Sunday, November 9, 2014

Interstellar Review


***No Spoilers***

It is not unusual for a masterpiece to have its flaws. In fact, some would say it comes with the territory. So it’s not a surprise that the science depicted in the new Chris Nolan film “Interstellar” has been subjected to a little criticism from those who know about such things, despite having the benefit of the advice of one of the most respected physicists on the planet.

Apparently, according to some experts, it would not be possible for any planet to orbit a black hole as closely as the film suggests without being ripped to pieces by the gravity. A spacecraft could not approach the superheated accretion disc without being vaporised. And so on.

But does any of that really matter? After all, most of the science in Interstellar is actually pretty good; dare I say it: light years ahead of most science fiction movies. And I’m not a scientist anyway, and I suspect, neither are you or most of the rest of the audience. I just want to see a good story that gives great entertainment, and maybe something to think about as well.

On that score, there’s plenty to chew on in Interstellar.

If you’re expecting a space opera, or an action flick, this is not the film for you. It takes all of the first act (about 45 minutes, because it’s a LONG movie) before the action even gets off the ground. Instead, the opening act establishes Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) as a former NASA test pilot who is now a farmer in a post disaster world where food is in short supply and farmers are sorely needed.

Director Nolan lingers on this opening act to ram home the message of environmental destruction, but more importantly for this story, the bond Cooper has with the two children he is raising as a single father. The younger child, his daughter Murphy, is especially close to her father and it is this relationship which ultimately becomes the central theme of the film, as well as a pivotal part of the plot structure.

Given the importance of this relationship, it is understandable that Nolan has put so much effort into portraying the emotions involved, especially when Cooper must choose between staying with his family, or leaving them behind to pilot NASA’s last spaceship on a mission that could save all humanity.

When Cooper is reunited with a former colleague, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), he learns that a wormhole was discovered decades previously near the orbit of Saturn. (A wormhole, which is a genuine feature of physics as we understand it, links otherwise distant points in space and time.) In this case, it apparently leads to another galaxy where there may be a planet suitable for mankind to colonise, abandoning the ravaged Earth. Brand insists that Cooper should lead the mission to find a new home for all mankind.

The catch, of course, is that Cooper has no idea of when or if he can ever return.

This emotional tug of war between Cooper’s desire to fly the mission he was born to lead, and his love for his children, is not just a plot point; it is actually integral to the whole story, and leads to the events of the final act, which I will not reveal here.

Even so, the film suffers from what appears at first to be an unnecessarily heavy hand pushing the emotional point home over and over again. To some extent, the payoff at the end helps to explain this aspect of the narrative, but it takes a long time to get there.

Along the way, the film also bogs down in presenting some fairly clumsy philosophical ideas, to the point of becoming a little ponderous and self important.  That sensation is not helped by the imposing music score, which for much of the film is magnificent, but far too often intrusive to the point that you cannot hear the dialog. Maybe that was deliberate, so that the audience doesn’t receive all the exposition too quickly, but it becomes distracting and annoying at times.

It also doesn’t help that McConaughey spends the entire film mumbling throughout what is otherwise a great performance.

The bizarre robot which accompanies Cooper and his crew into space also takes a little getting used to. It is like nothing seen on film before, as far as I know, and doesn’t seem to me to be entirely consistent with the rest of the technology in the film. The machine moves around with a strange walking motion, and appears to do so even in the weightlessness of space, which didn’t look right to me. Nevertheless, the cheerful demeanour of the Artificial Intelligences (yes there’s more than one of them) in this film make an interesting contrast to the meltdown of the HAL 9000 computer in the Stanley Kubrick classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The music and the visual effects are deliberately evocative of “2001,” which in many ways is a nice touch. It’s no secret that Nolan was tremendously influenced by Kubrick’s film, and if you are looking for inspiration, you might as well look to the best. Inevitably, comparisons have been made, and for the most part it’s a fair call to suggest that Interstellar may be the best space movie since “2001.”

But Kubrick remains on his pedestal.

Interstellar keeps the story moving forward with some clever plot turns, and an un-advertised appearance by another major star, but is hampered by some sequences which slow the pace too much, prompting the viewer to question whether 169 minutes are really necessary to tell the tale.

The final act has caused some controversy, with some critics appearing to dislike the ending. Without disclosing details, I actually didn’t mind the ending. I feel that the most important loose ends were tied up, and while it might be all just a little bit too neat, let’s remember we are talking about a Hollywood movie, and the vast bulk of audiences like to leave the cinema with a sense of completion.

Besides, as I suggested before, the events of the final act help to explain the mysteries of the first, such as how and why the wormhole appeared in the first place.

Interstellar is a flawed masterpiece, great at moments, frustrating at others, but ultimately it’s worth the trip. Perhaps it doesn’t quite live up to the hype, but given the expectations which preceded its release, that would have been a very tall order.

 

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