Sunday, 2 November 2014

Film review: Interstellar starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and Jessica Chastain

Despite its name and the posters featuring Matthew McConaughey in a space suit, Interstellar is a film that is as much about earth and humanity's connection to it as it is about space.

McConaughey is Cooper, an engineer and former NASA pilot who is now farming corn, the only crop able to grow on a damaged earth, in a remote town. Living with him are his precocious and intelligent daughter Murphy and teenage son Tom, along with Cooper's father-in-law Donald. When Cooper, through a message left by 'ghosts', discovers NASA has been operating in secret - to find a habitable planet accessed through a wormhole by Saturn - he leaves his family to pilot a ship to connect with pilots who have gone out before and are sending back a signal that the planets they have landed on can sustain the human race.

Interstellar sees McConaughey continue his run of strong performances, and he's a joy to watch as he cycles through frustration, joy, anger, sadness and more. But while Cooper is believable for being complex, some of the other characters are a little one dimensional. It's a little difficult to believe that Murphy, played as an adult in the film by Jessica Chastain, holds onto her annoyance at her father for so many years. Luckily, Chastain is one of those actresses you just want to watch, and works well with the material she's given. She and McConaughey are the stronger links. I loved David Oyelowo as the immediately likeable Principal, but you don't get to know him well enough, and the same is true for Wes Bentley's underused Doyle,  who I wish could have swapped places with Anne Hathaway's Brand.

Which brings me to weakest link acting wise - unfortunately it's Hathaway (and I'm usually a Hathaway fan). Her character is one-dimensional, cold, hard to warm to, and given one monologue about love, which doesn't work, both in wording (not so much her fault), believability (there was a lot of scoffing by the audience I watched with) and execution. Hathaway's weak monologue, her major contribution to the film, is more marked when you compare it to the strength of Michael Caine's delivery, as her father Professor Brand, of Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, which is arresting, especially played as it is over the scene of Cooper's space ship leaving the earth.

Cutting between earth and space, Interstellar focuses as much on the ground as it does on Cooper and his mission. The film opens in a dust-bowl like town, it's all very The Grapes of Wrath. Devastated as the earth now is, NASA's mission is to find a planet just like it, and Cooper's mission has to choose from three possible planets with supposedly survivable conditions. And while Cooper is in space, he's connected to the earth by the thought of his children who, because of the time lapse sciency stuff, he doesn't feel like he left as long ago as he did. Plus, there are the video messages he receives from his son, who is growing up and having a family (not quite sure how these messages come through the wormhole, but whatever).

Interstellar is visually stunning, with a soaring soundtrack (although at times it's a little loud), but this is the most stressful film I've sat through for a number of reasons. First, there are the shocks director Christopher Nolan throws in - massive explosions, cut aways - which get your heart going. 

I didn't know too much about this film going on, so when Cooper and his team land on one of the planets it came as a complete surprise to me who was waiting for them. If you can resist spoilers, do so, because this whole sequence is made all the more better, and is all the more tense because you can't prepare yourself beforehand. It had me holding my breath at times, rolling my eyes at others, and just wanting to grab Cooper out of the screen at times to keep him safe.

Then there is the fact that it's genuinely hard to tell how happy a ending this film is going to have - and by happy I mean you're unsure if even one person is going to survive. And finally, there's the slightly unbelievable science in parts that just stressed me out, and the weird supernatural/ghost elements.

The Nolans (Christopher wrote the film with his brother Jonathan) have created a complicated film, one filled with science, and it's explained enough to make me just about believe it. However, it goes a little strange towards the end, and it's hard (but not impossible) to forgive the rest of the film for the last part. The only phrase I can use to describe the goings on in the last act is borrowed from Doctor Who - it's all timey-wimey. I'm not sure the five dimension/love stuff worked, even though I could see it was coming from the beginning of the film.

But for all its strangeness, its obsession with mourning the earth and finding a place to live that is identical to the one we now occupy, and its ability to become a hot mess at times, Interstellar is definitely worth seeing.

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