A film of enormous ambition and stunning technical accomplishment, director Christopher Nolan’s space epic dares to dream big and mostly succeeds, even if its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp.
Set in a dystopian future where Earth’s resources are running dry, widowed farmer, engineer and ex-test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is confronted with a dilemma when offered the chance to lead a last-ditch mission to save humanity by the elderly NASA physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine).
This involves using custom-built spacecraft, advanced theoretical astrophysics and travelling to the far reaches of space and time. Apart from the obvious risks, he will have to leave his family behind: young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), who are both devastated to see him go.
Joined by Brand’s own scientist daughter (Anne Hathaway), two other NASA (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) and a multifunctional robot called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), the team venture into the unknown, searching for potentially habitable worlds.
To say much more about their mission would be entering dangerous spoiler territory, suffice to say that what they experience in deep space is truly a sight to behold.
Nolan’s own challenge was to blend real-life theoretical science (with the help of world-renowned physicist Kip Thorne), interstellar space travel grounded in a semi-plausible way, and finally to explore the emotional toll this takes on human beings.
It is a tall order and using a blend of practical and digital effects, and a scientifically literate script, the writer-director weaves a patchwork of influences which he just about pulls it off.
The twists and turns of the story may be too much for some on first viewing, but this one where you have to strap in and embrace the ride into other worlds.
Dust-filled Earth and chilly deep space are realised with stunning clarity and imagination: cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) shoots the dark wonders of space and other worlds with a piercing intensity.
Visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin complements these with seamless digital transitions, working from stock NASA imagery and Thorne’s theories, the work he and his team at Double Negative have achieved here is truly exceptional.
Editor Lee Smith also brings a wonderfully brisk pace to an epic that lasts 166 mins, whilst utilising the crosscutting technique that Nolan used to such great effect in his Batman trilogy (2005-12) and Inception (2010).
The production design by Nathan Crowley, costumes by Mary Zophres and sound design by Richard King all create a rich, immersive and at times even tactile quality, which is surprising for a film as expansive as this.
Given all the technical brilliance at work here, and perhaps because of it, the performances of the actors are occasionally dwarfed by the sheer scale, but McConaughey, Foy, Hathaway and Irwin are the standouts.
McConaughey especially delivers the goods as the engineer burdened with courage and a seemingly impossible inner conflict and Ellen Burstyn burns brightly in a small, but critical role.
Surprises abound in Interstellar, and although the obvious sci-fi influences are here – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – perhaps less expected are traces of Reds (1981), Field of Dreams (1989), The Abyss (1989), Solaris (2002) and Sunshine (2007).
Like Nolan’s other films it will almost certainly repay repeated viewing, but it bears all the hallmark of his very best work: smart, technically accomplished and leaving the viewer with a desire to experience it all over again.