Saturday 15 November 2014

Film: Interstellar (2014)

This one was the most anticipated film of the year for me, partly because Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception) is one of my favourites, partly because I don't seem to have seen a traditional SF epic for a long time. These days movie SFF seems to consist mainly of superheroes (silly, if OK in small doses), with an occasional dose of horror (Prometheus) or space stories with rather unimaginative plots (Gravity). So I made a special effort and went to see Interstellar in an IMAX cinema.

I am pleased to report that it lived up to expectations, although it was rather more downbeat, desperate and gritty than I had imagined (I deliberately avoided reading any reviews beforehand). This review necessarily contains some spoilers, so if you like everything to be a surprise, stop reading and go and see it.

It is a very long film and the pace is quite slow, especially at the beginning (set several decades in the future) when the focus is on a rural part of the USA where farmers are desperately trying to cope with an environment which is sliding down the pan, with droughts, dust-storms and blights killing off the food crops one after another, and even the air gradually losing its oxygen. Humanity on Earth is slowly heading for an irretrievable disaster.

Enter Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), now a farmer but previously a NASA pilot. He is intrigued by what appears to be poltergeist activity in his young daughter Murphy's room, especially when she becomes convinced that some unknown being is trying to communicate with her. She manages to interpret a message – in the form of map coordinates. Cooper sets off to the location and discovers that while the steady decline of civilisation has left very few spare resources available, there are two parallel projects running which offer a last, desperate hope for humanity – to find a new world to live in by flying a spaceship to another galaxy through a large and stable wormhole which has conveniently appeared in orbit around Saturn, followed by developing anti-gravity to enable giant space-stations to carry people off the Earth. Manned missions had already been sent through the wormhole, and three of them had apparently landed safely on different worlds, but none had returned. There was just one ship left to send to find out what had happened to them. Cooper leads three other explorers plus an old military robot called TARS through the wormhole.

What they find on the other side brings them one problem after another and they are soon struggling to survive. In a last desperate measure they fly too close to a large black hole in order to try to find a way back, and catastrophe seems certain. But at this point the story shifts into a surreal adventure and the film ends on a vision of hope for the future.

The slow pace gives time to develop the characters who are all good, especially McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy as the young Murphy and the impressive Jessica Chastain as the older version. Michael Caine puts in an appearance, and Anne Hathaway is one of the astronauts. The visuals are brilliant as one might expect from this director (IMAX is definitely worthwhile), and the plot stretches the imagination in a way that used to be typical (in fact, the main appeal) of SF. There are echoes of 2001 here, and a little bit of Contact. The film is unusually emotional for an SF thriller, although that does involve some occasionally clunky and improbable dialogue (e.g. Anne Hathaway arguing the value of love in making important decisions). There is even an occasional moment of humour, mostly courtesy of TARS oddly enough. On the downside, there are some puzzling issues within the plot that prompted an "Eh, what?" reaction from this viewer. A more practical complaint is that the soundtrack volume was sometimes well above my comfort level. Despite this, Interstellar is a magnificent epic which promptly jumps into my top-ten list of best SF films, and every SF fan should see it.

Final major spoiler warning: I did have a problem with the conclusion concerning the nature of the force which seemed to be helping humanity, which if I understood it correctly involved a classic SF paradox; those who know Heinlein's 1941 short story "By His Bootstraps" will understand what I mean!


Carl V. Anderson said...

Great review, Tony. Glad you enjoyed it. Inception is a favorite of mine too.

I had high expectations for this one and was pleased that they were met, and probably exceeded if I am honest about it.

I didn't expect the slower pacing and enjoyed it very much. I felt it gave me time to get to know the characters, to process what was, or might be, going on, and it made what was of course a very fantastical film, given today's lack of space travel, a very realistic feel.

Anthony G Williams said...

Yes, the usual problem with SF films is trying to pack in too many events (Dune being the classic example).