Interstellar review: a little bit lost in space

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Director: Christopher Nolan
Cert: 12A
Genre: Sci-Fi
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine
Running Time: 2 hrs 48 mins

Is it unfair to point up the modest levels of brightness on display here by observing that, when pondering the challenges of mortality, Interstellar drags out Dylan Thomas's too-obvious Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night?

We should certainly avoid comparing the film’s engagement with astrophysics – fling buckets of gee-whiz science randomly at the screen and see what sticks – with Russell Brand’s approach to political philosophy. No. Let’s do neither of those things.

After all, Christopher Nolan has spent millions manufacturing an apocalyptic fable that makes an effort to exercise the frontal lobes. Offering tribute to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey when aloft and Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven when in the cornfields, Interstellar swells with solid work by gifted professionals: Hans Zimmer slumps on the biggest pipe organ in town; the decision to use the minimum of CGI gives the images welcome weight; Hoyte van Hoytema's smoky cinematography is seductive throughout. Maybe, we'll just not mention the cluttered storytelling and hairpin-turn philosophising.

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a farmer, once a NASA engineer, who, like the rest of the Earth’s hungry population, is trying to cope in a future whose dystopian blueprints are never fully revealed to the audience. Something is causing the crops to fail. The US government insists that children be taught the moon landings were faked. Third-level education is now only for a tiny elite. As dust storms sweep across the plains, Cooper is lured to a mysterious location where an old chum (Nolan talisman Michael Caine) reveals secret plans to save the world.

Here’s where the science begins to get decidedly insecure. In a blasé tone that suggests such things are more common than badgers, we are told that a wormhole has been located somewhere in the vicinity of Saturn. As a result of mad luck (unlikely) or divine planning (vaguely hinted at), this gap in spacetime takes us to a corner of the universe peppered with potentially welcoming planets. Carter bids a tearful farewell to his clever daughter (Mackenzie Foy) and joins a party of explorers on a trip to the ringed planet. If things go very well, an ark of humans will eventually follow. If things don’t go quite so well, the new planet will be populated with a cache of fertilised eggs. A third, worst option doesn’t bear thinking about.

The travellers’ first stop on a watery planet with stronger gravity than our own features the film’s very best scenes. Cinema has far too rarely allowed characters to encounter the potential strangeness of other worlds. The crew’s engagement with a vast, slow moving tidal wave is more resonant than a thousand showdowns with lizard people in camp space operas.

Sadly, the film then gets fatally bogged down in a series of unnecessarily abundant narrative tendrils. One planet promises certain advantages. Another requires a manoeuvre that, thanks to the intricacies of relativity, will cause the crew to lose years of time in a few short hours. A late plot twist suggests that the crew may not have been told the entire truth about the mission. One gets the sense of Nolan and his brother Jonathan – collaborating on the screenplay as ever – flailing to fill up the vast running time with any available padding. By comparison, 2001 seems like a model of storytelling purity.

There are more profound problems with the piece. For most of its duration, Interstellar makes a powerful argument for the theory that humans endure as a result of an individual desire to stay alive – not because of any less self-centred urge to protect the wider species. Yet an effort is made to accommodate this harsh realism with the notion, that love can change the universe (or something).

The philosophical wooliness is in keeping with a project that, for all its many technical accomplishments, feels slightly thrown together. Interstellar is beautiful, dazzling and astonishingly loud, but, alas, it is remains something of a mess at the level of the script. A magnificent folly.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist