Thursday, 13 November 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: Interstellar

Interstellar is attracting some very mixed reviews, at least some of which are down to what seems to be a growing fad of knocking Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. There are, however, some genuine problems with the film. At two hours and fifty minutes, it's far too long; it has a glacial pace that fits its theme of the slow journey into the future but tries the patience of the viewer. It's frequently sentimental, no more so than the final act which is almost unbearably saccharine. Yet there's a lot to love about this film. It has ambition, scope, a powerful message and, by god, it's gorgeous.

Set at the end of our century, the film paints a depressingly plausible view of our future, one in which America has been reduced to a dustbowl, almost all crops and livestock are extinct and life has been reduced to subsistence farming. It's not all bad; there's no military, robot drones have been repurposed as handy tools or mere power sources, and there's a genuine sense that people have pulled together to come through this tough time. On the other hand, mankind's ambition has failed. The population is described as “a caretaker generation,” keeping the Earth alive so that their descendants might have a better quality of life. Horribly, schools teach that the Moon landings were faked for propaganda, and that endeavours into space were vast wastes of money that should have been spent on more worthwhile pursuits. There's a balanced message here, rather than a mixed one. The script is very much on the side of the environmentalist, telling us that if we don't start controlling ourselves we are going to suck our planet dry. Yet it is also profoundly on the side of ambition, putting forth that without something to strive for, we have no purpose, and that mere subsistence is not sufficient.

It's in this future that we meet Cooper (Matthew McConaughy), a trained astronaut who never got to travel to space before NASA was shut down. Living with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and two children, Tom (Casey Affleck) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy), he ekes out a living as a farmer, just like everyone else. Until, by a strange sequence of events, he and Murph find themselves at the secret base run by NASA, now operating underground and out of the public eye. NASA's data shows that the Earth has mere years left before it can no longer support humanity, but fortunately the genius Professor Brand (Michael Caine, in his obligatory role in a Nolan film) has a plan in motion. One that will send his daughter (Anne Hathaway), Coop and two other astronauts into space, through a wormhole and to another galaxy to find a replacement home planet.

Gratifyingly, the science on display is grounded and plausible, with virtually no concessions to artistic licence up until the final act, which takes us beyond speculation and into wild imaginings. Physicist Kip Thorne provided scientific advice on the production, shooting down some of the Nolans' ideas that he felt were too far beyond what was scientifically feasible. Beyond some exaggeration in the alien locales, and the inevitable artistic visions required when realising such phenomena as black holes and wormholes, the universe we are presented with is entirely plausible. It is also utterly spellbinding, with cosmic vistas and hypothetical planets stunningly created. Particular attention is paid to the phenomenon of time dilation, and inevitable consequence of dealing with relativistic environments such that found in a planetary system orbiting a black hole. While my maths isn't up to the task, I'm sure Thorne ensured the timescales matched up. The vitality of the mission is maintained as we jump from Coop and Brand's search for new planets to the tribulations of those they left behind. Murph, having grown up to become the Professor's most trusted colleague (now played by Jessica Chastain), is now the same age as her father. The ever-widening distance between them, both physically and experientially, is harrowing. The relationships between fathers and daughters is a core theme of the film, one that underpins the grander concepts from start to finish.

While the pace is slow, it is livened up by some effective action sequences, including an astonishing moment on an ocean planet, who's proximity to Gargantua, the black hole, leads to gigantic tidal waves that threaten to destroy the landing craft. There's a sense of deepening despair as the search for a previous mission and its promising planets leads to disappointment after disappointment. On the aforementioned ocean world, despite following years behind the original mission, the extreme time dilation means that Coop, Brand and co. are only hours too late to save their lost precursor. It's not all gloom, however, as there are some much needed moments of humour, mostly involving the repurposed robots, thankfully benevolent rather than Hal-inspired threats.

The Nolans have claimed numerous films as inspirations, but the clear prime source for Interstellar is Kubrick and Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two productions share the same sense of scope and wonder, the desire to explore not only humanity's frailty in the face of a vast and uncaring cosmos, but also its potential and urge to survive. There are also major similarities in the final act; although presented very differently, both films take a similar journey beyond the familiar dimensions of time and space. The mysterious power behind the developments of the story is also quite different in each film, although attentive viewers will no doubt realise something of the nature of Interstellar's mysterious benefactors. I am also reminded of the works of physicist and author Stephen Baxter, whose novels frequently combine a hope that humanity can overcome it's smallness in the universe, with the very real likelihood that human selfishness and narcissism will destroy the best chances we have.

The cast is almost uniformly excellent, particularly McConaughy, Chastain and young Foy, whose relationship as father and daughter (at different ages) is at the very heart of the film. The only weak link is Matt Damon, as stranded astronaut Dr. Mann, who may be giving a fine performance as someone isolated and alienated, but seems frankly bored by proceedings. Hathaway is also very good, but her character is the most guilty of the frequent schmaltzy moments, which makes her harder to root for. Were it not for the heavy-handed “power of love” vibe that permeates the script, and a trimming of some of the more extraneous sequences, this would be a masterpiece. Your enjoyment of Interstellar will no doubt rely on your tolerance for it's dreamy, magic-realist climax. With those caveats, it has to be said that this is one of the finest science fiction films, and certainly the finest serious space opera, for years.

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