Sunday, November 09, 2014

Interstellar (2014)

The inevitability of me writing about Interstellar is as great as the fact that no matter what Christopher Nolan did, it would be bound to be a disappointment.  This doesn’t mean that Interstellar (Nolan’s fourth film to date beginning with the letter ‘I’) is a complete failure, far from it: it’s a never less than thrilling hunk of eye candy supported by a suitably cosmic plotline filled with enough twists and turns to keep any audience engaged. And while ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey may just be on the cusp of wearing out his welcome on our screens with his stock in trade breathless fatalism, as with his recent searing performance as Rust Kohl in True Detective, he projects stoic capability and glowering, world-weary passion unlike any other screen actor I can think of at the moment.

But this is Christopher Nolan (along with, as usual, his brother Jonathan) doing serious science fiction. And on a week when Kubrick’s 2001 is re-released for the umpteenth time in cinemas, Interstellar has to be (deservedly) judged by a higher set of values than just another blockbuster. Nolan obviously expects it, so logic dictates that it should be criticised on the same terms. And for that reason alone, Interstellar fails.

I’ve been all worked up over this film for well over a year now (when they started showing trailers in cinemas). The anticipation I felt for Nolan’s epic was born of the fact that this was, reportedly, a comfortably old-fashioned look at space travel and was flagged as a true return to the glories of Kubrick and Clarke’s science-based vision of the human race’s inevitable journey to other galaxies. I was thrilled about the possibility of a film that could once more get to grips with the realistic conception of interstellar travel, how it could work and the mysteries any adventurer would encounter: a return to the glorious scientific optimism of my generation’s childhood.

So what does Interstellar bode for our notions of science fiction? Ostensibly it’s a ‘hard’ sci-fi film but is weighed down by its inability to stop pointing out how clever it is while dragging along a parallel plot regarding wispy notions about of the power of love (which, if I take Nolan’s point correctly is comparable to gravity in its ability to transcend space and time... or something). And indeed, Nolan is here cheerleading for culture’s latest hot date: sexy old science. In a future where mankind has found itself facing imminent destruction from crop failure, corn is the only remaining plentiful food source. I imagine that this would be a world where if someone offered you cornflakes for breakfast you’d probably punch them in the throat (and I also admit to wondering what such a reduced diet would do to the human digestive system). But Nolan has no time for lily-livered eco warriors intent on being a ’caretaker generation’ (even to the somewhat unbelievable point of being moon landing-deniers, for fear of inflaming a human race for whom such money wasting on space travel may seem idiotic when all energy needs to be focussed on providing food). It’s a strangely Boys' Own notion where Matthew McConaughey, as Cooper (or ‘Coop’), is an ex-NASA test pilot who rails against his lost chances for glory and lives vicariously through his troubled prodigy of a daughter, Murph. In a nicely feminist touch her older brother is a pleasant knucklehead who actually likes farming. What a rube…

No, only the truly brave and reckless will win this grim day for mankind, so despite his attachment to his family (that significantly lacks a mother figure) Coop’s heading for outer space to seek out new worlds etc. after some suitably cosmic coincidences that bring him together with Michael Caine (doing his Nolanesque weepy old man thing again) and his scientist daughter, Anne Hathaway.

The film’s second half is filled with the typical post-Gravity nuts and bolts derring-do-in-a-vacuum stuff that no epic sci-fi movie can be without (as usual involving air locks, docking and terror in stomach-churning spinning spaceship fashion) but it’s also here that Nolan veers a little too close to Kubrick’s hallowed ground. A final encounter with the ‘hard’ maths of an event horizon/singularity makes deliberate nods to 2001’s finale – cue Coop’s helmet glinting with the retro-styling of the spaceship’s computer consoles etc.  as he hurtles towards his encounter with higher powers - and maybe this is why Interstellar resists any genuine sense of awe, because Nolan’s initial vision of  Humanity having lost its ability to crave adventure and take chances (‘Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt,’ Coop says early on, while sipping a manly beer on his porch with grumpy father-in-law, John Lithgow) also relies on the kind of Dawkinsian triumph of science and rationalism which will somehow explain away the ‘ghost’ from daughter Murph’s childhood. Planets in Interstellar are inert balls of rock for us to plunder, or play out our very human dramas; the abandonment of our world is just an inevitable fact as we follow the unfashionable notion of progress into the future. Just get over it, hippies…

The trouble is that Interstellar wants its huge galactic cake and it also wants to eat it at the box office. Nolan’s for all his high-mindedness is in thrall to money-making machinery that will always preclude making a truly hard sci-fi movie in the modern age. Time and again the film’s insistence on drawing attention to its science credibility rubs uncomfortably against a need to inject emotion and drama thrilling enough to keep less attentive viewers watching. These devices, when cast against just about the biggest background you can have, can come across as hackneyed (for instance: the race against time device in the film’s last third is both contrived and unnecessary as it’s obvious how it will play out) and at times even cynical. The concentration of the camera on the defrosting of one of the advance team of scientists who preceded Coop’s mission is only there to make you supposedly gasp at the revelation of another major star late in proceedings. Meanwhile one ten-minute section uses the incomprehensibility of the spoken lines to put the audience on tenterhooks before the whole thing is again explained to them. Meanwhile Coop’s inexplicably rapid promotion to mission pilot (from farmer) seems only there so he can ask all the dumb questions that the audience may have.  I would have far preferred the steely pragmatism of 2001’s crew as they attempt to repair their craft, instead of a ship where everyone’s worried about their own personal agendas. Surely there would be some kind of psychological evaluation before you’d send people on such mind-bending voyages?

Compare this to Kubrick’s approach: he never really bothers to explain matters until the point at which the mission has very nearly failed and HAL’s dying act releases the briefing video that finally tells Dave what he’s about to encounter. And, even then, the viewer is left to themselves to contemplate the real meaning of the final psychedelic showdown. For Stanley the alien’s purpose should always remain shrouded in mystery, only hinting at wonders beyond our comprehension, but in Nolan’s universe the face of God is not only knowable, it’s revealed to be ourselves. Interstellar, much like a vast amount of Nolan’s other work, contains a monstrous hubris at its heart.

And like the fifth dimension where Coop finally sees the workings of his own familial drama laid bare Interstellar ultimately has feeling of being a film reverse engineered for cleverness. And in the same way that Inception started with an intriguing notion and then proceeded to explain the life out of it, Interstellar asks you to accept its deus ex machina fudging until it’s all neatly explained (as with all time travel paradox malarkey in movies) by a final reel replete with happy endings and cute end-tying. We’re expected to sit back and marvel, not just at the cosmos, but at the director’s big brain.

I know comparisons can be belittling, but let’s be honest, Nolan’s not really hiding his influences that well. Beyond the inevitable parallels with Kubrick, Hans Zimmer’s organ-heavy soundtrack injects enough of the planetary-scale gravitas of Philip Glass and Koyaanisqatsi, but other reviews have also pointed to the less flattering ghost of M Night Shamalyan that hangs over the film. It’s not helped by the setting of the first third on the dust-drenched cornfields of Cooper’s farm. What is it with science fiction and cornfields? From the laughably contrived Looper to Shamalyan’s not-that-bad-actually Signs and even in this year’s so-bad-it-was-nearly-genius Transformers Age of Extinction: the vast stretches of nascent popcorn seem to some kind of touch point which may be necessary to capture those vast mid-Western audiences. Or maybe it’s just because Ray Bradbury stories often took place on such archetypal farmsteads.  But in the end Interstellar - beyond its incredible imagery of other worlds and (with the consultancy of physicist Kip Thorne) in conveying what a real black hole may look like – contains nothing really original to the genre. And yet, this doesn’t make it a bad movie in any way: Nolan’s too seasoned a director (and rightly deserves to inhabit the same lofty realm as people such as Spielberg).

Mind you, it was also probably a bad idea to send a mission equipped with another sci-fi space yarn cliché - two sardonic robots. Never really given enough space (they get just about all of what counts for the film’s ‘humorous’ lines) – they nonetheless only draw attention to the fact that Anne Hathaway has zero screen personality. Far better is David Gyasi as the poor ‘pure’ scientist, Romilly, whose twitchy reaction to the tenuous nature of space travel leads to one of the film’s most effective (albeit brief) moments where the Lazarus spacecraft drifts around Saturn’s rings accompanied by the sounds of Earth’s wildlife. In another of the film’s finest moments Cooper and Brand (Hathaway) return from a short, disastrous trip to a planet’s surface to find that 23 years have elapsed due to the relativistic effects of the nearby black hole. Not only is McConaughey’s reaction to seeing his children become middle-aged adults via archived video diary messages deeply affecting, but Gyasi’s quiet edge of insanity brought about by the extreme loneliness he’s suffered is beautifully observed. Luckily Coop’s daughter has grown up to be Jessica Chastain (already a proven natural at playing steely–faced women with a serious job to do in the awful Zero Dark Thirty) who manages superbly to convey the contradictions in someone for whom the pain of abandonment is trumped by her own scientific curiosity (luckily for mankind).

Popcorn for dinner... again
Set against a truly cosmic background the petty squabbles and cheap Hollywood gewgaws designed to ramp up the excitement seem too cheap and extraneous. Even Steven Soderbergh’s re-tooling of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (a book which never reaches any conclusions about the mysteries we may ultimately encounter out there and was, thus, suitably spiritual ground for Tarvoksky to use as well), while focusing on love managed to remain in awe of the ineluctable grandeur of the universe and the unknowable face of God. Yet Interstellar is a pretty great film.  As with Edge Of Tomorrow, earlier this year, it’s no shame to make a film that contains not one ounce of originality and still blows you away. Interstellar’s fault is that it aims, both literally and figuratively, for the stars but forgets to leave in any sense of the mysterious. By explaining every detail of its intricate mechanism, it’s a film that’s ultimately earthbound. File under ‘brave attempt’.

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