A Year of Unlimited #10 – Interstellar

This is the latest in a series of blogs I’ve called “A Year of Unlimited”, which isn’t perhaps the catchiest way to put it, but encapsulates my attempts to blog about every film I see while I’m signed up to the Unlimited service. I’m not linking to every one, so go and find them yourselves!

I started writing this as the world watches the Philae lander and its amazing landing on a speeding comet. A truly amazing and awe-inspiring achievement in this era of cash-strapped NASA, tragic Virgin Galactic and the initial promise but slow progress of SpaceX. Interstellar’s main character Cooper’s belief that “we used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt” rings true at times like these – when people actually realise how amazing human exploration and innovation can be when it comes to investigating the universe, but we’ve almost given up.

I’m a big sci-fi fan, and have recently read a few series of novels that are all about exploration of space. So Interstellar – an original, huge-budget film by Christopher Nolan of the Batman trilogy and one of my favourite sci-fi films, Inception – was always going to appeal to me. And while the film has some issues that stop it from being perfect, its focus on the science behind and scale of space is refreshingly accurate.

The basic plot is that in a not-too-distant future, Earth is suffering environmental disaster – crop-killing blights and dust storms have curtailed human existence. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper (no first name is mentioned in the film, nor the credits, nor IMDb) is a former NASA test pilot who longs for a purpose again, surviving on farming with his daughter Murphy and son Tom. Strange messages in Murphy’s room lead Cooper and his daughter to the last remnants of NASA (this is a future in which the moon landings are widely thought to have been faked).

Michael Caine pops up as NASA leader Professor Brand, who along with his daughter Amelia (Ann Hathaway) have planned a mission to save the planet – send astronauts through a wormhole recently discovered near Saturn to the other side, where it’s thought there are habitable planets that humankind can move to and live on. So Cooper decides to leave his kids behind, and travel through space for the good of humanity.

Saying any more about the plot would start ruining things, and most of the reviews I’ve read have actually spoilt quite a lot of the film. Suffice to say – Interstellais filled with scenes of wonder and power in space that we’ve not seen before, and Nolan’s work with astrophysicist Kip Thorne means that a lot of what we physically see is quite similar to what the phenomena might look like (this includes an insane black hole as well as some bizarre planets). The spaceship, Endurance, is sufficiently clunky-looking to be believable, and has a slightly 2001: A Space Odyssey look about it – this could be said for the entire film to be honest!

This is because Stanley Kubrick’s classic also featured plausible space travel, and was also quite a cold, emotionless at times, epic. Nolan injects a lot (and I mean a lot) of hard science fiction, but he also layers on the schmaltz as well – which is quite different to other films he’s made. Love is discussed here as being something that transcends space and time, and could be a “fifth dimension”, and these points of the film were practically causing me to roll my eyes.interstellar

This is in fact my biggest issue with the film – by all means, have a human story amidst the wonder. Gravity achieved that last year very well. But it’s almost as if Nolan – burned by being criticised for being cold in the Batman films, despite a great emotional hook in Inception – has gone past even Steven Spielberg’s penchant for emotion and family issues, and while the relationship between Coop and his daughter is the centrepoint of the entire movie (making a pleasant change from a love story), it threatens at times to truly drown an epic endeavour in soppiness.

McConaughey is great when he has your attention – a few scenes in particular are quite raw and devastating – and his continuing rebirth as an actor is nice to see, but even as the main star he’s second fiddle to the wonders of space most of the time. He’s also a kind of audience cypher for the crazy science being explained – and there is a lot, and it’s always explained. Mackenzie Foy does good early work in the film as Murphy, as does Timothee Chalamet as Tom, but this is really the Matthew McConaughey show, through-and-through. Nobody else gets as much time to shine.

Hathaway has a thankless job as the default “cold female scientist who eventually shows emotion” during the plot’s many twists and turns, but she does do the best she can with a terrible character. Michael Caine, like Sean Connery before him, continues to crowbar a Cockney character into the most absurd of roles, and doesn’t have that much to do here. Other performances, including those of Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck, are very good in the limited time they appear, but to discuss their characters would be to spoil the plot. Likewise with a surprising A-list cameo appearance about halfway through that is much better if you’re not expecting it (I had had it ruined by Cineworld’s website – unbelievable).

Other bit parts include Wes Bentley and David Gyasi as fellow interstellar travellers Doyle and Rommily, though both are given barely any time at all to make a mark. In fact, compared to Hathaway, the character given the most time in comparison to McConaughey is the robot TARS, a rectangular robot that can split itself into four sections to move quicker. TARS joins an illustrious group of fictional AI characters to remember, with his sarcastic and quite cheeky tones brought to life by actor Bill Irwin, and it’s the relationship between TARS and Coop that give the film much-needed moments of laughter amid the tension and soppiness.

Effects-wise, this film is something else. Whether it be the space-warping wormhole, the supermassive black hole eating a star or alien worlds, Interstellar is visually astonishing. The ships are almost like the next step for NASA in the real world, adding to their realism, and everything combines to give an air of reality. Musically, Hans Zimmer ditches the strings and BRAAAAAMS in favour of a…church organ. This is used to highlight the majesty of what we’re seeing at any given time, but often, in the words of UK film site Den of Geek, sounds like “he recorded himself sitting down on the keys”. Other parts of the soundtrack are far better, using the organ liberally, and it’s not Zimmer’s best, though at least he’s trying to leave Inception and its influences on film music far behind.

It’s interesting to think of what Steven Spielberg – who was initially meant to direct this – might have achieved. Looking back at his science-fiction movies, this could have proved to be his renaissance in cinema, as he can balance emotion and visuals like nobody else. As it is, Christopher Nolan succeeds in making an original, highly-scientific film about space travel. It’s just a shame to me that he felt he had to emulate Spielberg’s balance of family dynamics and relationships – because this is where the film loses some of its majesty. Maybe I’m an emotionless automaton, but I wanted more space-stuff than father-daughter strife. Nonetheless, the film is damn good in many other ways, and demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

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