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Interstellar

D: Christopher Nolan / 169m

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, Mackenzie Foy, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Ellen Burstyn, Leah Cairns, Timothée Chalamet

In the near future, humanity is at risk of extinction due to a worldwide shortage of food. Ex-pilot, engineer and widower Cooper (McConaughey) runs a farm in the Midwest growing corn, the last remaining crop that is resistant to the blight that has devastated the rest of the world’s crops. Cooper is helped by his father-in-law, Donald (Lithgow), son Tom (Chalamet) and daughter Murph (Foy). Murph is a precocious child who is convinced their farmhouse has a ghost that is trying to communicate with them.  Cooper isn’t convinced but as the phenomena increases he comes to realise that there is a message being sent, but why and by whom remains a mystery.

The message translates into coordinates. Cooper determines to travel to where the coordinates are located, but finds Murph has stowed away in their truck. Letting her go with them, they find themselves at what appears to be an abandoned army base. They try to break in, but Cooper finds himself tasered. When he comes to, he finds himself in the company of a group of NASA scientists led by Professor Brand (Caine) who are attempting to find a way to solve the problem of humanity’s approaching doom. Brand, along with his daughter (Hathaway), have been working on finding another planet to live on. Through the appearance of a mysterious wormhole near Saturn, Brand and his team have sent twelve manned probes into the wormhole and three have returned signals that indicate the planets they’ve found could sustain human life. The next mission, which Brand wants Cooper to pilot, is to travel to each planet and make a definitive choice for mankind’s future.

Cooper’s decision to make the trip alienates Murph and he leaves without reconciling things between them. Along with Brand’s daughter and two other scientists, Doyle (Bentley) and Romilly (Gyasi), plus two robots, TARS and CASE, Cooper makes the two year journey to Saturn and then pilots their ship, the Endurance, into the wormhole. Once on the other side, they have to decide which planet to visit first. When they do they find it covered in water, and with wreckage of the manned probe strewn about; by Brand’s calculations and thanks to the difference in time and relativity, they’ve arrived only a few hours after the probe landed. When nearby mountains prove to be an approaching wave of huge proportions, Brand’s determination to retrieve the flight data leads to a member of the team dying before they can escape back to the Endurance.

Back on Earth, a grown up Murph (Chasten) is now working for Professor Brand; she still feels animosity toward Cooper and still hasn’t forgiven him for leaving. With her brother Tom (Affleck) now married and with a child of his own, and still trying to run the farm, she’s taken the place of Brand’s daughter and is working with him on his research. As the situation on Earth worsens, Murph learns that Brand hasn’t been entirely honest about his motivations in sending Cooper et al on their mission.

The second planet reveals a surprise: the scientist who was sent there is still alive. Dr Mann (Damon) is initially pleased to see them, but he behaves oddly, especially when he learns that their mission’s back up plan – to colonise the new planet with specially chosen embryos – is still feasible. He makes an attempt on Cooper’s life and then tries to gain control of the Endurance. His plan fails, but provides Cooper with the opportunity to head back through the wormhole in the hope that he can be reunited with Murph, while also allowing Brand to get to the last remaining planet.

Interstellar - scene

Ambitious, thought-provoking, and visually arresting, Interstellar is Nolan’s ode to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a dazzling sci-fi venture into the unknown that finds itself bogged down by the need to emphasise the human values that make us what we are, while making less of the actual space adventure that takes up so much of its running time. It’s a bold experiment, detailed and rich in its scientific background, but one that leaves many questions unanswered by the movie’s end.

While a degree of ambiguity is no bad thing in a movie, here there’s too many elements and aspects of the script that either don’t make sense or leave the viewer wondering if they’ve missed something. It seems clear that Nolan and co-scripter/brother Jonathan have made a great deal of effort to get the physics right, but they’ve done so at the cost of a consistent narrative. At the movie’s beginning, Cooper is shown as a man with somewhat undeveloped parental skills: a problem with Murph’s attitude at school is resolved by his getting her suspended. He encourages her to scientifically investigate their home’s ghost phenomena, but remains unconvinced of her findings. She’s not exactly an inconvenience to him, but the viewer can see that he’s happier dealing with machines. So when it comes time to leave for space, and he suddenly becomes completely committed to Murph and all misty-eyed over leaving her behind, it comes as a bit of a surprise that she means that much to him (but it does set up a later conflict between Cooper and Brand’s daughter, so maybe that’s why it’s there).

The mission itself is another device that doesn’t work entirely well. Ostensibly, the plan is to find a planet that can sustain human life and that humanity can eventually all travel to (the enormity of such an operation is never discussed though – but hold on, there’s a reason for that too). The back up plan – as noted above – is akin to a kind of Noah’s Ark solution, but again the details of just how these embryos are going to be “grown” is never fully examined. It’s things like these, where the reasons behind the mission are glossed over, that make Interstellar such a frustrating watch for so much of its running time. With so much riding on the mission and its success, and with the whole programme being hidden from the public – though wouldn’t someone have noticed the launch of a rocket ship into space? – the notion that humanity is facing extinction is never quite made to feel like that much of a pressing problem. When events on the first planet prove disastrous, the relative time they’ve spent there means that twenty-three years have passed on Earth. This allows for Chastain’s appearance as the adult Murph, but conditions haven’t changed, and if anything, no one seems any more worried than before. Certainly not the adult Tom, whose life running the farm carries on without comment.

Once on the second planet, the introduction of Damon as the unhinged Dr Mann – an unadvertised performance whose secrecy wasn’t really necessary – lends the movie some unneeded action heroics but also leads to musings on the nature of death and the importance of connecting with our loved ones, particularly our children. It’s an attempt at adding depth to a part of the film that doesn’t need it, and hamstrings what little suspense there is (which basically boils down to when is Mann going to go all psycho on everyone). Damon is good but it’s the predictable nature of his character that hampers the set up and by now the audience can accurately guess just where the movie is heading.

There’s more but a special mention should be made for a scene near the movie’s end, where one character finds themselves dismissed by another character in a matter of a couple of minutes (maybe three). It’s an astonishingly abrupt moment, and one that seems to have been written deliberately that way because the Nolans became conscious of the movie’s running time and needed to wind things up as quickly as possible. It undermines the relationship between the two characters completely and, considering it’s a scene that should carry one hell of an emotional wallop, it has the feel of an outtake that was added back in at the last minute.

interstellar - scene2

While the storyline and the plotting suffer from a consistent inconsistency – if such a thing, like the movie’s appearing-out-of-nowhere wormhole, can be said to exist – Interstellar at least looks stunning, its space travel sequences some of the best since 2001, and has Nolan cannily dispensing with sound effects outside the Endurance. The level of detail is impressive, and Nolan displays his usual knack of framing shots and scenes with an eye for the unusual angle and the beautiful image. He’s a master craftsman and it’s a pleasure to watch him at work – even here where the themes and motifs are not as congruous as they should be. (For his next project, it would be interesting to see Nolan direct someone else’s screenplay, one that he doesn’t get to adapt into something with more of his DNA on it than the writer’s.)

It’s also a pleasure to see Nolan assemble such a great cast. Man of the moment McConaughey is excellent as the tough-minded but ultimately emotionally driven Cooper, and Hathaway also excels in a role that, thankfully, isn’t as generic as it could have been; she also gets to deliver a speech about love that is genuinely moving and something all of us can relate to. As the conflicted adult Murph, Chastain provides an emotional touchstone for the audience in the movie’s latter half, giving a more subtle performance than might be expected, and Caine continues his run of Nolan movies with an appearance that, refreshingly, isn’t as overloaded with the usual heavy handed gravitas that this type of role normally attracts. Lithgow, Affleck, Bentley, Burstyn and Gyasi offer solid support, and Foy matches McConaughey scene for scene at the movie’s beginning.

Interstellar is a big picture that would like to be seen as an important picture, the kind that, back in the Fifties, would have had a roadshow release ahead of its theatrical run. But as mentioned above, there are too many “issues” – the overbearing, intrusive organ-based score by Hans Zimmer, Brand’s most important line in the movie being rendered unintelligible, the design of the robots that changes from scene to scene depending on what they’re needed to do – to allow it to be regarded as truly important. It strives hard to achieve this but as with The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Nolan’s grip on the material is not as strong or as focused as on previous projects. But again, it’s an impressive visual experience and shouldn’t be faulted on that level, but as the good folks at Pixar always say, “It’s all about the story”, and sadly, that’s not the case here.

Rating: 6/10 – best seen on an IMAX screen – though even that will have viewers scratching their heads at Nolan’s choice of shots in the format – Interstellar sets out to be a profound meditation on love and the will to survive, but falls well short of effectively engaging with either concept, except occasionally; technically superb, this is a movie that, despite its star power and exceptional director, won’t remain in the memory for long because, sadly, it lacks the resonance to do so.