Monday 18 February 2019

Interstellar - 'science trumps story in latest Christopher Nolan epic'

Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey are scientists tasked with saving the planet in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’.
Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey are scientists tasked with saving the planet in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’.
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

From the get-go it's pretty clear that Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is no laughing matter.

3*

Ominous music and sweeping cameras guide us to a lonely farm in the American Midwest where all is far from well. It's the future, but only just, and things have got so bad environmentally speaking that crops are failing and humanity is constantly threatened with disease and starvation.

In this grim new world, the farmer is king, and Matthew McConaughey is one such, a sturdy, dashing countryman called Cooper who does his best to mind his children and keep a brave face as ecosystems collapse and his homestead is battered by ever more furious dust-storms. Early on we find out that okra's disappeared (I was never that fond of it anyway), and that corn will now be just about the only edible thing left to live on. The end, it seems, is nigh: communities are failing all over the world as our polluted and distorted environment slowly collapses in on itself.

Cooper, however, is no ordinary farmer: he was once a NASA shuttle pilot and has a remarkable grasp of engineering and astrophysics, which will come in rather handy. Because one night, when he's out on a wild goose chase with his equally gung-ho young daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), they stumble on a hidden compound and are detained by sinister flunkies. It turns out they've discovered the hidden lair of what remains of NASA, and deep underground Cooper's old mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is working on a desperate plan to save humanity.

Brand has located a wormhole, a kind of tunnel through time and space that some scientists believe could act as a portal to the deepest reaches of space. The professor and his team have developed spacecraft capable of bumping their way through it, and teams of astronauts have already been dispatched on a very important mission: to discover a planet capable of becoming our new home.

WATCH: The Movie Show: George Byrne and Aoife Kelly have the lowdown on 'Interstellar' and 'The Skeleton Twins'

It's a long shot, but needs must I suppose, and now Brand asks Cooper, his own daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and two other scientists to journey through the wormhole themselves and locate three planets from which the earlier astronauts have been beaming signals. But there's a consequence: Cooper's trip will take decades in Earth years and bring him to places where time works very differently, so that while he ages little, his two children will grow old.

It's a terrible choice, but for the good of humanity, Cooper decides to embark on a mission that stands little chance of success.

The idea for Interstellar has been knocking around since the early 2000s, and at one point Steven Spielberg was going to direct it. He hired Christopher Nolan's younger brother Jonathan to write a screenplay, and Nolan Jr. apparently studied relativity while writing it. It shows, because Interstellar is heavy on the astrophysics, and features everything from the aforementioned wormhole to event horizons and an adventure in the fifth dimension.

Nothing wrong with that in principle, and in fact you could argue that it's nice to see a Hollywood blockbuster aiming high for a change. But although it looks fantastic at times, too often Interstellar's big ideas come at the expense of story, and character.

Christopher Nolan's film has an obvious and acknowledged debt to Stanley Kubrick's 2001, from the flights through time and mind-bending astral voyages to an onboard computer with a strange sense of humour. But while Kubrick's film, whatever one might think of it, accomplished many fresh and original things, Interstellar feels like a collection of arresting moments and ideas that don't quite hang together.

Matthew McConaughey does his best as the redoubtable southern spaceman Cooper, and in one brilliantly performed scene weeps uncontrollably while he watches years of video messages showing his children growing up, and old. Jessica Chastain works hard as his scientist daughter, Murph, and Matt Damon appears late on in an unlikely cameo. But this is not a film for actors, it's dominated by noise and science and big effects that impress in the moment but fade fast from the memory.

(12A, 169mins)

READ George Byrne's review: Interstellar - 'Daring sci-fi that's out of this world, and out of its depth'

Irish Independent

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