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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Harry Potter didn’t cure my depression – but for an hour a day, it helped

These books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But at my lowest moments, Harry Potter was the only thing I enjoyed.

Just over a year ago, I was on a plane to Japan being violently sick. I had filled exactly two-and-a-quarter sick bags with my half-digested ginger-chicken-and-bread-roll before I decided to think about Neville Longbottom. As the plane rocked from side to side with turbulence, I sat completely stiff in my seat, clutching my armrests, and thinking of Neville. I told my boyfriend to shut up. In an effort to abate my nausea, I distracted myself for the remaining hour of the flight by picturing the peaceful plant-lover over and over again, like a visual mantra. I wasn’t sick again.

I’m telling you this anecdote because this was the only time in my life that Harry Potter acted as some strange and magical cure (even then, the fact there was no inflight meal left in my stomach to throw up had more to do with it). And yet, a few years before this, Harry Potter did help me through my depression. When we talk of Harry Potter and depression – which we do, a lot – we imagine that the lessons of the book can teach us, in a Don’t let the Dementors get you down! way, to not be depressed anymore. What do you mean you want to kill yourself? Banish that beast to Azkaban with your silvery kitty cat Patronus!! For me, it wasn’t like that at all.

In 2013 I was depressed. And Harry Potter helped me through. But it wasn’t magical, and it wasn’t wonderful, and there was no lie-back-and-think-of-Neville instant fix. When I closed the cracked spine of the last book, my depression didn’t go away.

Here’s some context, as plain and painlessly as I can put it. I had just graduated from university and ended my four year long relationship. I was living at home and working three jobs a day to be able to save up to do a six-month journalism course in London (the course was free, but eating is a thing).

Early in the morning, my mum would drive me to the local hospital where I would print out sticky labels and put them on patients' folders, in between sobbing in the disabled toilets. Around lunch, I’d go to work in a catering department, where I printed yet more labels and made sure to order the correct amount of gravy granules and beef. At five, my mum would pick me up and drive me home (thanks mum), and I’d have an hour or so to eat something before going to work in the local steak restaurant for the rest of the night. (On weekends, I had a fourth job - I would wake up early to scrub the restaraunt's toilets. Yay!) 

It sucked – even though there was, at least, a woman in the hospital who liked to do an impression of a Big Mouth Billy Bass fish.

“You’re not just depressed, you’re depressing to be around,” said the boy I was not-dating, two weeks after I said we should stop not-dating and a week after I begged him to start not-dating me again. If I was being dramatic and poetic, I’d say he was the kind of boy who stopped at nothing to make you feel unloved, but if I was being honest I’d say: he was really bad at texting back. Still, tip for anyone wondering what to say to someone who is depressed: Not This.

This wasn’t, exactly, the moment I realised I was depressed. (For a little extra context, note that it was Christmas Eve eve!) For a few months, my tongue had felt constantly burnt. Every moment of every day, my mouth felt like I had just bitten into the chewiest, gooiest molten pizza and burned off all my taste buds. Except I hadn’t. Eventually, Google told me this was a little-known symptom of depression called “burning mouth syndrome”. After ignoring clues such as constant crying, and knowing-the-exact-number-of-storeys-you-have-to-jump-from-to-ensure-you-die, I realised what I was. You know, depressed.

And round about here was when Harry came in. I’d always been obsessed with Potty Wee Potter, from the lilac HP branded M&S fleece I wore as a child, to making my brand new uni mates don pillowcases and bin bags to dress up for a screening of Deathly Hallows, Part 1. But by 2013, I hadn’t read the books for a while. So I started again.

I can’t emphasise enough that these books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But one of the worst parts of my depression was my anhedonia – which is the inability to feel pleasure in things you previously found enjoyable. I would spend (literally) all day at work, dreaming of the moment I could crawl into bed with a cheese sandwich and watch my favourite show. But the first bite of the sandwich tasted like dust, and I couldn’t concentrate on watching anything for more than thirty seconds. I lost a lot of weight incredibly fast, and there was no respite from any of my thoughts.

Except: Goblet of Fire. Harry needs a date! And Hermione wants a House Elf revolution! Wait, does Ron fancy her? Harry can’t manage Accio and THERE’S AN ACTUAL DRAGON ON THE WAY. The fourth Harry Potter book is now my favourite, because its episodic and addictive structure meant I couldn’t put it down even when I knew what happened next. I couldn’t enjoy anything in my life at that time, and I’m not even sure I “enjoyed” Harry. But the books were a total and complete distraction, like slipping into a Pensieve and floating down into another world where you could lose track of the time before being yanked, painfully, up and out.

I didn’t learn any lessons from the Dementors. I didn’t learn that love would get me through. As valuable as these messages in Harry Potter are, none of them helped me with my depression. What helped me was – and I can say it and you can say it, because 450 million sold copies have said it – insanely good writing. Addictive, un-put-downable writing. All-consuming, time-consuming, just-a-second-mum-put-mine-back-in-the-oven writing. Writing that allows you to lose yourself in the moments you most want to be lost.

That’s not to say, of course, that the messages of Harry Potter can’t help people through dark times – they have and will continue to do so for many years. There is no right way to be depressed, and there’s no right way to stop. But for me, Potter helped me through my anhedonia when nothing else at all could. It wasn’t magic. It was something ordinary in a world where everything had changed.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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