Sunday, 9 November 2014

Interstellar (12A) | Film Review

Interstellar, dir. Christopher Nolan, wr. Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, st. Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, John Lithgow

When I showed a non-movie-literate friend the cast of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, they genuinely exclaimed, "My God! It's full of stars!", which as you can imagine practically made my brain go supernova.

McConaughey plays Cooper, an ex-NASA test pilot, who, like many professionals in this decaying Earth in the midst of a worsening global cataclysm, have turned to farming in order to feed seven billion people whose crops are ever-blighted by severe dust storms. Most of the planet's funding has been diverted away from warfare and science in order to concentrate on feeding humanity; even classroom textbooks are being rewritten to promote the moon landings as an exposed hoax in order to crush any enterprising spirit of adventure children may have. Things are bleak indeed. Cooper lives on the edge of one of his cornfields with his children Murph (a wonderful Mackenzie Foy), Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and his father-in-law Donald (Lithgow). The precocious Murph, a geek before her time, is convinced her room is plagued with poltergeist activity, a phenomenon tentatively borne out one day when an open window mid-duststorm reveals sheets of sand falling in binary patterns on her bedroom floor. The discovery, interpreted as co-ordinates, lead Father and Daughter to the rag-tag remains of NASA and scientist Brand (Michael Caine), whose dream it is to save mankind, and it's not long before Cooper accepts the offer to pilot a last-ditch attempt at finding humanity's new digs beyond the stars.

If all this plotting sounds rather clunky, or portentously hokey, or both, well, it kind of is. But Christopher Nolan has always committed so fully to the preposterous, one often cannot for one's life help but be swept along by the gravity of his protagonists and the paths they journey down. In the case of Interstellar, wormholes and singularities excite the inner space-nerd in all of us, possessing as they do the ability to whisk us off to strange new worlds, but also carry with them the accepted scientific theories of Einstein's general and special relativity - the idea that time runs at different speeds in different parts of space. This opens up whole new possibilities for emotional investment; when Cooper tells young Murph he'll be back but he knows not when, he's not talking figuratively.

But the incomprehensible fear of travelling into the unfathomable darkness of infinite space is truly heart-pumpingly palpable. Many won't be qualified to confirm the accuracy of the science, but the details such as the unglamorous and cramped quarters of the protagonists' shuttle and moreover, the human cost of the mission, are terrifyingly persuasive. One particularly powerful scene has Cooper watching messages from his children back on Earth, relayed to his craft through that awful unending darkness of space and time. The fragility of connection and how it can cruelly and perpetually stretch without being severed, is uncompromisingly heartbreaking. 

Of course, this being a Christopher Nolan production, everything is meticulously assembled. Hans Zimmer, these days worryingly close to pastiching his own oeuvre, accompanies Interstellar with a restrained lyrical classicism that occasionally out-Richters Max Richter, whose work was just recently lauded for HBO's The Leftovers; organs sequence, arpeggiate, and swirl around delicate strings and piano, electronics are pared back, and there seems to be less of a desire to recompose gen-epic trailer music. The VFX, by British computer animation company Double Negative, are predictably jaw-dropping; the animators actually worked extensively with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, collaborator and friend of Hawking and Sagan among others, and upon whose work much of Interstellar is based, to translate his blackboard equations into three dimensional renderings. Again, such authenticity is, of course, hard to qualify, but the resulting CGI depictions of astronomical anomalies are certainly magnificently realised. As expected, such visual scope and grandeur results in human performance being inevitably edged out by the technical proficiency on display. It doesn't have to, but it often does. McConaughey, Hathaway, Damon, Caine, Affleck - they all have the chops to convince you of themselves and their relationships with each other, but it's not their characters you'll come away with. They're there to sell the grander ideas Interstellar posits, and they've all been more far more compelling in other projects.

With his warmth, compassion, and winning ways of imbuing the most rigerous astronomical academia with a rich, emotional resonance, Interstellar is the kind of film Professor Brian Cox might have made housesitting Hollywood for the weekend. Part Sagan seminar, part apocalyptical Americana drama, the film's ambitious storyline seeks to take us from dustbowl farmstead to infinity and beyond. Tired comparisons with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey have been rife, but in the sense this is now the standardised shorthand for any existentialist science fiction, accurate. It also doesn't help that many cues from Zimmer's elegant score end in Zarathustra-aping major-chording organ that wilfully seems to actually encourage the connection. Interstellar is as novel or predictable as anything Christopher Nolan has ever created before. Detractors who can't get over Nolan's glossing over of inconvenient plot truths will find themselves suffering once more, and the film pays visual and textual homage to a whole slew of sci-fi gone before, from Robert Zemeckis' Contact, to Brad Anderson's Event Horizon, from which one scene that demonstrates how wormholes work with a pencil and paper is unashamedly lifted wholesale. But Nolan has already addressed wayward cinematic plot logic. He did it in 2006 via John Cutter's dissection of the Magic Trick in The Prestige. "Now you're looking for the secret," he says. "But you won't find it because of course, you're not really looking. You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled." And here's the thing: Interstellar is a reminder of the kind of successful film that belongs to a very small faction of cinematic experiences in which, indeed like an airlock in deepest space, is only concerned with what occurs in its own runtime. Even last year's Gravity, from which Interstellar rather mercilessly borrows - complete with a pixie-cropped Hathaway, and numerous scenes of chaotic nauseous centrifugal spinning - was guilty of this. Such films may not stand up to structural scrutiny away from the auditorium, but the idea of any cinema is surely to plant seeds. And in the days that followed my viewing of Interstellar, I can safely say, boy do some of these transcendental notions concerning our place in the universe take root.