After the supermassive success of last year’s Gravity, it was only a matter of time before we got another mega-budget flick about Hollywood stars being sent to the stars. Christopher Nolan, who has an exemplary track record in smart sci-fi epics (Inception, The Dark Knight), is one of the few filmmakers who might have outdone Alfonso Cuarón’s eye-popping CGI-fest. As it is, he’s made a film that’s overblown, underwhelming, as short on fresh material as its running time is long.
In an apocalyptic near-future, a blight has decimated Earth’s food supply and imperilled mankind (read: Americans). As populations dwindle, a secret cell of Nasa eggheads prepares a mass evacuation to an as-yet-undetermined foreign planet. They’re just missing someone to command their recon mission. Enter Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, a farmer and erstwhile pilot who discovers the operation with the help of his savvy daughter Murphy. NASA persuades Cooper to leave his family behind and jet off with a small crew of astronauts, to Murphy’s chagrin.
On their voyage, they encounter mechanical failure, menacing black holes, inhospitable planets and an evil Matt Damon. But this being Hollywood, the suspense isn’t so much a question of whether they’ll survive but of how, and the answer is a disappointingly banal combination of heroism and scientific coincidence. In Interstellar, gravity, relativity and quantum mechanics are simply forces that hold the nebulous plot together.
There are some dazzling set pieces along the way, notably a sequence involving a giant tidal wave. But overall, the visuals are at best derivative, at worst a bit lame. Saturn looks like a flaming Transport for London logo, and the various scenes in which spaceships explode have been staged in this way so many times before. An obvious reference point is Gravity, from which the film cribs dialogue, plot points and even hairstyles; but debts are also owed to Looper, Sunshine and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even the actors seem to be recycling performances from their repertoires: McConaughey the hardbitten maverick, Jessica Chastain the strong-willed investigator; Michael Caine the avuncular mentor.
If Nolan is the thinking man’s blockbuster director, then it’s ironic that his latest film betrays a dearth of original ideas. Where Inception held the attention with unforgettable graphic innovation and sheer narrative chutzpah, Interstellar meekly toes the genre line. In the astronauts’ absence, years elapse on Earth; by the time they return, one wonders if anybody will remember the film they were in.