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daring sci-fi that's out of this world - and out of its depth

Well, one certainly can't fault Christopher Nolan when it comes to vaulting ambition. Having delivered the hugely successful Batman trilogy and somehow managed to get a studio to agree a budget in the region of $200m for a one-off psychological thriller set in several dreamworlds with the vastly over-rated Inception, he's now set his sights beyond our planet itself.

Or, to be more precise, Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan have set themselves the monumental task of dealing with several huge themes, namely the imminent destruction of human life on Earth and the possibility that there could be several worlds in a different galaxy capable of maintaining the continuation of the human race.

Set at an unspecified time in the near future, Interstellar begins in spectacular fashion with massive dust storms ravaging the American mid-West and destroying the food supply. Former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is struggling to survive on his farm following an unspecified, or possibly imagined, crash and dealing with a young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) who believes a ghostly presence is trying to contact her and is obsessed with the Apollo moon landings. On the latter subject there's arguably the film's finest gag but I won't spoil it for you.

Echoing Close Encounters, Cooper discovers that his daughter has been delivered mysterious co-ordinates which lead to a secret NASA base in the desert where his former mentor Dr Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine) is putting together a mission to examine the other side of a mysterious wormhole which has opened up near Saturn and could offer mankind a future. Naturally, Cooper, being "the best pilot NASA ever had", gets to fly the craft alongside Brand's daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), two other crew members and a wise-cracking robot.

Thus far there's nothing here to differentiate Interstellar from plot strands cribbed from several sci-fi sources but it's all handled extremely efficiently, not least in a mission launch sequence.

However, the problems begin to arise once we're off the planet and the film becomes creaky with dialogue and exposition. Discussions about relativity, philosophy and the meaning of life are all very well but there are times when it seems the Nolans are simply tying themselves in knots trying way too hard to make the film showily 'intelligent'.

One particular scene in which Hathaway's theoretical physicist bangs on about love being the most powerful force in the universe sounds like it came from a completely different film and is cringe-inducing, not to mention out of character.

On a more interesting note, the story does have the people back on Earth ageing much faster than the astronauts, with Cooper's daughter (now played by Jessica Chastain) working alongside Dr Brand to crack mysteries of gravity and relativity as time continues to run out.

Interstellar is undoubtedly spectacular, not least when Cooper and his crew get to visit two alien worlds where previous missions had been sent to, but in trying to cram too many themes into an almost three-hour running-time the Nolans have overstretched themselves. They stretch the audience's patience to the limit too in a final 40-minute sequence which is as baffling and bonkers as the closing section of 2001 : a Space Odyssey.

The cast are generally fine, if occasionally inaudible due to Hans Zimmer's overpowering score, but as a piece of entertainment perhaps it would have been wiser to trim back on several of the ideas and present a more cohesive, not to mention coherent, story.

HHHII

THE SKELETON TWINS

(Drama/Comedy. Starring Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason. Directed by Craig Johnson. Cert 15A)

With Saturday Night Live royalty Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader heading the cast, and Ty Burrell from Modern Family on board in addition to Luke Wilson, you could probably be forgiven for thinking that The Skeleton Twins is yet another post-Apatow gagfest with the cast indulging in too much improvisation, the whole thing eventually teetering into self-indulgence. Well, I'm delighted to say that you'd be wrong as this is one of the smartest-written and sensitively played films in months.

Wiig and Hader play twins Maggie and Milo, the pair not having spoken for over a decade but coming back together following Milo's suicide attempt, his sister offering him a room in the house she shares with husband Lance in their New York hometown, a regular working Joe a world removed from failed actor Milo's catty demeanour.

We gradually discover that their father committed suicide in their teens and they're estranged from their mother, while Milo is intent on renewing a gay affair he had with an English professor during his schooldays.

There's plenty going on, not least when Maggie embarks on an affair with her scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook), but the interplay between Wiig and Hader is a joy to watch. They're incredibly funny at times and going deep when they need to, not least in an almost gruesome scene when their mother arrives unexpectedly for dinner, giving us five minutes of toe-curling embarrassment.

If the film has a problem it's that some of the screenwriting is slightly overdone, but that's more than compensated for by the genuine warmth between the two leads as people still trying to come to terms with the real problems in life. Oh, and one scene involving the pair miming to Starship's Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now is pure gold and could actually propel that wretched track back to prominence - a small price to pay for a lovely, human movie.

HHHHI

SAY WHEN

(Comedy/Drama. Starring Keira Knightley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell, Jeff Gablin, Kaitlyn Dever, Mark Webber. Directed by Lynn Shelton. Cert 15A)

Keira Knightley is an actress who continually gets a bad rap for no apparent reason. Okay, that Pirates of the Caribbean nonsense was unforgivable but she generally delivers good work and is fine in the forthcoming The Imitation Game but movies like Say When do her no favours at all.

Her character here, Megan, is in her late 20s and a little swamped by life. She's very well-educated but hasn't got a proper job, her boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber) seems okay but is involved with some New Age spirituality nonsense, and all her friends are getting married and staring families.

So, following Anthony's botched proposal at a wedding, she does what any sensible 28-year-old would do - heads to a convenience store, buying liquor for 16-year-old Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her friends, and winding up hanging out with the group.

In a plot device that's implausible, stupid and downright creepy, Megan decides to lay low at Annika's house for a week, having sleepovers with her pals and, of course, catching the eye of Annika's dad Craig, a divorce lawyer played by Sam Rockwell. Alas, not even Rockwell's tremendous natural charm and talent can save this utter shambles of a film which, despite being written and directed by women, paints a picture of women so ridiculous it could have emerged from the mind of Michael Bay. It really is that bad and should be avoided at all costs.

HHIII


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