Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Wes Bentley, Matt Damon, Mackenzie Foy, Timothee Chalamet, Ellen Burstyn, Topher Grace, Casey Affleck, William Devane, David Oyelowo, Bill Irwin, Josh Stewart, David Gyasi.
I must admit I was slightly disappointed with Interstellar, probably because Christopher Nolan has set up huge expectations with his body of work, including Memento, Inception, and the darker vision of the mythology of a popular comic book hero in his Batman trilogy.
Interstellar is a film of great ambition, and it explores some big themes and ideas, but it is a little uneven and messy, and ultimately fails to engage both emotionally and intellectually. The film is set in the not too distant future, and we are introduced to an Earth that is dying. Over population and a lack of food sources means the planet is becoming a dustbowl. The film offers a glimpse of the best and worst of mankind in dealing with an inevitable apocalypse. But somehow we do not really get a feel for the problem on a global scale.
Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, continuing his remarkable career renaissance) is a widowed former NASA test pilot who now grows corn on his family farm, but he is restless and looking for something more. He gets his chance when he stumbles upon a top secret NASA project being run by his former mentor Dr Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine). NASA is sending astronauts out into space, sending them through a wormhole near Saturn so they can reach the farther edges of the universe in their search for another planet which can sustain life.
So far previous expeditions have reached three planets, but none of the astronauts have returned home to report their findings. Cooper is charged with visiting these planets to determine which one is the most livable. Cooper has to leave behind his family, which includes his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), his son Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and his precocious daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), who also has a deep interest in science and space travel. Cooper is accompanied on his journey by a crew of four that includes fellow astronaut and socially awkward biologist Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway, from The Dark Knight Rises, etc) and an intelligent robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin).
Interstellar wears a number of influences from other sci-fi classics on its sleeve, but they are sometimes a little slavish rather than a genuine homage. Primary amongst them is, of course the seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the spectacular visual effects created by Stanley Kubrick with his limited technology back then somehow seem far more cutting edge than what Nolan and his team have been able to create given the technology available to them now. And what Alfonso Cauron achieved with his recent Gravity was also more spectacular and breathtaking than what Nolan and his team have achieved here.
Sci-fi fans will spot numerous other cinematic references sprinkled throughout the film. The way in which Cooper seems drawn towards the secret NASA laboratory is reminiscent of Richard Dreyfuss being drawn towards his encounter with an alien spacecraft in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, while Cooper’s heroic astronaut seems made of the right stuff.
Nolan is often a great visual stylist, so it is disappointing that there are no grand, rousing action sequences here. And some of the writing and dialogue is surprisingly clunky. Nolan has collaborated with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who also worked on Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 drama Contact, which also starred McConaughey), who advised on the scientific elements for this epic space opera. But when the boffins started talking about probability, worm holes, black holes, quantum physics, singularities, gravity, the fifth dimension and the nature of love as a higher force in the universe, my eyes started to glaze over. No doubt all this technical talk will appeal to those with an interest in science and space travel, but it hardly makes for exciting cinema. In fact, one wonders what a director like James Cameron would have done with the same material.
Nolan is working with a new cinematographer here, with Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let The Right One In, etc) taking over the duties from his regular Wally Pfister, who was working on the disappointing Transcendence instead. Given the epic nature of Nolan’s ambition, some scenes have been shot in the IMAX format, which should have added an extra dimension to the special effects and visuals, but somehow fall a little flat. Several scenes shot in Iceland bring a perfectly cold, inhospitable and otherworldly look to those scenes set on one of the distant planets Cooper visits.
Nolan has certainly assembled a superb cast. McConaughey has charisma and brings a laid back charm to his role as Cooper, but at times his thick Texan drawl and accent is at times almost impenetrable. Matt Damon pops up as Mann, another astronaut who has been driven to the edge of paranoia and madness by his isolation on a distant planet. Lithgow brings his usual sense of gravitas and a poignant note to his role as Cooper’s father-in-law. Jessica Chastain is also excellent as the adult Murphy, a role that adds an emotional wallop and touch of humanity to the cold science as she harbours a sense of resentment at Cooper for abandoning her. Casey Affleck is a redneck farmer. Caine has appeared in five of Nolan’s films so far, but here he has little to do, although he brings a sense of gravitas and authority to his performance. Topher Grace, Wes Bentley, William Devane and Ellen Burstyn round out the stellar cast, but they leave little impression on the material.
Nolan is probably one of the few big ticket mainstream directors in Hollywood at the moment, but even so, the mind bending Interstellar is a hard sell for Hollywood studios that seem more obsessed with comic book franchises or sequels. Nolan doesn’t make short films, but at a bum numbing 169 minutes Interstellar is far too long for the story it has to tell, and will test the patience of those in the audience who are not hardcore sci-fi fans.