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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“The Hole-Up”: a poem by Matthew Sweeney

“You could taste the raw / seagull you’d killed and plucked, / the mussels you’d dug from sand, / the jellyfish that wobbled in your / hands as you slobbered it.”

Lying on your mouth and nose
on the hot sand, you recall
a trip in a boat to the island –
the fat rats that skittered about
after god-knows-what dinner,
the chubby seals staring up,
the sudden realisation that a man
on the run had wintered there
while the soldiers scoured
the entire shoreline to no avail –
you knew now you had been him
out there. You could taste the raw
seagull you’d killed and plucked,
the mussels you’d dug from sand,
the jellyfish that wobbled in your
hands as you slobbered it.
You saw again that first flame
those rubbed stones woke in
the driftwood pile, and that rat
you grilled on a spar and found
delicious. Yes, you’d been that man,
and you had to admit now you
missed that time, that life,
though you were very glad you
had no memory of how it ended.


Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Prize. His latest collection is Inquisition Lane (Bloodaxe).

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt