As Interstellar hits cinemas, Sam Cruikshank muses on hope vs expectation and reality.
Not all films are created equal. The more films you see, the more you have a preconceived notion of what to expect from the next one. This is why it’s rare to be as shocked by something new as you were by the films that shocked you as a child. Maybe you have a favourite reviewer whose opinions always match yours; maybe you like foreign-language comedies; maybe you love everything Ghibli and hate everything Disney. Maybe you have an actor you’ll see in anything, even if it’s crap. Maybe you sometimes go to see movies you’re expecting to hate, just so you can hate them. Maybe you go and see bad movies and enjoy them. Either way, you have an idea, before you go in, of what standards you’re going to apply, and how rigorously you’re going to apply them.
All of this is unfortunate for Christopher Nolan, who is one of a handful of directors from whom I expect nothing short of brilliance. I’ve seen a ton of worse films than Interstellar this year, but I haven’t seen many that disappointed me more.
To give Nolan his due, it’s a unique vision uniquely realised: nobody else could have made this film. It’s ambitious and visually striking, though not as much so as Nolan’s earlier films (Wally Pfister’s cinematography is badly missed here). But Jessica Chastain is excellent, Anne Hathaway is fine; Matthew McConaughey is solidly Matthew McConaughey (vive la McConnaisance – ed.); there are laughs and moments of genuine emotion and the relationships at its core speak to something many of us will recognise and feel keenly.
But there are problems, and for me they weren’t overcome by the good stuff. Firstly, it’s just much too long. There’s a place for 169-minute films, but when the build-up to blast-off is so slow, you have to suggest that this isn’t it. Once it takes off into space the film gets better, but there are still no stand-out genius set-pieces of the kind that characterised Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy.
That’s the root of the problem: presumably as a consequence of these earlier successes, Nolan has been given free rein, as well as a vast budget by all three studios involved (the film is a joint project between Warner, Paramount and Legendary), and the result is overindulgent, bloated and confusing. Or rather, confused. Shot both on anamorphic 35mm and IMAX 70mm film, veering from Spielbergian to Kubrickian by way of an unexpected nod to Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, this is a film that more than anything needs the controlling hand of a studio to tame it into something digestible. Mathematically, (a reported) $180m into one man doesn’t go: a movie on this scale requires a breadth of vision to focus its ambition into a picture that is both good enough and has broad enough appeal to justify its existence.
There will be plenty of people who like this film, and it will do well at the box office, and the studios will be happy. But although it’s not a bad film, it’s not an exceptional film, and exceptional is what I demand from Nolan. Exceptional, and ideally, an hour shorter. It’s not Interstellar’s fault that it comes hot on the heels of Gravity, which is half the length and a better film, but I did wince a bit every time a character said the word “gravity”, which happened a lot.
The preamble above mentions hope, expectation and reality. I hoped that Interstellar would be incredible; I expected it to be good. In reality, my legs buckled when I stood up at the end, because three hours is too long a period to sit down in any but the plushest theatre. Interstellar is not a great film, nor is it a terrible film, but at 169 minutes it is, quite literally, a pain in the ass.
Interstellar is in cinemas from Friday.