Friday, November 7, 2014

Hardly An Epic, Sadly Unincredible, Why Interstellar Is Not All It Should Have Been. . .

The Good: Decent plot, Adequate acting, Moments of character, Metaphysics
The Bad: Not stellar on the character or performance fronts, Huge detail problem that is never addressed
The Basics: (Mostly) Well-constructed, Interstellar is still deeply unsatisfying.

Coming into Oscar Pandering Season, indeed for most of the year, it is easy to say that the film I was most anticipating was Interstellar. I have largely enjoyed the works of Christopher Nolan and I am a fan of Anne Hathaway. Eager for her biggest film since Les Miserables (reviewed here!), I spent the day on a splurge: I went downstate to see Anne Hathaway in IMAX. I was excited to spend the day out and splurge seeing Interstellar in IMAX [Rant #1 – Hey, you, jackasses at the Warner Brothers advertising department! If you’re going to make the claim that “This film will be released two days early in IMAX” live up to your promise! There were no IMAX showings of Interstellar in Michigan on November 5, but your commercials sure made it here! Grumble!]. I otherwise went into Interstellar virtually blind; I managed to avoid spoilers, reviews and previews.  So, having made a day of it . . .

. . . it is hard to discuss my level of disappointment now. I know the moment the film was done that I enjoyed it more than I did Gravity (reviewed here!). But, when I went to assign a number rating on Interstellar, I had to go back to my literal, strict, formula for rating and Gravity, it turns out has a half point on Interstellar by the numbers! My wife asked me before if it was the worst Christopher Nolan film and I said, “No,” thinking that I liked Interstellar more than The Prestige (reviewed here!). While this might be an implicit argument that sometimes films get rated higher based on a first viewing (The Dark Knight Rises, I am most certainly looking at you!), my gut tells me that Interstellar is suffering in the opposite direction . . . and yet . . . and yet. There is much to recommend Interstellar, but there are some gaping holes in the science and science fiction of the film. As a result, I have decided that the best way for me to approach reviewing Interstellar is with a fractured review; the top half will have the spoiler-free critique (Jessica Chastain had a much bigger role than Anne Hathaway, the visual effects were not actually all that spectacular, etc.) and then a more thorough analysis of the problems with Interstellar (which is impossible to do without some spoilers). There will be a clear delineation.

Set in a nebulous future where blight has killed off many major crops and made farmers more important to Earth than engineers and astronauts (not to mention military powers), Cooper is a farmer who was once, briefly, a pilot. Living in the new dust bowl, Cooper farms corn and raises his son – Tom - and daughter, Murph, because humanity has turned so against science and medicine that MRIs no longer exist to find things like cancerous tumors in time to save the life of Cooper’s wife. Murph is a bit of a troublemaker at school and refuses to believe things like the Apollo missions were just government productions devised to bleed the Soviet Union financially dry and she is convinced she has a ghost in her room because books keep falling down. After a particularly violent dust storm floods Murph’s room with dust and dirt, Cooper becomes convinced that there is something going on in Murph’s room; the dust lands along specific lines of gravity and from those lines, Cooper discerns a simple binary message. Something is giving Cooper and Murph coordinates and Cooper (unwittingly taking Murph with him) makes a journey to find what is at those coordinates.

What they find is an old NORAD facility, which has been secretly used by NASA, which has existed in secret long after the public thought it was gone. Cooper meets Amelia Brand, who shows him the truth: in the years to come, the Blight will adapt to corn and the Earth will be unable to feeds its people and NASA is working on an ambitious project to evacuate the population or repopulate a distant planet with humans using embryonic genetic material. Cooper is reunited with Dr. Brand, whom he knew from his past days in NASA, and he meets Doyle and Romilly, along with the robots TARS and CASE, who are intended to go on a mission through a wormhole that appeared 48 years prior out near Saturn. Cooper learness that their mission would be the second endeavor through the wormhole; a decade ago, the Lazarus Project under Dr. Edmund went through the wormhole and sent twelve pods out to nearby planets to try to find a habitable one. Despite Murph being furious at Cooper for going, Cooper joins the mission as the pilot, leaving behind a watch for Murph and hoping to return by the time she is his age.

The crew of the Endurance goes to sleep for two years and wakes up when the ship reaches Saturn and the wormhole there. Cooper pilots the Endurance through the wormhole – in which Brand has a close encounter of sorts – and arriving near the black hole (Gargantua) in a far away galaxy, the crew discovers that three of the twelve probes give them reason to hope. The crew heads right away to Miller’s planet, where the orbit of the planet has such a relativistic distortion that an hour on the planet is equivalent to seven years outside the distortion field! Trying to track down Miller turns disastrous, though; her planet is all-water and while the lander finds her wreckage, they lose Doyle and are delayed while the engines drain of water. Returning to space, Brand and Cooper learn from Romilly that twenty-two years have passed. While he has managed to learn all he can about gravity from the nearby black hole, the years have drained most of the Endurance’s power and now the Endurance has only enough fuel to investigate one of the two remaining close planets. When Cooper exposes Brand’s determination to go to Edmund’s planet as a result of her love for him, he makes the choice to take the ship to Mann’s planet. During that time, Cooper finally starts getting messages from Murph, who has begun working with Dr. Brand on the project to get a worldship off the ground. As the years go by, Murph struggles to keep hope up for saving humanity. Hope is in short supply, though, when Dr. Mann’s optimistic appraisal of the planet he has been marooned on for decades turns out to be way too good to be true and Dr. Brand delivers a deathbed confession to Murph that causes her to question the whole nature of the mission her father is on.

Throughout Interstellar, the lingering question is who They are. They are the people who sent Murph and Cooper a message in the dust by manipulating gravity, They are the ones who created the artificial wormhole and other gravity anomalies, They seem to want humanity to survive, but They do not communicate directly with humanity. Unfortunately, the narrative technique of Interstellar makes this answer troublingly obvious – more about that in the spoilerific section below the rating! For no particular reason that makes much sense, Interstellar opens with elderly people discussing their childhood in the time period that the film begins in. While this is wonderful for creating a sense of time and place – they put plates on the table flipped over because of all the dust – it telegraphs the largest possible arc of the movie in a disappointing way. From almost the first frames of Interstellar, writers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan seem to be obsessed with saying, “Don’t worry, humanity will survive!”

Ultimately, though, that is at the root of the problems with Interstellar; the film tries to make mysteries and then completely lets down the audience with the payoffs to them. The film is riddled with inconsistencies much larger than Murph’s disappearing necklace between a p.o.v. shot change; the audience is meant to feel a sense of peril, but there is no larger sense of jeopardy because we already know humanity lives on. Similarly, Cooper opens the film as a scientist of such strength and conviction that it gave me hope that should Matthew McConaughey win any awards for his portrayal of Cooper in Interstellar, he could not reasonably waste time thanking the Divine in his acceptance speech. But for all of the rigid science of Cooper’s views, much of Interstellar is about faith. Anne Hathaway’s Amelia has her most impassioned speech of the film about the power of love; Murph is an educated scientist whose devotion to the cause borders on the fanatical in the absence of any reasonable reinforcement for decades!

This is not a complaint about the final act’s metaphysical nature. In fact, I enjoyed that. After a very literal film about the perils of space travel, Interstellar evolves and goes into cerebral territory much akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have no problem with cerebral science fiction; indeed, I enjoyed Love (reviewed here!) more than most and more than I did Interstellar. But for a film that is supposed to be about human resilience and hope in the face of potential extinction, Interstellar really cheaps out with a faith angle that is not at all scientific.

On the performance front, Interstellar is adequate. Some of the casting is a little weird; Mackenzie Foy looks like a pre-teen version of Anne Hathaway, yet her character Murph grows up to be played by Jessica Chastain and then Ellen Burstyn, so there’s really no clear evolution in how her body changes throughout her life cycle! That said, all three actresses make incredible use of their time on screen – Foy especially is a scene stealer. Jessica Chastain has a powerfully substantive role in Interstellar and what is perhaps most impressive about her performance is how she sells some of the most ridiculous leaps a scientist could make as plausible. For plot purposes, Murph realizes something impossibly obscure and Chastain acts around the improbability remarkably well.

Interstellar has an impressive supporting cast, led by Anne Hathaway. Hathaway is given remarkably little to do; her character of Amelia seems cold initially and Hathaway has to play the part with a bad-enough poker face for Cooper to realize that Amelia has an attachment to Edmund and she does that. But Hathaway has only one big scene in Interstellar where she is otherwise given enough space to act and give her character any dimension. Ironically, Matt Damon’s character of Dr. Mann is in Interstellar for far less time, but he is given more to do with greater range. Damon is able to evolve Mann from good-natured and grateful to unsettling and unhinged, with careful gradations in his behaviors! Wes Bentley, Michael Caine, Topher Grace, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow and David Gyasi (wow, Interstellar sure is a sausage fest – are all the women in this bleak future out farming, too?!) all have moments that make their characters watchable and/or interesting. But no one in the film really shines and makes the viewer think “wow, that’s an amazing performance!”

That includes Matthey McConaughey as Cooper. McConaughy plays Cooper as a reluctant leader who is determined to juggle two potentially opposite things; save the Earth and get back to Earth before his daughter dies! McConaughey is good for the film’s physical moments and he does most of the jargon just fine, but his performance is nothing superlative.

Sadly, the same can be said about the special effects in Interstellar. I was psyched to go see Interstellar in IMAX and once the film finally got off Earth, I became excited again. Just as Prometheus (reviewed here!) made great use of the massive IMAX canvas for illustrating a tiny ship next to a massive planet (it’s a very different effect on Blu-Ray on a small screen!), Interstellar features a tiny space ship next to Jupiter. And the spherical wormhole is pretty cool. And the trip through the wormhole is appropriately trippy. And the film’s climactic, metaphysical, event is awesome. But in between . . . meh. Director Christopher Nolan tells a few cool things using effects – the lander hitting a frozen cloud in the atmosphere of Mann’s planet is neat – but the effects are more mundane and obvious than they are incredible or truly special.

In fact, in the quest to make some good special effects frequently works to the detriment of the story in Interstellar. The Coopers are farmers in a society that values farmers; why is their house falling apart?! Seriously, we have better windows and doors today than the Coopers do and there is no real rational reason for that to be so (see the spoilerific section for more on this!).

The result is a surprisingly middle-of-the-road science fiction piece that does what it promises in the film’s first few moments - it tells the story of how humanity was saved – it just does not do it very well. In fact, Doctor Who pounded the same theme on the importance of exploration in the recent episode “Kill The Moon” (reviewed here!); that might have had an equally preposterous underlying supposition, but at least it was shorter!


So, beyond this point is the crux of my issues with Interstellar - SPOILERS ABOUND! READ BEYOND HERE AT YOUR OWN RISK TO ENJOYING THE MOVIEGOING EXPERIENCE!!!

Interstellar is plagued with some serious problems that the film is unable to reconcile and it is unfortunate for how a film that tries to be smart ends up being so very, very stupid. First, the narrative technique; old people discussing life in the future, where they were children. The Nolans seem to think viewers who they want to be smart enough to understand physics and philosophy will be unable to grasp that the narrative technique they use to establish the precepts of their near-future also deny the viewer of any question as to whether the mission of the Endeavor and Lazarus Project will be successful! This film is not like “The Inner Light” (reviewed here!) where all that is going to survive are the planet’s stories.

The second big problem is They. “They” are referred to as being interested in saving humanity and giving Cooper the coordinates to the NORAD facility. They set off a story that is inherently cyclical. Unlike Inception (reviewed here!) where the movie may be viewed as a loop that the audience is working back to, Interstellar depends upon the loop. In fact, the film is all about the loop. Unfortunately, the nature of the loop is obvious from almost the very first moments of the film. When a time/space anomaly is detected that is clearly artificial and has such specific effects as coding a message to a single person in a specific place and time, the nature of that loop is pretty obvious. Anyone who likes science fiction will know that Cooper is sending himself on the mission.

But, wow, does Cooper go the long way around! “They” are influencing gravity to make messages in dust. That ability could be used, any time after Cooper has left on his mission, to write messages in the dust without causing a paradox. In fact, if the Cooper house had just had modern windows, “They” could have written pretty decent, concrete, messages in the dust on the windows. Cooper could have written something in the dust that would have made Murph’s ridiculous leap make sense, something like “Second hand!” But alas, Interstellar does not do anything quite that smart, even as it is appearing to be smart.

That is because the entire conceit of the movie defies any sense of logic and reason. I understand paradoxes and I love narrative loops. I have absolutely no problem with effect preceding cause . . . but it has to make sense. Sadly, Interstellar doesn’t. Even non-linear narratives need to have a sense of reason; if time is a loop, events must conspire such that the first time through time, people or planets get to a point where the loop may occur (i.e. if the Earth is destroyed by all-out nuclear war before the time machine is invented, a human from the future cannot come back to influence the past). The reason it fails to make sense comes during the metaphysical climax to the movie. Cooper does not do enough to influence his own timeline to make events happen after he and TARS enter the black hole. Cooper should have created the gravity anomaly that crashed his first mission, but the Nolans forgot to address that.

The wormhole is a problem that is a macguffin that is not satisfactorily addressed. The Lazarus Project and the Endeavor are only able to go out to a distant galaxy thanks to the wormhole. The wormhole was supposedly created by Them, which would be Cooper and TARS, but they forgot to make it before reality on the other side the event horizon collapsed. Therefore, someone else had to make the wormhole and the only implication in the film is that it is hyper-evolved humans who exist in five dimensions in the distant future. But, here’s the problem; without Cooper getting saved by them, they can never exist. Cooper’s own story which puts him in the distant galaxy on the other side of the wormhole hinges on him getting messages back to Murph in both the past and present. Cooper’s message cannot be transmitted unless he and TARS solve the equation from within the event horizon. The choices then are that he is saved by aliens who have mastered the fifth dimension or that he and TARS create the wormhole to save themselves. Otherwise, cause and effect be damned; humans would not have come through the wormhole to evolve into fifth dimensional beings to save Cooper! They couldn’t have left the planet to get there. So, that puts Interstellar once again in remarkably unsatisfying territory; Cooper and TARS forgot to engineer the wormhole so they were saved by unseen aliens who manufactured a wormhole . . . why?!

Seriously, if we’re to buy that aliens save humans what. the. hell.?! Many, many galaxies away, aliens bend time and space to discover humans and they commit themselves to saving them . . . by putting a hole in space not really near enough to them to be particularly useful. Ugh!

For other works with Jessica Chastain, please check out my reviews of:
The Martian
The Help


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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