There was a great irony in our household this week. As I opened the first Christmas card of the season and read its “peace and goodwill to one and all” message I couldn’t help but notice my visual backdrop, a Sky News story showing mercenary shoppers scrambling over cheap and cheaply made television sets like starving rats scrapping over a slice of diseased meat. In this season of benevolence and generosity it was behaviour as far removed from goodwill as it’s possible to get.
Starring at the TV, I couldn’t work out what was more shocking, the supermarket scrums or the fact that I wasn’t surprised. In varying degrees of intensity, its behaviour I’m now used to seeing on a daily basis, whether on the roads during the morning commute, or in the media news coverage of “religion told me to do it” human-on-human violence. Its behaviour that’s alien to me, attitudes that are totally foreign. I start to feel like a stranger amongst my own race. You try to compensate by moderating your own behaviour in the opposite direction, but ending up saying “what’s the point”. You wonder whether you’re the only one that feels that way. You wonder when it’s your time to shuffle off this planet whether you’ll put up much complaint at all.
Then in the course of your week you hear a voice, “we didn’t run out of planes and television sets, we ran out of food… we used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt”. It’s a voice from the greatest movie this century has yet to produce, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014).
In actuality, it’s less of a film and more of a crystal ball. No other movie before it has been so prescient to so many people on our planet. Want to know what life on Earth is going to be like for your great, great grandchildren? It’ll be like Earth as shown in Interstellar, a dustbowl where food is scarce and our time is nearly up, a dustbowl we created because we were too busy fawning over the latest bit of high-deffed, flatscreened technology to do anything about it. Interstellar isn’t so much a warning as a future statement of fact.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a film that carries a message this weighty is a finger wagging bore, the fictional equivalent of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006). But it’s not. Its message is reinforced precisely because it is a stunningly good slice of entertainment. As a piece of cinema it’s gripping, it’s thrilling, it’s unpredictable and it’s heart-warming. You come away from three solid hours of enrapturement humbled and with a renewed sense of cinema’s power to take you to places you’d never dream you’d see, a power we’d almost forgotten in this age of 3D viewings, IMAX and fully immersive surround sound.
But whether Interstellar’s message of the potential for a better humanity finds a willing ear, I have my doubts. Ironically, the fact that Christopher Nolan had to wait for technology to advance enough for him to film his vision has also worked against the director. The same technology Nolan waited for has brought us on-demand TV, instantly downloadable music, and a host of other must-have life accoutrements, all of which have simultaneously wrecked the viewer’s attention span and upped their thirst for the sugary taste of popcorn movie gratification. Viewers want the karaoke empowerment of Pitch Perfect (2012) and the nob gags of The Inbetweeners 2 (2014). They don’t want a three hour script proof read by Stephen Hawking’s best mate Kip Thorne.
It’s true that to fully appreciate Interstellar you need to have your brain in gear. But whereas an Interstellar made in the 1960s might have had an inadvertent audience class slant as a result, the twenty-first century devaluation of the arts is a classless phenomenon. Upper class, middle class or lower class it matters not; the cultural highlight of most people’s week is a Saturday night in front of X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. And when the masses do venture to the multiplex they don’t want a lesson in theoretical physics, especially one with an underlying message that their lives are heading in entirely the wrong direction.
Nolan showed particular genius in this regard. Interstellar doesn’t bludgeon the viewer with images of a rundown Earth. It’s the mundanity of future life that kills, a life of simple farming jobs, the thrill of the I-pad and the touchscreen phone long forgotten, choked by encroaching dust. Man didn’t burn out; we faded away with an unempathetic shrug for our home planet and our fellow man.
Nolan then counterpoints this with a view of what we could be, a journey to the stars so magnificent it re-stokes the warm glow of your own humanity. It's difficult to name a film has made such use of the big screen quite like Interstellar (possibly the obvious influence of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)). See it on the largest screen you can find. The universe in Nolan’s hands looks majestic, frightening, breath-takingly vast, and tear-jerkingly beautiful. And as frightening as it is portrayed, it is the first film to truly make you feel that we as a race have a place to occupy out there, not just down here.
Leaving aside the incredible message wrapped up in the story, how does Interstellar fare from a strictly movie-making point of view? As brilliant as The Dark Knight (2008) is, Interstellar is the film Nolan made when he stopped messing around with leather mask wearing comic characters for kids. To say it builds on the promise of The Dark Knight and Inception (2010) would be an understatement.
From top to bottom the film is acted faultlessly, by a cast of Nolan regulars (Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine) and newcomers (Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon). McConaughey especially excels and may have become the new Tom Hanks, having bagged his first Best Actor Oscar for AIDS patient Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club (2013), a ’la Hanks in Philadelphia (1993); and if Hanks deserved a second Statutette back-to-back for Forrest Gump (1994) McConaughey sure as hell deserves one for his work here.
Other Nolan regular, composer Hans Zimmer, also returns. But whereas previous Zimmer soundtracks all included echoes of earlier works (note the repeating cues in the likes of Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean, Batman Begins, etc) this is the first major soundtrack where the German leaves all his other works at the door. It’s so much better for it, a masterpiece of a soundtrack built around three central themes which alternate between quietly foreboding and emotionally bombastic. The latter provides a welcome contrast to the absolute silence of Nolan’s external space shots; no “how would that sound have happened in the vacuum of space” conundrums here.
The script itself has all the great ebbs and flows of a terrific story. Nolan barely breaks his narrative stride in introducing his future world, interweaving all the exposition we need about the state Earth is now in amongst wonderful scenes featuring Cooper (McConaughey), his family and their monotonous life. The solving of the riddle that leads him to a now underground NASA is an intriguing mystery that eventually ties the entire plot together, while the various escapades in space and on distant planets are as tense as any movie scene in recent times. There is also great heart and I challenge anyone to fight back a lump in the throat when Cooper has to sit through twenty years of messages from home, thanks to a two hour trip to a planet with an advanced time differential to Earth; cue McConaughey in his finest acted scene to date.
The only flaw arrives, again ironically, when Nolan has to return to the conventions of cinematic storytelling for the climax. The story wraps up rather neatly for all concerned (though being so invested in the characters deep down you hope it will), perhaps too conveniently for viewers who have brought in to the believability of the space/time/gravity modus operandi. The story also builds to something truly spectacular hidden beyond the black hole singularity that McConaughey and his space crew discover, something in the fourth and fifth dimensions, whatever they might be, that us mere humans can’t yet contemplate. But of course when Nolan has to reveal his hand and show us what that is he’s restricted by the old fashioned medium of three-dimensional cinema; so we get McConaughey’s Cooper floating inside some sort of kaleidoscopic fish tank poking at his daughter’s bookshelf.
There really was no way Nolan could avoid these restrictions though, at least not in the year 2014. What Nolan has given us is a movie as spectacular as most viewers will witness in their lifetime, with a message that for future generations it may well be as good as it gets for them to. But as triumphant as Nolan’s achievement is, I rather suspect it’s too late for this message to get across.
There aren’t enough people left with the emotional and empathetic intelligence to see Interstellar for what it truly is; the most important piece of cinematic art since the first piece of cinematic art was created. The Academy won’t bestow upon it the Best Film Academy Award, either embarrassed by how on-the-nose its assessment of twenty first century humanity is, or too stupid to recognise the brilliance of its message-giving / startling entertainment one-two punch. And the multiplex attending public won’t praise it either; not enough face punching, car chases, heart-wrenching love scenes or clever plot twists.
About a couple of hundred years or so from now though, someone will blow the dust off Interstellar, pop it into their holographic movie player and wonder why people didn’t pay more attention to it before life on Earth went off a cliff. For me, Nolan’s masterpiece gave my own humanity a pick-me-up hug. It told me that perhaps I'm not alone; maybe there are others out there that wouldn't fight their neighbour for a discounted television. I’ll sit through the nightly news with a little more resolve, more patience and a smidgen more hope. Maybe when my own time comes to move beyond this planet to whoever knows where, I won’t be quite so eager to leave. For now at least.