Former King of the Blockbuster Steven Spielberg was originally attached to direct Interstellar, and we can only imagine what his innate humanism would have delivered. At its best, new King of the Blockbuster Christopher Nolan’s picture recalls his predecessor’s finest work, with an often spectacularly rendered sense of wonder and sometimes overwhelming emotive heft. But it’s too ornate, too intricate, too concerned with dazzling you with its own cleverness. In other words, at its worst, Interstellar is more redolent of that other one-time pretender to Spielberg’s crown – M. Night Shyamalan.
A very strong – very Spielbergian – opening positions Cooper (McConaughey) and his children in an unspecified-in-time future, with food scarce and the world transformed into an arid, inhospitable dustbowl where they and everyone else farm corn to keep the population alive. Technology is now broadly obsolete, almost banished, but Cooper – a former engineer and NASA pilot – is about to stumble upon and become integral to a plan to save mankind from extinction. A plan led by a father and daughter duo of physicists (played by Nolan regulars Caine and Hathaway) who see humankind's salvation in another galaxy.
The problem is that these characters retain only the briefest flickers of reality while they stand around explaining the narrative and the sciencey bits to each other (and there is a lot of narrative and a lot of sciencey bits). Nor does that narrative stand up to much scrutiny; Nolan piles on layer upon layer of improbable contrivance to get to a fairly hokey (and really quite obvious) conclusion where much of the wonder is replaced by a frustrating pragmatism – a need to constantly explain things. So, that Interstellar isn’t destroyed by its own portentousness is almost as baffling as the physics at the heart of its story. The film's self-seriousness is, in fact, its great ally: the conviction with which Nolan directs prevents us questioning the absurdity as it unfolds. And it does unfold with astonishing aesthetic beauty.
Tackling impenetrable astrophysical theory and existentialism in a big-budget sci-fi extravaganza is clever and admirable, enough. But real genius lies in never signposting quite how clever you’re being, and in leaving an audience with ideas to ponder – something Shyamalan never understood. One hopes that Nolan will learn this eventually, and without the need to bend time and space.