Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Interstellar - My God—It's Full of Itself

For many audiences "Interstellar" will be a movie that is far too smart and will blow over their head. For me personally, the problem is that "Interstellar" is far too dumb.  That is a severely unfair thing to say about a rare serious SciFi movie made by one of the greatest showmen in Hollywood today, Christopher Nolan.  "Interstellar" is a film built mostly of actual, honestly researched science fiction concepts:  climate change, demographic crises, and the cold brutal reality of intergalactic travel.  Nolan, ever the cinematic engineer but rarely the poet, creates a hard realistic journey across the stars, attempting to one-up last year's near-Earth disaster film, "Gravity".  Like all Nolan films, it is cool, slick, and brilliantly developed.  Nolan is a filmmaker who isn't just trying to simulate a space odyssey, he's trying to live one.

However, "Interstellar", despite clearly being one of the great tentpole releases of 2014 and an experience you would have to be anti-joy to decide to miss, is a movie that I hesitate to call completely successful.  Christopher Nolan is a reliable showman, he'll make something that will dazzle your senses for all three hours of "Interstellar"'s runtime.  Of course, being a showman, he has always felt like a deeply mechanical director to me.  His main fascination in "Interstellar" is the workings of the spaceship and his awesome monolith robots, not the people inside.

Yet this movie tries badly to be sentimental, even sappy.  There are directors who can do sappy, there are directors who can even make maudlin work.  Nolan is not one of those people.  He can strap a camera to the side of a huge spinning mechanical rig simulating precisely the rotation of a space craft, giving you the illusion of a documentary shot of a real spaceship traversing the cosmos.  He can create a CG model of a black hole so precise that his technicians accidentally made a real scientific discovery about the warping of light around a singularity.  Nothing feels more unnatural than for Nolan and for this movie to suddenly dump it's hardcore science background to suddenly declare that science is out, math be damned:  Love (capital 'L') is the true power of the universe.  "Interstellar" is a crushingly schizophrenic movie.  We aren't watching humans fighting the desolation of outer space for survival, we're watching a geeky space enthusiast director fight against the cheesy message of his own movie.

"Interstellar" takes place approximately a century into the future where climatic changes have turned the United States into the Joad Family circa 1939.  Steinbeckian imagery of the Dust Bowl permeates the culture where years of wars and famine have all but killed our scientific drive.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is  one of the few explorers still around in a planet full of farmers and Moon Landing-deniers.   His beloved daughter, Murphy (named for Murphy's Law) discovers a "ghost" in her room.  This turns out to be a clue left behind by hyper intelligent aliens from the Fifth Dimension.  (Yes... hyper intelligent aliens from the Fifth Dimension, just roll with it.)  They lead Cooper to meet up with the remains of NASA, who are planning a final colonizing space odyssey to try to settle a world in another galaxy to save mankind.

Those Fifth Dimension aliens were nice enough to leave us with a wormhole - essentially the Carl Sagan version of a dues ex machina* - around the rings of Saturn.  This leads to one of several planets, one of whom might be the world we humans could settle on as a second Earth.  Cooper is one of the few qualified pilots left, meaning he must leave his family, and the daughter he loves more than anything, to join up in one last gambit to save the species.

Thanks to the nature of vast intergalactic travel, this planet hopping campaign to strange new worlds is not merely a bold trip to where no man has gone before, it's also a race against time.  The laws of relativity state that the farther you travel across the universe the more your timeline is stretched away from the people you behind.  Thus while Cooper and the other crew members, including a very surly Anne Hathaway, are battling impossible odds, the people on Earth are living decades of time, and starving to death.  Then there's Murph, who quickly grows up to be Jessica Chastain, who takes this separation poorly and learns to hate her father for, in her eyes, leaving her behind on Earth to die.

Honestly, when the planets they're visiting suck this badly, why didn't they just settle Mars?
Convenient location, decent gravity, an atmosphere - something of a fixer-upper, but still doable. As opposed to this shithole.

Things not quite being complicated enough, Jonathan Nolan, Christopher's brother and the screenwriter, adds in unnecessary flourishes such as a magic gravity equation Murph and her mentor, Michael Caine must solve.  That equation will apparently unlock space travel for all of humanity, versus just a single space ship.   In case what is literally called 'Plan A' fails and the equation cannot be solved, 'Plan B' is to use a bank of fertilized eggs on board the spaceship to grow a new human race**.  All of this is a hamfisted effort to make Earth events relevant to the story, meaning that Nolan cuts back between the unrestrained bizarreness and fun of the universe to visit bland Great Depression Land every so often.

The incredible thing is that despite all the obvious negatives:  Fifth Dimension nonsense, supporting characters with little personality, illogical plotting that awkwardly shoves Earthling affairs into a movie whose heart and energy lay deep into outer space, "Interstellar" gets dangerously close to a masterpiece.  Christopher Nolan might be playing against type and way against his comfort zone here, but he's still a great filmmaker and a wonderful showman.  He'll create a believable journey through the stars with unique mechanical designs and fascinating detail.  You see the circular spaceship dive into the spherical mirrored void of the wormhole and you are instantly transported into movie magic.  The robots are monolith homages to "2001", with disconcertingly human voices, but open up and move in surprisingly practical and useful ways.  They're some of the coolest robots in all of film history.

The alien landscapes are the best part of the film, featuring the most creativity and having the most plot momentum.  One planet is so caught by intense tidal effects from a local black hole that a rogue wave a mile high travels across it's shallow ocean every few minutes.  The other world is an ice ball with a frozen sky and a frigid surface.  You can see the Nolan fetish for warped M.C. Escher geometries that made "Inception" an unforgettable experience.  Narrow escapes from these places and their dangers - both natural and human - make for a true edge of your seat moment.  "Interstellar", for all it's flaws, still has a pedigree of Nolan visceral experience that you will not find anywhere else... even if it happens to exist within what his certainly his worst film to date.

McConaughey and friends frantically search for the dropped keys to the spaceship.
There are serious problems with the characterization, but the cast actually pulls it off.  Anne Hathaway has a truly thankless role of alternating between ice queen to lovesick dolt babbling about how Love might possibly be a non-dimensional force with actual effects on the physical world.  (This level of sappy crap was so bad I honestly wished somebody would just kick the bitch out the airlock.  Worse, she's right)  Yet Hathaway manages to play this role to a inexplicable level of likability.  Matt Damon in a surprise appearance plays what seems to be a very poorly written character with a sincere intensity that makes his cliched silliness work.  Other don't work as well:  side characters are as artificial and inorganic as the robots.  Jessica Chastain's Murph comes off like a petulant child all through the movie.  McConnauhey is clearly the best used though.  He showed us last year he can do utterly broken weeping well in "Dallas Buyers Club".  Nolan is able to dig all the humanity out of a great actor in his prime, giving his movie an emotional core.

If this was just a cold adventure through the horrors of space travel, I could be calling "Interstellar" one of the best films of 2014.  However, Jonathan Nolan did not write this movie for his brother, he wrote it for Steven Spielberg, a director who built his entire career on warm humanity in the midst of Blockbuster danger.  When it comes to a movie about the endless desert of outer space, relativity, technology, and black holes, I would trust Nolan to put on a great show.  When it comes a movie about love transcending the universe, I don't think even Spielberg could have pulled it off.  There's Dr. Grant growing closer to the children in "Jurassic Park" and then there are contrived emotions so forced it starts to stink of M. Night Shyamalan.  Nobody can shovel as much corn as required by the ending of "Interstellar" without looking ridiculous.  Master Nolan's blushing is just more obvious, anybody would be ashamed filming this.

The Nolan brothers clearly wear their inspirations proudly.  They are attempting to make a film with all the mindbending grandeur of "2001", the heartwrenching separation of time and space of "Voices from a Distant Star", and the emotional search for love of "Solaris".  Yet they cannot quite achieve any of them.  The hope for transcendent soul searching is ruined by endless reams of exposition interrupting what could have been cool edgy space madness.  The hard science is ruined by hippie-dippie claims that Love is the fifth fundamental force of the universe.  (What next?  The Love Boson?)  And the emotional connection is destroyed by a burdensome script that while huge and sweeping, also is unsubtle and explodes any real humanity into an exaggerated comedy by the end.

I say all that... but my god this movie is pretty sometimes...
However, weighing all that, I cannot possibly tell anybody not to see "Interstellar".  How could I not recommend it?  Sure this is the kind of movie that is about one-tenth as deep as it thinks it is, and the conclusion has one of the most random romantic endings since "The Dark Knight Rises"***.  But even with all that, I still have to say that "Interstellar" is an amazing ride built by a visionary director whose three hours fly by.  The moments of exhilarating tension are masterful, the art design is unique, and the journey across the sea of stars represents the true joy of cinema.  Few movies have managed to capture the raw electrifying intoxication of space travel and the wonders of the universe as well as "Interstellar".  And, yes, the Hans Zimmer score, as always, is beyond compare.  You're going to have to brace yourself for a lot of problems, a lot of things that do not work, but don't let the ending spoil the journey.

Probably "Interstellar" was a movie that Christopher Nolan should have known better than to have made.  The mistakes are obvious.  This tone is so clearly not what he was born to do, nor is it one with which he has any interest.  But he's still the best showman working in Hollywood.  I'll take his worst performance over the best attempts of many other lesser directors.  Anybody else trying to be this ambitious would have made one of the worst movies of the year.  Christopher Nolan made something amazing.

* Space is big.  Really really big.  So big in fact, that to reach the next galaxy with our current means of power would take centuries.  Even at impossible faster than light travel to reach most of the universe would take more time than any one movie has to offer.  So wormholes are basically the writer's way of saying "we need this movie to happen, so I'm just going to move the characters over to where they need to be".  Wormholes have some plausibility in science, so they sound plausible to people who don't know better, but really they're about as silly as aliens from the Fifth Dimension.

** With apparently Anne Hathaway's character being planned to be an endless birthing machine.  The movie never quite states this, but it can be assumed considering the spaceship is filled with only five occupants.  Two are robots, two are men, so that leaves only one of them with a working uterus.  I don't think this journey was very well planned, actually.

*** SPOILERS:   For the second time, Anne Hathaway is playing the sudden love interest with no build up of any kind in a Christopher Nolan movie.  I could buy it in "Batman 3" just because I really wanted Batman to just get laid and have some fun in France after everything he's been through.  In this movie, not so much.  Her character was clearly in love with another person, Cooper was never interested even after spending months with the next-nearest vagina being a million lightyears away, and the main relationship of this film was supposed to be Cooper and Murph.  When he finally sees her again after going to hell and back, her living a century waiting for him, he immediately leaves because hanging around her death bed is boring.  Instead he's going to have wild space sex on Earth 2.  What the fuck...

This is not even the twist that really pissed me off too.


  1. I so have got to see this, but I have been piled with university studying and writing.

    However now that done and I am off now, maybe I will catch a day showing of this.

    Once again glad to have you back Blue.

    Sword Of Primus

  2. Wait, did I miss something at the end? It looked to me like Murph was telling Cooper to find Anne Hathaway because she was near death. While I too enjoyed this film, I think the biggest problem with the whole love schmaltz is that it could have been completely ignored and the rules would be entirely unchanged. As for worst Nolan film, I still would give that to The Prestige because that film's ending feels cheap on a whole other level.