Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar (2014)

Rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language

Interstellar is Christopher Nolan's first great misfire. While the warning signs were there with Man of Steel and Transcendence (which he didn't write or direct, but which he produced and which were made by frequent collaborators of his), Interstellar displays most of the greatest problems with his style and few of the redeeming values that had papered over those problems in the past. It's not a bad film by any means, not when it has such a talented cast and such stunning visuals and special effects, but as somebody who loved Inception and Nolan's Batman trilogy (I even liked The Dark Knight Rises, warts and all), it's a profound disappointment. For a story that, underneath its hard science fiction trappings, is extremely emotional and humanistic, Nolan was one of the worst possible choices to direct this, a film that really should've been made by someone like Steven Spielberg who would've been more interested in capturing both the awe of space and the lives of the people exploring it. (I'm not surprised in the least to learn that this film was indeed originally conceived with Spielberg in mind as the director, and he was interested before contractual obligations forced him to pass on it.) It has other problems too, but Nolan's direction turns what could've been a good, if flawed, sci-fi movie into something that I can only really recommend on a purely technical level.

The story begins a few decades into the future, where environmental damage has unleashed dust storms and a fungal blight that is destroying our staple crops, leaving us with famine and a diet heavily dependent upon corn. What's left of human civilization has reacted to the disaster by pretty much turning away from science, engineering, and any other expensive, pie-in-the-sky pursuits and focusing purely on making sure people still have food on their tables. Humanity's entering a new dark age that it will never emerge from if it stays on Earth, as the blight is also altering Earth's atmosphere to the point where, within a few generations, humanity will only be able to survive within habitation modules as the air outside will be too low in oxygen to breathe for very long. In this world, we have Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut now living on a farm in the Great Plains with his two kids Murphy (played by Mackenzie Foy as a child and Jessica Chastain as an adult) and Tom (Casey Affleck). A seemingly supernatural occurrence leads Cooper to a secret base where the last remnants of NASA, led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), are planning a mission to save humanity by settling another world. Cooper is eager to go back into space, saying his tearful goodbyes to his family and joining Brand's daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly, and Doyle (Wes Bentley) to venture into a strange wormhole near Saturn and study three planets that early reports suggest are possibly conductive to life, as well as restore contact with the scouts sent before them who have gone missing.

Problems start cropping up right from the start, when the film violates one of the cardinal rules of world-building: show, don't tell. We're shown that schools are now teaching that the Apollo landings were a hoax so as to discredit those calling for renewed investment in space exploration, and one creative scene shows us that Major League Baseball has been reduced to playing in ballparks that would be charitably described as minor-league in the present day (and there aren't even any hot dogs), but scenes like this are few and far between. We never get any scope showing us just how badly this world is suffering. We're told that the crops are failing, but everybody still looks well-fed, and nobody is seen struggling for food. We're told that the military has been all but scrapped as there's little need for it anymore, but this never plays any role in the story. Our scope of the world is limited to just one town on the prairie, with no mention of the rest of the world outside of an offhand mention about India having collapsed. What of the seas? The rainforests? It doesn't feel like a cataclysmic ecological collapse that's taking humanity with it so much as it does the 1930s Dust Bowl with 2010s technology -- a disaster, yes, but not one that threatens mankind's very existence. At the very least, Cooper's fellow astronauts could've given us some perspective on what life was like where they grew up.

This problem isn't limited to just the world-building -- it turns out to be the film's greatest failing as it goes on. Nolan has long been stereotyped as a guy who loves to overexplain everything in his movies, and while it worked wonderfully in Inception (which was fundamentally a heist movie where the plan was the whole plot), here it drags the film to a halt over and over again. It's a miracle that McConaughey, Hathaway, Caine, and Chastain are able to breathe any life into their characters, as they're all saddled with delivering infodumps that suffocate any attempts to develop them as characters. Nolan and co. didn't need to prove within the film itself that they'd shown their work when it came to the film's science (which, to their credit, they did for the most part -- more on that later). The characters are supposed to be scientists on a mission into deep space, so they shouldn't have to be explaining to each other what they should already know. Most of those infodumps should've been saved for the special features on the DVD detailing the real-life theories underpinning the plot, with the film itself only explaining the most out-there jargon and otherwise letting the gorgeous visuals speak for themselves. As it stands, far too many segments of the film are dedicated to joyless explanations of scientific concepts that a reasonably smart viewer should be able to wrap his or her head around in far less time, rather than devoting that time to building the characters as human beings. If I wanted a science lecture, I'd have gotten it from someone like Bill Nye or Neil DeGrasse Tyson who knows how to make it interesting and fun.

The characters, of course, are a problem all their own. For scientists, these people make a ton of stupid decisions that exist only to drive the plot, from Amelia Brand running headlong into a tidal wave and getting a crewmate killed as everyone else tries to save her, to Professor Brand's secretive motivations, to just about everything involving Matt Damon's character Dr. Mann (spoiler: Matt Damon is in this), one of the initial explorers who found himself marooned on the planet he was exploring and who exists only to give the film a human bad guy ('nuther spoiler: he's gone completely insane). As for the people back on Earth, I still can't quite figure out just what damn purpose Casey Affleck's Tom served in this thing. Furthermore, it's a problem that runs headlong into the issues with obsessive detail that I just described, the two problems only magnifying one another. The film cannot seem to decide whether it wants to be an old-style science fiction movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey about exploration and the drive for knowledge, or a character-driven story about love conquering all, and after seeing how Big Hero 6 (which you should all go see, by the way) managed to deftly combine the two, it's almost shocking how badly this film fumbles given the pedigree behind it. Nowhere is this more evident than in the big climax, which absolutely should've been a jaw-dropping, heart-wrenching moment. To say as little as possible, it's about a father literally breaking the boundaries of space and time to communicate with his daughter and help her save the world -- it's a scene that should've been turning on the water works in me and everyone else in the theater! Unfortunately, the film just doesn't know when to shut up. Throughout the whole scene, Cooper and his robot partner are explaining how the whole thing works, pulling me right out of the big moment at the heart of it and sucking out all the mystery. You don't explain a magic trick as you're performing it, and the fact that this film did just that utterly destroyed its most pivotal, climatic, important moment. Again, science nerds like myself who are interested in how that stuff works could've waited for a featurette.

The fact that this film gets so much wrong with the story is that much more painful given that it still contains one of Nolan's greatest strengths, which even the worst plotting and world-building can't take away: this film looks absolutely friggin' gorgeous. I didn't even see this in IMAX, and I was still blown away by the stunning visuals. When it wasn't busily explaining everything and sucking out the mystery, it was blasting my mind all over the theater, especially when I realized that so much of this film was being done with practical effects. If nothing else, Interstellar is one of the most beautiful films of the year. Also, despite playing utterly bland, rote characters, the cast here still managed to shine through the muck. Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain had the biggest parts and get the most props for their emotional performances, Michael Caine tried his best to make the film's infodumps engaging and actually pulled it off more than once, and while Anne Hathaway didn't get much of a chance to develop her character beyond a generic labcoat with a bit of a snarky streak, she too managed to give Amelia Brand some life. Even Matt Damon, playing a character who makes some of the stupidest decisions I've ever seen in a science fiction movie, did it with style. Their performances made me wish that much more that Nolan had spent more time focusing on developing them as characters.

Score: 2 out of 5

If you're interested in a recent film about space that's true to the science (without going into mindless detail on it) and is visually stunning while also telling a good story with characters that you can care about, watch Gravity again. Interstellar looks good and has a great cast, yes, but it's also an overly-long, pseudo-intellectual slog. It clearly wants to reignite the spark for space exploration, but instead, it did what had once been thought impossible: it made outer space boring.

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