THE FIRST FEW chapters of Christopher Noland’s bloated, humourless, self-important ‘epic’, “Interstellar” are quite ravishing. We are introduced to an American heartland blasted by drought, its once green pastures now brown and cracked. Dust films every surface. It is everywhere, scuffing the sidewalks or blowing in dark tempests across the cities. And it is in this blighted, food-drained, sand-coloured world that we meet Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ex-NASA flight pilot turned corn farmer and neighbourhood engineer. He’s a single father living with his two children, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy and, as an adult, Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Casey Affleck) as well as an ageing father (John Lithgow).
They seem like an average enough family, with the usual occasional sibling bickering and domestic chatter. The problem is that Murphy has begun to feel the presence of a (friendly) ghost. Books are pushed off shelves and she feels a presence in the room. Of course no one believes her until Cooper notices what are quite clearly signs in a pattern of sand that’s blown through her window (you’d have to be ex-NASA to notice this). The signs are map coordinates that lead them (it was a slow day) way out through the blowing corn into a spot in the middle of nowhere. These signs, this ghost are clever Shyamalan-esque touches.
Turns out this spot is the site of a now bunkered and secret NASA research centre (NASA having been roundly discredited for excessive expenditures and falsifying the moon landings as a means of stirring up the Russians and bankrupting them).
Well, one thing leads to another and (supposedly) responsible and loving dad finds it best to leave his entire family for oh, five or ten years in order to head off to space in search of an alternative planet for mankind.
Noland’s PR machine has made it quite clear that all the science in the movie is real. Apparently Kip Thorne, a respected theoretical physicist was hired as “scientific consultant”. So that you can rest assured what you’re seeing is not some flim flam sci fi mumbo jumbo. THIS IS REAL SCIENCE DAMN YOU. So the movie must be good. It would have benefitted the movie more if Noland had also hired a consultant psychologist or for that matter, anyone with any hint of experience of how people function not as humanoids inserted into a science project, but as real people.
The crew of the ship, Endurance, make small talk, evince some sort of human-like interaction from time to time, but mainly lapse into ‘rocket ship speak’ about thrusters, heat shields and the like. We even meet out there beyond the rainbow, a floating dead space-craft with a hibernating Matt Damon. But even a slightly deranged Matt, along with the stellar cast of a somewhat out of her depth Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine playing Michael Caine, can’t inject blood into this corpse. Maybe they’re all just… spaced out. Jessica Chastain, the perennially pissed off daughter is the only one who actually comes across as a real person. We are grateful for her efforts.
Sadly, what began as an interesting take on man’s self-destructiveness (with some fluffy talk about love reaching across the universe) swiftly turns into a loud science lesson the moment we have lift-off. Not that it’s a boring science lesson. Noland, who is turning into Terrence Malick without the meaningful symbolism, is a brilliant visualizer of the impossible. The images of the Endurance rattling through a wormhole (which of course you know is the tunnel that sidesteps the time space continuum) or slipping into a black hole to re-emerge into a kind of fifth dimension, are stunning.
I bet the science channel are kicking themselves that they hadn’t executed their versions of black holes as well.