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Sunday, 16 November 2014

Interstellar

Last night I caught Interstellar, Christopher Nolan's latest movie. It's been a pretty dispiriting year for me at the cinema, if I'm honest - 22 Jump Street is a pretty awful date movie, I've discovered - so it was nice to see something that had a sense of grandeur about it, and that wasn't based on a comic book.

I have a lot of time for Christopher Nolan, although I do think his output is variable. I loved The Dark Knight, for example, and thought Batman Begins was agreeable enough, if not the second coming of Batman that the reviews would have had us believe at the time. On the other hand, The Dark Knight Rises was gibberish, and Inception just annoys me the more I think about it, although that fight scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt's walking on the walls and ceiling is ridiculously good.

So I'm pleased to report that Interstellar feels more like The Dark Knight than The Dark Knight Rises. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, for reasons I'll outline below. But first:

He's back!

Interstellar is just the next step in Matthew McConaughey's career evolution, playing pilot-turned-farmer eking out his existence with his kids and his father-in-law on a slowly dying Earth. Something impels him to go looking for a specific set of coordinates, by which means he unearths NASA and its plot to rescue humanity by finding a new planet to live on. Unfortunately, relativity being what it is, decades will pass back on Earth, while he experiences only a few weeks. These relativity effects are only intensified by the presence of a black hole near two of the candidate planets, and there are further complications when Matt Damon tries to kill everybody. In the end McConaughey goes into the black hole, where it's revealed that he's the one who gave himself those coordinates by manipulating 5-dimensional space. He survives to be reunited with his daughter, 100 years after they last saw one another, and then goes to forge humanity's destiny with Anne Hathaway on the final candidate world.

It owes a lot, as you can imagine, to 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are some amazing shots of the astronauts' space habitat crossing Saturn's rings, or surfing the edge of the black hole's event horizon, that really hint at the vastness of space. There's even a psychedelic sequence where they travel through the wormhole to reach the planets - I wouldn't have been surprised to see a shot of McConaughey's pupils dilating, but thankfully Nolan forbore.

But it also does a good job of showing contrasting that vastness with the claustrophobia of an Earth that's edging ever closer to collapse. Instead of the wide shots in space, which typically have the ship or habitat as a little white dot in the bottom third of the screen, for the Earth-bound action Nolan sticks with tight shots - whether on an actor (for instance Jessica Chastain as McConaughey's daughter, who joins NASA) or on the wheels of McConaughey's truck as he drives away from home for the last time.

One good thing about Inception was the inventiveness of its visuals, from the way dream-Paris folded in on itself, to the above-mentioned fight scene, and Interstellar was another opportunity for Nolan to show off. The space shots I mentioned above were breathtaking, but so was the first planet the astronauts visited, a world covered by a few inches of ocean and plagued by enormous tidal waves caused by its proximity to the black hole. You get a hint of the waves' size when they first land, but almost before they know it the water's towering over them, and it was stunning, as was their fight to survive the second wave and get the hell off the planet.

The other nice effect is on the second planet, where they meet Killer Matt Damon. It's an ice planet, and as they come down they break the tip off a cloud that looks like what we'd get here, but is frozen solid.

I had very few quibbles with the plot in general (which has, unfortunately, become kind of rare for me), but I did object a little bit to the business inside the black hole, where McConaughey's floating around inside the backs of his daughter's bookshelves, communicating with her and his past self. That, and the fact that his sentient robot TARS also survived to explain what was happening, felt a little too deus ex machina. Or, to put it in terms the modern nerd would appreciate, "timey-wimey".

Possibly Nolan and his brother wrote themselves into a corner with all the black hole stuff. Also, it cut short a movie that was pretty intensely long - like the Dark Knight, it's hard to think what you'd cut to slim it down, but I was feeling the need for a breather after all that raw emotion of the previous two hours.

There was also Killer Matt Damon's bobby-trapped robot, which makes no sense in the context of a guy who expected never to see another human or get off the planet again. But sci-fi movies evidently have to have explosions, so there we go (and it killed the black guy, although thankfully, he was the second crewmember to die).

But apart from those two points, the movie was very satisfying, both emotionally and in terms of plot. McConaughey gets to see his daughter again, if briefly - because she's now over 100 years old - and the final shot, of Anne Hathaway returning to the colony she will share with McConaughey, gave me goosebumps.

Also, Nolan made excellent use of TARS, the wise-cracking robot. It was built to look like one of the black monoliths from 2001, but with points of articulation and displays. The effects where TARS rolled across the landscape or reclined to act as an HUD for the astronauts were well-done, and I liked that TARS didn't go crazy and try to kill the humans (although it did joke about human slaves for its colony, which was a nice touch).

So my verdict is: more of this, please. Interstellar is science fiction that, at least for the movies, doesn't stint on the science, but also doesn't forget that the action is driven by the characters. I'd be proud to have a movie like this on my resume.