• Out There, Part Three: 'Interstellar'

    In his new film Interstellar, Christopher Nolan leaves behind the comic book fantasy of Batman and, indeed, Earth itself for an examination of mankind’s future. He consciously embraces a humanist view of that projection and a grounded method of production, shooting on photo-chemical film – in part in IMAX – and relying on miniatures and full-size, four-walled sets, and engaging a CalTech physicist to inform the science.

    The film’s beginning is deeply rooted in the history of the American mid-west, the country’s larder but also the scene of desperate times in the Depression. In this Nolan appears also to borrow from the similarly-themed first act of Superman: The Movie (1978), yet in omitting the misty-eyed, elegiac quality of Donner’s film Nolan makes a fatal error which is repeated throughout the remainder of Interstellar – it is realistic and convincing, but actually too realistic and too convincing, undercutting the mythic quality inherent in the basic concept and leaving little room for awe and wonder.

    Admittedly, the pivotal scene in which Cooper finally leaves the family farm for NASA strikes an emotional note. A simple crane shot of him driving away from his crying daughter – and thus from us – through the corn fields and into the distance, with Hans Zimmer’s score soaring and the rocket launch countdown from the next scene already bleeding into the soundtrack, is remarkably effective (and would perhaps have been so without the need to slip into IMAX, a harbinger of another false step). The moment also reinforces a wider point within the screenplay, which presents space exploration in general and the Lazarus mission in particular as the logical next step in America’s founding lore and connects NASA’s astronauts directly with the pioneering settlers that pushed west following Jefferson’s expansionist Louisiana Purchase. Curiously, though, despite this being a period so canonic in US history, the revelation that school children are now being taught that the Apollo missions were faked is passed over astonishingly casually.

    Once in space, Nolan asserts a rigorously – even relentlessly – credible and matter-of-fact aesthetic. The neat Ranger shuttles build on real-life lifting body design, and their tiled coating and array of deeply-set windows clearly reflect the Space Shuttle in their detail. Throughout these sequences, the colour palette is bleached down to black, grey and white, notwithstanding the publicity poster of the ship Endurance near a bright red nebula, continued with location shooting in Iceland representing one of the new planets discovered by the mission. Nolan eschews almost entirely traditional shots of the various space vehicles in flight or landing, in favour of tight close-ups, distance shots or, in the case of exteriors of the Rangers, a locked-off camera pointing down the fuselage and thus delivering the same angle every time.

    Both are effective approaches if you consider the space scenes as ‘found footage’, but again lack the epic quality that would have made Interstellar special. Equally disappointingly, they render the decision to shoot more than half of the film in native 70mm IMAX virtually redundant, with barely a single shot generating the particularly visceral thrill enabled by that format.

    Of course, no film featuring extended, meditative space sequences can escape the gravity of the triple star system that is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris and Silent Running (both 1972), and sensibly Nolan doesn’t even try, acknowledging rather than ignoring them. Kubrick’s landmark receives the most nods, from the circular Endurance and balletic docking sequences to the appearance of notes from Strauss’s ‘Sunrise’ on the soundtrack. In common with the more optimistic view of assistive technology that followed 2001 in fact and fiction, though, HAL is broken down into three talking robots, a la Douglas Trumbull’s Huey, Dewy and Louie, able to fold and unfold themselves in various ways helpful to the plot though at rest – and wittily – each a man-sized monolith, albeit in tactile bronze rather than impenetrable black.

    Revealing any more of the plot would be unfair, as would identifying other works with which this is shared. Suffice it to say the climax separates itself from 2001 in one fundamental respect, a move that is by no means unacceptable conceptually but whose execution is astonishingly awkward and over-extended. Combined with the uneven look of the film, awkward plotting and dialogue, unclear motivations and some points skipped over which could usefully have been dwelt on, this was a real disappointment for me – and a disappointing disappointment at that, just four years after the effortlessly effective Inception.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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