If you don't like Christopher Nolan, odds are you won't find anything in Interstellar to help you change your mind. If you do, there's nothing in this new film that will make you give up on him. And yet, few recent films have stumped me for words at the end of the screening like Interstellar did. It transcends the simple love-him-or-hate-him lightning-rod that the British filmmaker has become ever since he took on the Batman franchise and made it suddenly relevant to our times with The Dark Knight - still a master work in adapting comic-book material into resonant, adult filmmaking.
In its wake, Mr. Nolan has become one of the few studio-approved directors - along, for instance, the equally meticulous David Fincher - who consistently try to break free of the simplistic, teenage-oriented visual-effects actioners that have become the studios' daily bread. In working to engage a mainstream audience beyond mere passive viewing, he has alienated both the auteurist critics and the more mainstream observers. Both find him over-ambitious, over-pompous, over-bloated, though for obviously different reasons that, either way, involve the worthy "eat-your-greens" attitude underlying his blockbuster reflections on society.
But, in fact, what Mr. Nolan is doing is attempting to bring back an idea of adult, intelligent entertainment that was the bread and butter of American cinema up until the 1950s and that the transition of the studios from "dream factories" into financial-driven conglomerates has thrown to the back benches. Hence Interstellar's sweeping melding of space epic, domestic drama and metaphysical quandary, an avowedly far-reaching trip into the rabbit hole that reminds of equally over-reaching (and even ill-received) attempts by left-of-centre directors working within the confines of the studio reality.
Both James Cameron's The Abyss and Robert Zemeckis' adaptation of Carl Sagan's novel Contact attempted to bridge the uneasy paths between heart and mind, science and emotion, with differing results. Interstellar harnesses that ambition to an ersatz-slash-update of Stanley Kubrick's mesmerising 2001: A Space Odyssey, though in a much more relatable and less abstract manner.
Starting out in a future dying Earth where subsistence farming is all that remains and technology has been found superfluous, Interstellar tells of a "hail Mary pass", a last-chance expedition into the stars to reconnoitre habitable planets found outside our solar system - on the other side of a wormhole. It also tells of how that expedition rents asunder the connection between Cooper (Matthew McConaughey channeling the pioneer spirit of Sam Shepard in The Right Stuff), a former NASA pilot turned farmer after the agency was shuttered, and his daughter Murphy, a bright, smart girl who shares her dad's curiosity and spirit of adventure.
Recruited to pilot the ship in what may well be a journey with no return and where time passes differently for those traveling to the stars and those left behind in Earth, Cooper and the now grown-up Murphy (Jessica Chastain) somehow have to atone for the absence of the other while dealing, literally, with the fate of the world crashing down around them. In the initial Earthbound stretch, Interstellar lays out expertly criss-crossing plots and leaves MacGuffins that won't make sense until much later in the film (as the old adage goes, if you introduce a gun in the first act you better use it in the third).
Once it takes flight into space and "into the wormhole" into a whole other universe where mankind may be reborn, Interstellar turns into something else before doubling back onto itself and changing shapes regularly. It expands the eye-popping trip of 2001's "Stargate" sequence into a transcendent, quasi-mystical meditation on humanity that shares more with Terrence Malick's lyrical pantheism in The Tree of Life than you'd ever expect from a "hard sci-fi" film. But it does so in disguise, as an episodic series of adventures that seem to keep postponing its endpoint in search of that elusive, maybe non-existent, "last chance".
Neither does it shy away from exploring the social commentary that has always bubbled up under the surface of Mr. Nolan's films. In a moment where climate change and financing for science and culture seem to be beholden to partisan polarization and misleading representations, Interstellar drops into the mix a sense of urgency and a need for accountability and clear-eyed responsibility that underlines all that is wrong with the current politics - either in the US or elsewhere.
In many ways, what Interstellar is asking is very simple: how can we recapture the time that has been lost? How do we make up for it, and try to put straight what has been broken? It's a question worth asking; whether you will accept the answers Christopher Nolan suggests is entirely up to your degree of tolerance for his filmmaking. (Personally, I find it his finest work since his revelatory Memento, and many cuts above both Inception and the disappointing The Dark Knight Rises.)
But that he tries to ask the question within the framework of a three-hour mainstream blockbuster with an all-star cast and a massive marketing budget is challenging enough in itself to merit more than just a cursory, "will-this-do?" glance. Not many talented film directors are trying to communicate lofty ideas to mass-market audiences. And if Interstellar leaves viewers stumped as they leave the screening, then mission accomplished.
Cast Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine
Director Christopher Nolan; screenwriters Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (colour, widescreen); composer Hans Zimmer; designer Nathan Crowley; costumes Mary Zophres; editor Lee Smith; visual effects Paul Franklin; producers Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan and Lynda Obst; production companies Warner Bros. Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Syncopy and Lynda Obst Productions in association with Legendary Pictures
Screened November 29th 2014, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon (distributor press screening)