Around the World
in Two Hours

Christopher Nolan
Writer - Director

Jonathan Nolan

Film Review
Interstellar:Around the universe in two hours

Interstellar: Around the universe in two hours

There is a reason why Interstellar has been getting such mixed responses. There are those of us for whom astrophysics works like a drug; whose understanding of quantum mechanics and relativity may not extend beyond Richard Feynman’s lectures or Roger Penrose’s books, but who carry in their hearts the strange joy of knowing that we know very little.

And then there are those of us who are far more interested in the here and now. Who might shun the former group as escapists and would rather concern ourselves with more immediate human needs and emotions.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity straddles these two worldviews wonderfully. Here, the writers said, is the infinite, terrorising universe dwarfing us in size and knowledge and here is this one woman’s struggle to survive this forbidding darkness. It is a balance they never once rocked right up to the closing images of the film.

Christopher Nolan’s (written along with his brother Jonathan) Interstellar perhaps intended for a similar balance. But one decision of the writers definitely tilts the film in favour of the latter, more emotional worldview. They decided to show us all the grand mysteries of the universe, and talk about the importance of human love. It is a combination that could appeal to some and leave others quite cold. Sci-fi films and supernatural themed ones benefit most from leaving key elements unseen or unexplained (Contact, Solaris, etc). To actually witness phenomena like space-time continuums and black holes on screen can be a bit underwhelming. On the other hand we aren’t allowed to visually and vicariously experience the emotions the characters go through; to understand (from the character’s actions alone) how even in the face of great crisis their concerns are for his or her loved ones. No, here the writers insist that each feeling be explained, discussed repeatedly and stated to be the central theme. Love, we are told, can transcend space and time because we still care about the dead. Good, old Hollywood sentimentality, placed right when the characters have the difficult task of choosing between two lives to save. I believe we can sympathise quite easily with the father-daughter bond, the excitement of reuniting with a lover after a decade and the evilness generated out of survival instinct, without it having to be spelt out. The verbosity steals the possibility of quiet reflection, something Gravity afforded in plenty despite running for half of Interstellar’s length.

The Story

The world in Interstellar is getting buried, an inch at a time, by dust. It has been recently savaged by food shortage and things continue to look bleak as crops fail year after year. It is a world that is just waiting around the corner from us, perhaps fifty years hence, in which farmers are more in demand than engineers. It is clear humanity needs to leave the Earth, but where is it to go?

In this unconscious retelling of Noah’s Ark, ex-pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) must leave behind his family and travel into the great unknown to find a substitute for Earth. With him, on board the spaceship Endurance, are Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly and Doyle. It is an incredible journey down wormholes, hostile planets and inside time dilations, and it even includes quantifying the impossible: singularity. While the astronauts on Endurance have been travelling for just about two years, 23 years have passed on Earth. Cooper’s daughter, the lovely Murphy, is now a scientist working with Prof Brand (Michael Caine) to ‘solve gravity’ so NASA can build a space station capable of carrying the whole of humanity to safety once the Earth-substitute has been located.

The film deals with a lot more than just this, of course. What constitutes home? How is one to understand time if it is just another physical dimension? Is dishonesty a compulsory pre-requisite when dealing with ‘emotional beings’ like humans? Are we justified in sacrificing our loved ones for the greater good of the world? But these more philosophical questions of the film are overshadowed, especially towards the end, by one quotidian worry: Will Cooper keep his word to Murphy? Will father and daughter ever meet again? The film’s grander themes are glossed over as it tries hard to invest us in this one relationship.

Perhaps this points to our addiction to certain action film tropes. Far more esoteric emotions are pushed aside to allow audiences to actively ‘engage’ via cliffhanger moments: will the docking mechanism work? Will Amelia save Cooper in time? Will Cooper’s I-can’t-play-by-the-rules pay off (once again)? So while our pulse certainly races, the part of our mind that had been cruising gently on feelings, switches off. That is until the plot-point for Act Three occurs.

While the climax starts off promisingly, the resolution (this might be a spoiler so skip ahead if you haven’t seen the film) takes away from Cooper’s amazing sacrifice, and seems to have been written with a sequel in mind.

But can any Nolan film be without some divine masterstrokes? Good sci-fi films roll out the new order without drawing excessive attention to itself. A feeling of ‘it has always been like this’ sweeps the rather amazingly written first fifteen minutes. The drudgery in the new world is laid out via documentary-styled talking heads. That Cooper would give anything to escape the dullness of his farming life is shown brilliantly through the mad excitement he displays ‘hunting’ down a drone instead of driving to a parent-teacher meeting.

Analysing the structure further, Act Two shifts the gear from science fiction to pure action. Not that the two genres have to necessarily be different but the tropes (mentioned above) steal from the science fiction part and paces the film differently. Which I guess, when your film runs into three hours, is needed to keep interest alive.

The ‘twists’ are wisely built-up, with just the right amount of foreshadowing. The several set-ups and pay-offs are done painstakingly, especially the encounters with the ‘fifth-dimension people’. It does feel good when a film joins the dots without losing any logic in the process.

As cliched as talkative sidekicks are in action movies, the robots, CASE and TARS, had me laughing. They will remind you of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for more than one reason, and Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker for a very obvious one.

It is an ambitious film to say the least. Yes, the sentimentality feels populist, but maybe I am just not a huge fan of the ‘it is all about love’ school of thought. It is an easy task to understand why you liked the film, since there really is a lot to appreciate in it. To figure out why it didn’t have you raving takes more effort (and over 1000 words), which actually points to the amazing skill of the filmmakers. Any film that has you thinking this much is worth the trip (and money) to the nearest IMAX.

   Priya Venkataraman

Priya Venkataraman is a struggling cat trainer, amateur dream interpreter and full time scriptwriter living in Mumbai. She previously worked as a scribe for Deccan Herald and reviewed new releases for them..

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