Interstellar ★★★★★

If Inception felt like - was - an early Christopher Nolan script dusted off so he could tell it with the budget he now has access to, then Interstellar is the first original screenplay the Nolan brothers have written where they get to apply what they've learned working on superhero movies. Replacing the blandly professional characters of their earlier work with big, instantly graspable archetypes, Nolan is trying to put you through the emotional wringer here in a way I never thought he would dare. Just as mankind needs to leave Earth in order to thrive, Nolan's abandonment of his own comfort zone has put the seal on him as a great director.

Interstellar is a symphony of sound and vision, aiming to encompass everything. It will show you a CGI spacecraft accelerating beyond the boundaries of a three-dimensional universe, and it will show you a prolonged close-up of Matthew McConaughey's face tearing up as he watches videos from home. It will blast you out of your seat with explosive sound effects and Hans Zimmer's organ fugue, then it will drop you into the soundless vacuum of outer space. The actors are almost dwarfed by the scale of it, but they're all clearly doing terrific work, particularly McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and David Gyasi.

Nolan's usual cinematographer Wally Pfister was unavailable here, and he's been replaced with Her's Hoyte van Hoytema, who lets a lot of sun and warmth into the previously shadowy, grey Nolan universe. It proves to be a good fit for Interstellar, which is a film that loves life in all its forms. It toggles thrillingly between micro and macro levels of survival, contrasting the individual struggle to live in an environment humanity was never meant to live in with the enormous issue of whether mankind should survive, and how, and where.

It is about the future, but it looks to the past to build it - not just the obvious NASA nostalgia, but the dustbowl and how America got out of it. It's interesting that, to make its scientists likeable blockbuster heroes, the Nolan brothers go back to the days when scientists were maverick garden-shed tinkerers rather than massive transnational government projects. I'm sure Christopher and Jonathan admire the scientists behind the Large Hadron Collider, but they also understand that the professionalism and diligence that made it is hard to fit into a gripping, universal narrative. By turning to McConaughey, they tie their story back into the classic American iconography of cowboys, maverick cops, Southern eccentrics, daring test pilots and James Dean - all the traditions this actor feels like an extension of.

Every time Nolan comes out with a new film, there's a race to find out who he's the "next" version of. Stanley Kubrick is a popular answer, and there are a number of shots in this that recall 2001, perhaps unavoidably. Fritz Lang was always my preferred answer, and the seriousness and careful research of this film does recall Woman in the Moon. Interstellar also has heavy notes of Steven Spielberg and Stanisław Lem - it draws a lot of its power and unpredictability from the gap in between the worldviews of those two inspirations - and I also wondered whether Nolan had been inspired by Alan Moore's folding of CH Hinton's theories of "the architecture of time" into From Hell.

I also thought of Terrence Malick, but not in the way you may think. At a time when every young American indie director seems to be practicing their hand-held magic hour cinematography and whispered voiceovers, Nolan does Malick the credit of being inspired by his structure and his ideas, rather than the superficial aspects of his style. I'd never have thought it would fall to Nolan to craft the atheist rebuttal to The Tree of Life, but that's what he's done here. The universe truly is a bigger, stranger place than we can imagine.

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