Monday, 10 November 2014

Interstellar: An awesome sci-fi spectacle – with a tired old plot

The weight of expectation is a heavy burden and thanks to a clever information-withholding marketing campaign, the formidable Batman trilogy and the eye-opening Inception, Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar has more than its fair share. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that it buckles somewhat under the pressure.

While the movie is just as awesome a spectacle as his previous outings and the teasers and trailers would have you believe, Interstellar commits the classic epic sin of taking itself far too seriously. Every line is clunkily fraught with meaning, every tiny event carries a camera-lingering significance that just gets a bit much after a while.

Sure, Matthew McConaughey has to save the whole world and everything, but is there no time for even just a little fun along the way?

The Earth is in turmoil, all the crops are dying of blight and everyone is doomed, so admittedly, it’s not a particularly cheery premise. In the midst of this is McConaughey’s ponderous farmer Cooper, who should have been a NASA astronaut and engineer, but now struggles to grow corn like everybody else.

In fact, things are so utterly focused on growing food that any other kind of progress or investment has halted. The only machines around are for farming or helping to farm – there aren’t even hospital machines anymore because saving people from dying in any way other than feeding them is apparently a waste of resources.

It’s all a bit bleak and mildly nonsensical, but hold up, there’s some M Night Shyamalan-style antics going on in Cooper’s daughter’s bedroom. Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is convinced it’s a ghost, but no, turns out, it’s gravity and gravity has a message, a message for Cooper. That message takes Cooper to his old mentor Professor Brant (Michael Caine), who’s putting together a mission to try to save everyone by finding them a new planet to live in.

NASA is still operating, it’s just a secret now and they’ve been working hard in their secret underground lair. And wouldn’t you know, Cooper was the best pilot he ever had, so he’s going to sign him up right now to captain the whole thing.

Despite how tired that sort of plotting is, it’s only mildly aggravating. McConaughey does the dreaming, slightly rubbish father role well and the young actors playing Murph and her brother Tom (Timothée Chalamet) are terrific, while John Lithgow is his dependably brilliant self as the kids’ maternal grandfather Donald. There are a few overwrought conversations on Earth, but they’re nothing compared to the hand-wringing over-egging the pudding that’s going to happen.

As soon as they hit the stratosphere and Caine’s voice starts intoning Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”, you know that the epic majesty and bleak desperation of the journey will not be allowed to speak for themselves – they’re going to be shouted from the rooftops after being telegraphed to the audience.

It’s not just that every moment has to be filled with meaning, there’s also a healthy dollop of over-sentimentality. Why does humanity deserve to survive? I’ll give you one guess. (It starts with L, in case you need the hint).

But even though Interstellar does everything it can to be overbearing, it still almost gets away with it, because it’s so breath-taking and so very, very cool. Like Alfonso Cuarón did with Gravity, Nolan puts in a huge effort to depict space as accurately as the plot and limitations of special effects allow and the result is truly amazing. Although there are a few hang-on-a-minute moments with the science as well, the whole point of the movie is that they’re supposed to be pushing the very boundaries of what we know, so it’s easy to get swept up along with them.

This movie is naturally an epic, because every scene is beautifully shot, from flowing fields of corn to alien vistas, so it’s a shame that Nolan felt the need to ham it up so much. He should have left more room for moments like the one where McConaughey tells robot AI T.A.R.S. to turn his humour setting down a few notches (all the best lines are from or about T.A.R.S.) and let the scenes speak for themselves.

But then, the dialogue is only so disappointing because the spectacle is so fantastic. This could have been an epically good movie instead of a good epic, but it’s still worth the price of the cinema ticket for those views.
Review first published on The Register.

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