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10 November 2014

"I'm Not Afraid of Death — I'm a Physicist, I'm Afraid of Time"

There have a lot of great movies released this year — I'm already struggling to narrow down my top five for my end-of-the-year round-up — and Christopher Nolan's new film Interstellar is one of them. It isn't perfect and it probably won't be my overall favourite film of the year, but in terms of its ambition, beauty and all-encompassing emotional depth, it is hard to beat.

I tried to steer clear of all reviews before I went to see the film on Saturday — no mean feat because I follow a lot of science journalists and science comms folks on Twitter, many of whom were discussing some of the scientific aspects of the film — and I will try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible. That said, if you would like to go into the film completely fresh, look away now (but do go and see it).

Interstellar is set in a dystopian near-future or, perhaps, alternative present. Wheat and okra crops have failed dramatically and the world has suffered huge starvation-induced population declines. Those who remain rely on corn, as demonstrated by the long, sweeping opening shots of corn plants faltering in the wind amid clouds of dust, but it's unclear how much longer life on Earth will remain viable.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former pilot turned farmer, who lives with his father-in-law and two young children, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Through various turns of events, Cooper finds himself at the secret headquarters of NASA, which was forced into secrecy after the hunger crisis — it would be hard to justify spending money on space exploration when so many people are starving, and the Moon landings have been declared 'propaganda'. Cooper's former mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), recruits him to join a new mission to explore a distant galaxy with the ultimate goal finding a new home for humankind. Observations of some 'gravitational blips' allowed earlier NASA scientists to detect a wormhole near Saturn that would serve as a shortcut and allow the mission to reach a far more distant location in the Universe than would be possible otherwise.

Coop doesn't want to abandon his children, but he believes that joining the mission is the only way he might be able to save them — and the rest of the world — from the impending devastation of the Earth. Murph, an extremely bright and curious ten-year-old, is particularly devastated by her father's departure and for years, she refuses to record video messages to be transmitted to Coop on the spacecraft. But will Cooper and his crew find what they are looking for and if so, given relativity, will anyone they know and care about — or anyone at all, in fact — be left on Earth when they do?

Interstellar is utterly absorbing and an impressive, visionary film. It is a love story of humanity and of our planet, and also of hope against the odds, and faith. It's also the story of a relationship between a father and his children — particularly between Coop and Murph. Foy, who plays the young Murph, is extremely talented and the chemistry between her and McConaughey, who is also on top form in this film, is truly engaging. Anne Hathaway, who plays Coop's co-astrononaut Dr Brand, is something of a weak link, and her character remains unsympathetic and largely two-dimensional.

The film is long — almost three hours — and although I was utterly gripped and it didn't drag, sometimes it felt that Nolan was a little too ambitious in scope. Some scenes felt as though they had been tacked on to add breadth. There was also plenty of silliness and 'science talk'. That being said, it's easy to put aside those small quibbles when the film just grabs you and keeps you glued to the screen throughout. Cheesy as it sounds, I also left the cinema with a warm, fuzzy glow. Jeez, Nolan, you even broke through my cynicism...

Inception is still my favourite Nolan film — incidentally, I can't believe that was four years ago — but Interstellar explores similar themes and is produced with similar style and panache. It's really good and you should definitely go and see it — on an IMAX screen if you can; you won't regret it.

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