You cannot fault the scale of the ambition.
Whilst I’m still not one-hundred percent sure how I feel about Interstellar, Nolan certainly cannot be accused of not trying to produce something that feels suitably epic – a massively ambitious, emotionally dense project that requires the audience to engage with it on a matter of faith until it reaches an end that somehow feels less satisfying in the cold light of day than the immediate moment. Interstellar starts out as an almost intellectual exercise before it begins to draw out the emotions, in the end I’ve been left trying to reconcile my head (there are plot holes that afterwards break the narrative) with my heart (come the end, the resolution feels satisfying because of the humanity of it). I’m convinced that I need to see this a second time just to decide which side of the fence I’m sitting on. The only thing I’m sure of at this stage is that like Gravity this will not work on the small screen as the scale of the image is a key part of the experience, cinema reclaiming its sense of grandeur in a way that even the largest of televisions cannot replicate.
Visually it is nothing short of stunning, physical effects blended seamlessly with the digital, only the aforementioned Gravity comes anywhere near the sense of realism this creates, becoming almost invisible, just another piece in the filmmakers arsenal of storytelling. Far more interestingly framed are the shots of a slowly dying earth, choked with dirt and dust until everything takes on the same tone (interestingly Nolan chooses to shoot almost as many of these scenes in the IMAX format as the more obvious space-set spectacle meaning that the two never feel like different stories), deep brown saturates the screen, a world away from the cold stark greys of the prospective planets. Comparisons have been made to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but visually this feels respectively more like Solaris and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the manner it presents the two conflicting images. Nolan presents space as a vast and terrifying emptiness, utilitarian ships utterly dwarfed by their surroundings, whilst Earth is rarely seen beyond the farm belt horizon of America (and the imagery of family that we now associate with it), indeed given the scope of the film we never hear of the outside world except in a passing comment as to the lies that the government is using to control the populace.
The audio is slightly more problematic, not from its design but the way that it has been implemented. Nolan has commented that he wanted the sound to be more experimental, and whilst the way in which the environment is delivered (alongside Hans Zimmer’s score – thankfully taking a break from the foghorn of previous Nolan films) the problem is that it drowns out some of the dialogue, much of which is delivered in a mumble-core variation of pitch. The scenes without dialogue are fine, but given the importance of much of the exposition it does get in the way. Apparently this is particularly an issue with the IMAX prints, so the second viewing may be a conventional print to see if there is a difference. Zimmer’s score is sometimes clichéd, but the way in which it compliments to emotion of the film cannot be denied and (again) the impressionism mimics Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It would be nice to see what another composer could do with these films, but Zimmer does have a knack for being able to meet them beat for beat.
(Warning, Spoilers for tone ahead). Away from the technical aspects, the way you see the rest of the film will depend on whether you engage with it emotionally. Whilst much has been made of its scientific credentials, the story eventually boils down to one of faith in humanity, the bonds of family and memory, albeit filtered through a fantastical engine that creates a closed time loop of events that doesn’t really surprise given Nolan’s love of diagrammatic story telling. Whilst this falls into cliché, it’s never delivered without utter commitment from everyone involved. All of the leads (and there are a few surprises along the way as to who is involved) are excellent, with even the smallest character given enough thought as to make them feel like something bigger than a bare sketch, an end of second act surprise throws the film of course from what we were expecting till that point and leads us into the fantastical and it’s here that the film lets rip.
Inception’s dream landscapes are nothing to Interstellar’s “stargate sequence”, not as befuddling as 2001’s but a step beyond what we have seen before in the film in terms of scope and imagination (the alien landscapes are imaginative, but still within the realms of science-fact rather than fiction). For me this was where things fell apart a little, by trying to explain everything that was happening rather than trusting the audience to make their own interpretation the film loses a little of its bravery despite reaching the emotional crescendo. It is a stunning piece of visual trickery, a series of Escher-like landscapes folded within Escher-like landscapes and the point where the format comes into its own as the depth of the construction moves off beyond what you can see in all directions. From here it depends on how you interpret the film – taken literally then the protagonist sees the result of his sacrifice because of the time dilation that we have been repeatedly told of beforehand. However, the “future” all seems a little too perfect for me – is it a dying fantasy or glimpse of the future whilst in the tesseract? For me the former is more emotionally satisfying and would appear to be the direction the director is intending you to go, an ending tinged with sadness but hope for the future.
It’s here that Nolan ultimately delivers; he has faith in what the future holds, that we will eventually move beyond the confines of the Earth. Like Kubrick, Nolan is viewed as a cold, technically obsessed director but in truth he’s obsessed with what makes us tick. Whether you buy into the same sentiment will determine whether you’re able to see past the plot holes and occasional liberties the film takes. At this stage I’m tempted to follow the heart and accept it (faults and all) and accept it as a nearly experimental undertaking by a big studio just because we rarely get this scale of risk taking anymore – although how much of a risk a film by director with a multi-billion dollar box office is another debate entirely.