There's an undeniable MC Escher-esque quality to Christopher Nolan's films: a recurring preoccupation with infinity, architectural impossibilities and mathematical paradoxes that explodes (if also confounds) on the screen. For the director and his brother, time and space are not constrictions but ideas to be played with, and engaging with them unconventionally is a device that often underscores their scripts, or — as was the case with Memento — forms their entire plot.
Interstellar, Nolan's ninth and newest film, once again places time as the driving force behind the story. A lack of time, to be precise, because earth's days are numbered. In the near future, climate change has finally, fundamentally and — as we soon learn — irrevocably imperilled the planet and its remaining citizens.
Farming is now the industry, and almost everyone does it. If you've ever had a taxi driver tell you he was formerly a surgeon in his own country, imagine that, but that on a global scale. Even former NASA pilots like Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) find themselves toiling the fields and ducking the sandstorms. But the crops are dying, and pretty soon there'll be nothing left to produce the oxygen required to sustain life. Earth's last hope, it turns out, is a secret NASA plan to seek out appropriate new planets for humans to live on in the far reaches of the galaxy.
"Ahh," you might say, "that's all good and well, but the nearest ones are lightyears away." True, but hope springs forth courtesy of a wormhole that one day simply appeared in our solar system: a secret backdoor to viable new planets that the NASA team can only presume was 'sent' to us by a higher intelligence. So, Cooper makes the heart-wrenching decision to leave his kids behind and give both them and the planet one last chance at salvation.
The crux, of course, is time. The distances and physics involved with interstellar travel — especially when relativity comes into play — mean time is measured in almost impossible scales. An hour on Planet X equates to seven years on the spaceship orbiting just above it, just as a day to Cooper represents a lifetime to the family he left behind. It's a device reminiscent of the 'dream within a dream' world of Inception, only here the stakes are so much higher.
Naturally for a film of this scale, Nolan elected to shoot more than 100 of its 180 minutes in 70mm IMAX, and the result is breathtaking. Matched with a Hans Zimmer soundtrack that's so epic it sounds like the composer simply threw himself on a giant organ and writhed around for a few hours, Interstellar is a film that's experienced as much as it's watched. With clear allusions to its predecessors, including 2001, Contact and even Event Horizon, Interstellar still manages to forge its own unique style and story, albeit with 'revelations' that most will predict a long way off.
Performance wise, McConaughey is solid in the lead and finds ample support from a packed ensemble featuring Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Topher Grace, John Lithgow, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck and Ellen Burstyn. The standouts, however, are Mackenzie Foy as Cooper's rambunctious daughter Murph (named after Murphy's Law), and a faceless, wise-cracking robot named TARS. The conceit sounds cringeworthy, but the result is amazing, boasting some of the funniest, smartest lines in any film this year.
In all, this will surely prove a divisive picture, with debates certain to arise over its science, storyline and ultimate resolution. Time-travel films inevitably involve paradoxes that, in turn, must (by tradition if not by law) spark heated arguments over causality and order and the misconception of time being linear and… well, you get the idea. It's not Nolan's best film, but it's perhaps his most ambitious, and it's to be applauded for its determination as well as its technical achievements.