The score also works with the sound editing to give us theater shaking bass drones, which feel appropriate for scenes of orbital entry and travel through black holes.
Interstellar is by far Christopher Nolan’s most hopeful film, and it still includes basically the crumbling of our society to the point of making Earth uninhabitable. That might say a lot about Nolan, but regardless there’s still immense spirit and faith in human ability and humanity in the film. It pays due homage to the science fiction (and science fact) that has come before it, tipping the hat to the likes of 2001 and Solaris, but never feels like it’s cribbing from any specific source and should stand as an immensely strong entry into the genre for years to come.
The Jaw Dropping: Seeing a black hole represented in three dimensional space and then going through it
The Shocking: The silence of space, no matter what’s happening
The Emotional High-Note: “Because my daddy told me”