Cold comfort: Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Nolan's space opera
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Home from home: Christopher Nolan’s space movie Interstellar fails to launch

It’s hard to care about the future of civilisation when we meet so few members of it worth saving and most of those behave like they know they’re in a movie.

Interstellar (12A)
dir: Christopher Nolan 

Love letters reveal more about the sender than the recipient and Interstellar is no exception. There is sincerity in the homage paid by its writer-director, Christopher Nolan, to two masterpieces of science-­fiction cinema, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. What isn’t certain is that Nolan understands why the objects of his desire are so profound. A person who doesn’t realise that the scenes of quotidian domestic disarray in Close Encounters are as vital to that picture as any UFO should arrange a repeat viewing. And we should be in no hurry to trust the judgement of somebody who thinks 2001 would be better if its mysteries were spelled out at length. Interstellar suggests that Nolan is guilty of both misreadings.

His film is set in the US during earth’s dying days. Technological advance has been halted by poverty and environmental decline. Austerity extends into the past: his­tory books are rewritten to portray the moon landings as fake. The country needs farmers now, not astronauts. None of which is good news for Cooper (Matthew Mc­Conaughey), who knows first-hand that space travel is real and doesn’t want his two children to stop dreaming about the enormity of the universe.

Starved of its budget, Nasa has been forced underground. Now a mission is afoot to find habitable alternative planets. A benevolent alien race has sent hints about possible replacements, much in the manner of chums emailing promising links from Rightmove. It seems there’s a des res north of the wormhole: good transport connections, only eight months to Saturn, slightly longer in rush hour. Pop round for a viewing at Tuesday teatime, three years from now.

Cooper is invited to head an expedition that includes Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and two low-tech robots that resemble a cross between 1970s executive toys and sentient filing cabinets. The shabbiness of this frugal future is one of Interstellar’s assets. There are blackboards but few computers. The scuffed glass, listless metal and dull fabrics have a lived-in earthiness lacking in the screenplay (by Nolan and his brother Jonathan). One of the neatest ideas involves giving the robots a sense of humour that can be modulated, along with other qualities such as honesty and discretion. If the film has such a feature, the humour dial is stuck close to zero. Hubris, on the other hand, must be nudging 100 per cent.

It’s hard to care about the future of civilisation when we meet so few members of it worth saving and most of those behave like they know they’re in a movie. Only McConaughey has a shambolic ease that survives the film’s extremes of tone – its portentousness and its gushing sentimentality. Credit must also go to Mary Zophres’s bargain-basement costume design, Hans Zimmer’s textured score and the invisible hairdresser who keeps Hathaway’s pixie cut consistent throughout many years in transit.

Nolan’s most appealing films, Memento and The Prestige, articulated philosophical ideas with wit and elegance. His biggest hits (the Dark Knight series and Inception) have put paid to all that. He has some claim on being both a visual and cerebral director but he has lost any ability to reconcile the two. Actual ideas, such as the part played in science by love, sit on the surface of the drama, discussed but never integrated successfully. They call out: “Hello. We’re ideas. Could somebody do something with us, please?”

Interstellar includes impressive set pieces and makes strong use of location. Iceland stands in for a frozen planet where the days are more than 60 hours long. After this and Prometheus, the country is in danger of becoming to science-fiction cinema what abandoned quarries were to mid-period Doctor Who.

The most impressive effect involves a distant tidal wave the length of the horizon. Caught up in its tremendous momentum, the marooned spacecraft could pass for a speck of foam. The sequence plays like a game of one-upmanship with Gravity, which featured the sublime joke of having its protagonist almost drown on earth after surviving all manner of hazards in space.

If Nolan were as deft a director when the action dies down, Interstellar might be a formidable work. But his film has a lot of dialogue, pages of the stuff, explanations and exposition, none of it overlapping with recognisable human speech. “We used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars,” says Cooper. “Now we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt.” Oscar Wilde could have put it only slightly better.

Everything else sounds like it has been stitched together from movie-poster copy: “Mankind was born on earth but it was ­never meant to die here . . .”; “Out in space, we face great odds but not evil . . .”; “I’m not afraid of death, I’m afraid of time . . .”; “We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it . . .” There is no small talk in the future and no medium talk, either. Conversation only ever pertains to plot. Settling down for their eight-month hibernation, the astronauts don’t say to one another “Sweet dreams” or “Sleep tight” or even: “Are you sure you set the alarm?” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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