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Interstellar

In the case of Interstellar a final-quarter release date may not prove the boon it does for many films. It’s still sure to be fresh in voters’ minds come awards season, but the problem is that something else is too; a little film called Gravity. In fact, Christopher Nolan’s space epic was released a year to the day since Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity hit the big screen.

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Some critics have seemed determined to take issue with Interstellar,[1] comparing it unfavourably to Cuarón’s 7-Oscar winner or to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Granted, Interstellar wouldn’t exist without Kubrick’s masterpiece (neither would Pixar’s WALL-E), but it is a much more rounded picture than last year’s Gravity.

Interstellar is far superior for its human story, though like Gravity it’s already been critiqued for its characterisation.[2]

Penned by Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan (the scribe behind The Prestige, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises), Interstellar opens in a dystopian society reminiscent of another Cuarón film; the acclaimed Children of Men (2006), which stars Michael Caine as an even more eccentric scientist.

Michael Caine in Children of Men

Michael Caine in Children of Men

A further complaint Interstellar has provoked is that it takes too long to get to space. This, however, contributes to its success as a narrative artwork; the world of engineer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his children Tom and Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) is subtly yet convincingly established, allowing the appearance of NASA to surprise audience as well as characters.

But we don’t have to wait for Nolan’s film to go truly interstellar for awe-inspiring cinematography (something Gravity has left more room for). An early set piece sees Cooper aggressively drive into a field of corn in pursuit of an Indian drone. In the light of the much-cited food shortage this a rather counter-intuitive move, but there’s no denying the beauty of the aerial shot.

Later in the film shots shift repeatedly from the spacecraft’s cabin to exteriors glimpsed from the point of view of the cockpit. The real jolt here is in terms of sound; the utter silence of these space vistas is made no less powerful by the fact that the technique has already been employed by Cuarón.

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The Nolan brothers handle the concept of time with clarity and verve in terms of structure as well as plot. Excellent pacing and editing throughout the latter acts enables a series of parallels to be drawn between events in space and action on earth. It’s crucial that Cooper, Dr Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) and their colleagues never feel too distant from their earth-bound relatives. Moreover, the high-stakes-for-all-humanity nature of their mission makes Interstellar capable of emotional impact, even without the leads turning in career-best performances.

Jessica Chastain especially is capable of more; as the adult Murphy she’s little more than an intelligent and stubborn redhead with extreme daddy issues. Foy, however, bounces back from a potentially career-stopping appearance as the vampire-human hybrid child in the atrocious The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, managing to impress even among this crowd of Academy Award winners and nominees.[3]

4There are, however, moments where the greatness of Nolan’s post-Batman movie threatened to come crashing down. The treatment of Hathaway’s Amelia as the sole female astronaut and scientist, at least in the first half of the film, is irritating. As Cooper and crew rendezvous at the first potential after-earth it’s Amelia who makes a costly mistake, and later her judgement is shown to be compromised by her love for a long-stranded astronaut. This scenario, at least, allows her to deliver a killer line to the obliviously equally-compromised Cooper. This is the film’s saving grace. For all its fantastical wish-fulfilling envisaging of the future of humanity, Interstellar recognises the flaws and inabilities that define human nature and paints them clearly in each character. Cooper is just as swayed by his protective love of his family as Amelia is by her feelings for Dr Edmunds.

Furthermore, through Matt Damon’s cameo as Dr Mann Interstellar crafts a totally convincing depiction of the consequences of a man spending years deprived of human interaction. His madness recalls the desperation of Sam Rockwell’s solo man on the moon in Duncan Jones’ Moon.

The fact that Interstellar, Gravity, Moon and 2001 overlap in terms of the ground they cover suggests that there is an infinite in terms of the scope of the philosophical sci-fi movie. Interstellar, to its credit, makes no secret of its derivative nature. Allusions to 2001 are prevalent; from Cooper’s spaceship docking to a soundtrack of classical music and the significance of robot characters TARS and CASE, to the at-first nebulous visuals of the narrative climax.

Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Uncannily, Interstellar also replicates 2001’s running time almost to the minute, yet it features a characteristically inconclusive Nolan-esque ending which somehow manages to be sudden even as the film approaches the 3 hour mark.

The Nolans just resist the domino effect of disaster which made Gravity such a tense watch, instead building stronger characters and relationships to achieve a suspenseful, emotive and intelligent movie-cum-essay which ingeniously posits an interpretation of Kubrick’s obscure art film while entertaining in its own right.

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[1] See Henry Barnes and Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, and Nick Pinkerton of Sight & Sound.

[2] Catherine Shoard, speaking in The Guardian Film Show.

[3] Matthew McConaughey was awarded an Oscar for his portrayal of AIDS sufferer Ron Woodroof in last year’s Dallas Buyers Club; Anne Hathaway was named Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her Fantine in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables the previous year, while Jessica Chastain, criminally, was unsuccessfully nominated for both The Help (2011) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012).

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