Christopher Nolan has been one of my favourite directors for a long, long time. Over the course of his career, he has reinvigorated the Batman franchise, and directed a number of enjoyably twisty thrillers, including one genuine masterpiece, 2000’s Memento. But Nolan’s momentum comes to a juddering halt with his latest sci-fi epic – Interstellar is an absolute train wreck.
Interstellar begins in an apocalyptic near-future, in which a global dust-bowl has caused humanity to abandon all pursuits except growing enough food to survive. Former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a widower attempting to look after his young kids Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) when he is pulled from his farm in order to lead one last daring expedition through a wormhole in space, in order to find new habitable worlds. As Cooper’s space odyssey stretches into years, and then decades, a NASA team led by an elderly professor (Nolan regular Michael Caine) and a now adult Murphy (Jessica Chastain) attempt to figure out the logistics of evacuating all of humanity to the stars.
What’s really quite stunning about Intersteller is how it manages to make such concepts as the end of the world and the possibility of human extinction so utterly boring, and completely uninvolving. The film jumps from action scene to action scene, from peril to ever more threatening peril, yet it continually falls flat, thanks largely to characters that are frustratingly difficult to care about.
Mostly this is thanks to an awe-inspiringly terrible script (co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan) which leaves some characters completely undeveloped while fleshing out others just enough to make us hate them. The dialogue is utterly humourless, and clunkily awful throughout – it’s the sort of film where super-intelligent rocket scientists apparently have to have explained to them just what a black hole is. At one point one character actually makes a speech about ‘the power of love’.
And maybe it’s down to the terribleness of that script, but another of Interstellar’s most impressive failings is how poor the performances are from a cast this good. Anne Hathaway, as one of Cooper’s fellow astronauts, is particularly bad, but she’s not the only weak link. Chastaine and Caine phone in their respective performances, while McConaughey, so good in the recent likes of True Detective and Dallas Buyers Club, mumbles his way through his lines to the point where he’s often extremely difficult to hear. A major Hollywood star shows up in a surprise cameo at one point, looking as bored to be there as I was watching. Foy alone emerges from this film with any credit, the 14-year old outperforming her veteran co-stars to an extent that is simply embarrassing.
In addition, Interstellar doesn’t make much sense. I don’t mean just because of it’s time-hopping chronology, hare-brained science, or its slide into a third act so weird it makes Inception look straight-forward. I’m normally willing to let science fiction films work within their own rules. No, Interstellar’s problem is that it’s so riddled with plot holes that it is in fact more hole than plot. It’s a giant plot black hole sitting at the centre of the cinematic universe, sucking in any fragments of story around it so that by the end all we’re left with is nonsensical emptiness.
It’s particularly frustrating, because every now and then Interstellar does briefly show signs that it could have been a better film. Technically, of course, it all looks gorgeous and Hans Zimmer’s pulsing score is suitably dramatic. But offering the most potential is the film’s exploration of relativity – the Einsteinian concept that that time is not a universal constant but may vary at high speeds. It’s an idea that has been explored often in sci-fi literature but not in films, and it is the one plot device that works well in Interstellar. A scene in which Cooper, for whom it seems only a few years have passed, watches a set of videos showing his children grow up and then surpass him in age, is genuinely heart-wrenching. But it’s immediately followed by that speech about love, and then we’re back to square one.
All the way through Interstellar, I found myself being reminded of other, better films. Kubrick’s 2001 is the most obvious touch-stone, but it also recalls the more recent likes of Duncan Jones’ Moon and Danny Boyle’s (in my opinion underrated) Sunshine. The problem for Interstellar is that these reminders only made me wish I was watching one of those movies instead. My patience with this bloated, cripplingly self-serious film ran out long before the end of its gruelling three-hour run-time. One look at his back catalogue will tell you just how good Nolan can be, but Interstellar is his first real failure – technically impressive, but a cinematic disaster.