Review: Interstellar

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 7 November 2014
Category: Reviews Comments View Comments


In Interstellar, a new film by Christopher Nolan, the human race has to take to the stars - or risk dying out permanently on Earth - but the resulting emotional sacrifice may be too great for the man coerced into piloting the research expedition that could be the only chance humans have left to save themselves.

InterstellarInterstellar is set on a near-future Earth on which crops are routinely beginning to fail - permanently - due to blight (presumably Monsanto couldn't save us - or perhaps it's Monsanto's fault). The result is an increase in extreme weather, including dust storms, famine that is rife, and a reduction in oxygen as plants slowly begin to disappear from the planet. Meanwhile, states have disappeared as people have regrouped to form farming-centric communities to survive but a bigger, bleaker picture looms as there are really only two solutions to ensuring the survival of the human species - either everyone needs to evacuate Earth or the species needs to repopulate elsewhere. Either way, a new home has to be found that can support human life. Unfortunately, the population that is left is more interested in survival in the short term to contemplate the ramifications of the bigger picture: extinction.

The story focusses on former NASA test pilot and engineer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who, now widowed, raises a teenage son (Timothée Chalamet) and 10-year-old daughter (Mackenzie Foy) with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) on a farm where they grow one of the last remaining viable crops, corn. While his son, Tom, is suited to farming and enjoys it Cooper, though successful, struggles to be at peace with their way of life, as does his daughter Murph, who is similar in temperament and disposition and equally scientifically minded, a trait no longer valued in the community.


By movie-magic happenstance Cooper and Murph stumble upon a secret NASA base - or, what remains of NASA - and embedded within which is what's left of the planet's brightest minds, led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine). The team has been focussed on the bigger picture and has been working towards solutions that will get the remaining humans off the planet to a new home or, failing that, at least get some viable biological samples to a new home to start a colony. The base has been operating in secret due to the high cost of the project, which would incite riots were it to be discovered that valuable resources were being "wasted" on a fruitless endeavour while people on the planet were starving to death.


Part of the project had entailed sending volunteers on one-way missions through a wormhole that had manifested near Saturn a decade previously in order to gather data about viable planets elsewhere in the universe. The most promising data that was sent back seemed to indicate that there are three potential planets but more investigation is required, so NASA attempts to recruit Cooper to pilot the Endurance, an experimental spacecraft, through the wormhole to take a small team to survey the planets and determine if any of them are suitable.

Cooper, of course, is torn between the very strong bond he has with his family - Murph in particular - and the importance of this mission to ensure the long-term survivability of the species, including his family, which is likely to be wiped out within the next few decades as Earth increasingly becomes inhabitable. Compounding the problem is the fact that he doesn't know how long he will be away, although it doesn't seem to cross his mind that he may not return at all.


Unsurprisingly he chooses to go but leaves with his relationship with Murph in tatters, which becomes the emotional centrepoint of the film. What makes this a particularly outstanding movie is how well the filmmakers explore the human aspects - the emotion and psychology - that at some points results in really gut-wrenching scenes that are hard to watch and in others leaves you feeling incredibly anxious about the real motivations of some of the characters, though this is aided at points by the score, which occasionally is intentionally a misdirection. The sense of unease, however, is perfectly suited to a movie that is light on action and instead focusses more on the relationships between the characters.

There are action scenes but, especially in the first half of the movie, they are few and far between. The first half is spent on Earth setting up the emotional aspects of the story and the pace is suitably unhurried. It was a pleasure to be able to watch a contemporary movie and actually see characters being built to the point at which, as a viewer, you actually do care about them. These days we are so frequently given a five-minute setup and then a flood of action sequences that bombard us into total disinterest and ultimately - certainly in my experience - utter dissatisfaction with the final product.

When Interstellar's action sequences do commence they, unfortunately, seem very hurried, which lessens the impact of what are some incredibly dangerous scenarios. This is probably my only big criticism of the film: the action - mainly in the first half - falls flat. Considering the effort that went into building the characters it was a surprise to see a lack of a real sense of foreboding and fear in certain extreme situations although later in the movie, when the sense of anxiety is heightened, this is less of a problem.


Cooper is joined on the journey by Dr Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), the professor's daughter and also a scientist; Romilly (David Gyasi), an astrophysicist; and Doyle (Wes Bentley), a geographer, along with two repurposed ex-military robots, TARS (voice of Bill Irwin) and CASE (voice of Josh Stewart). The robots, physically, are weird - it's hard to describe them to someone who hasn't seen them - and I cannot decide if their design is ridiculous or ingenious but their roles as additional characters, rather than just props, are important for the story and its subtle explorations of the nature of humanity, sacrifice for the greater good, and the damage that self interest and one's survival instinct can cause when it's at odds with the perceived greater good.

Meanwhile, Amelia's unexpected ruminations on love provide interesting food for thought in addition to the emotional dilemmas and challenges that Cooper faces, and Jessica Chastain also features in the movie with her character's own demons that are another emotional anchor later in the story. However the brunt of the hard work is borne by Matthew McConaughey (and to a lesser degree Mackenzie Foy early on) and he does a superb job - without his effort this would just be a run-of-the-mill speculative-fiction movie with some interesting science to wrap your head around. Instead we have a strong character-driven piece with no easy answers should we find ourselves in the place of any of the characters who are forced to make incredibly difficult decisions.


In addition to the strong acting from a stellar cast, the music and sound design are two of the most crucial filmmaking elements that make this movie work so well. The score is by Hans Zimmer and it's some of his best work, providing an emotional undercurrent (and, occasionally, also smacking you over the head with it a little too forcefully) in moments during which the actors can't communicate in a way that really reflects what's going on. Also notable, however, are the moments of silence - the filmmakers are acutely aware of when it's just best to shut up and let the visuals speak for themselves. This occurs on more than one occasion and it's even more apt, of course, because there is no sound in space.

For the scenes set on Earth the special effects were kept to a minimum in favour of physical sets, which give the film a far more physically tangible and believable existence. The production design is so good you don't really realise that that is what you are looking at - the farmhouse, for example, was built from scratch and is a set but it looks as though a family has lived in it for generations. The corn field was also grown from nothing in six months and the dust storms, rather than being CGI, were created with something the filmmakers call "C-90", which is apparently a non-toxic, biodegradable material that's made from ground up cardboard.


Crucial, too, is a sense of timelessness of the setting, which means the film won't date easily. Due to the collapse of most forms of communication and a lack of encouragement of the sciences and engineering in favour of farming the characters aren't running around with cellular phones and gadgets - for the most part the toys are gone (I must admit I loved it!) and instead they are living real lives with the basics but smartly projected into the future so there are, for example, still the odd drones around, the farming combines are all automated and don't require human operation, and the occasional notebook computer floating around is ruggedised to protect it from the dust and the elements.

This is a great movie that has been built with care to develop slowly and purposefully yet delivers some gut punches and offers much to contemplate for days after. I am unsure as to whether or not I like the ending but, remarkably, it's a minor point and really doesn't matter. The experience is in the journey and the accompanying philosophy, all of which play out masterfully.


Interstellar is written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, is directed by Christopher Nolan, and stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, Mackenzie Foy, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Timothée Chalamet, and David Gyasi.

The review screening was courtesy of Times Media Films. Interstellar opens in South Africa and wide in the US today.

Tags: #robots, #screen, #speculative_fiction Opinion
Rating: 8/10

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