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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2014)

9. Interstellar

Christopher Nolan is a high-minded filmmaker. His early noirs were psychologically complex and used unconventional dramatic devices and non-linear storytelling to add extra layers to his films. His Batman trilogy elevated the entire superhero genre, turning guys in spandex into high art and taking comic book movies to unprecedented levels of critical acclaim and popular success. “Inception” was simultaneously the most conceptually complex heist flick ever made and an epic set entirely inside the human mind. For his next trick, the director looked to re-popularize “hard” science fiction, a genre that went out of popularity in the early seventies. While “Interstellar” has not been a phenomenon on the level of “The Dark Knight” or “Inception,” it’s still been a hit internationally. Nolan continues to be the rarest of creatures: An intellectual and a hit maker, a guy who makes complex, challenging films that are also really popular and make lots of money.

"Interstellar" is set in a near future where an unnamed ecological disaster has plunged Earth into chaos. A dust bowl grips the planet, eliminating all crops except for corn. Humanity is facing extinction. Cooper, a widower, former aero-space pilot, and current corn farmer, lives an unsatisfied life. He fears that mankind is focusing too much on survival and dismissing dreams of reaching the stars. A strange gravitational phenomena in his precocious daughter’s bedroom leads him to a secret base in the mountains. The remnants of NASA, hidden from the public, prepare a dangerous mission, launching astronauts into a black hole outside of Saturn, in hopes that inhabitable planets will be on the other sides. After a highly qualified pilot walk into their lab, the scientists in charge have to offer Cooper the job. He has to make the hard decision to leave his family behind, to an uncertain future, to go on a mission he may never return from… And one that might save the human race.

“Interstellar’s” goal is nothing less then to make a “2001: A Space Odyssey” for the new century. Like Kubrick’s epic, both films share a fascination with big ideas and plausible science. “Interstellar” never specifies what future year it is set in. However, it’s a world not far removed from our own. The film endeavors to portray interstellar space travel in as realistic a manner as possible. Ships spin through the stars, propelled by their own motion. Traveling from planet to planet takes years. Special attention is paid to relativity, to time passing different for those on Earth compared to those traveling across space. The focus on plausible science extends to the film’s hugely heady concepts. Space, gravity, robotics, black holes, eternity, time travel, other dimensions, and humanity’s place in the universe are just some of the ideas explored in “Interstellar.” It’s a film with no shortage of far out ideas and huge concepts.

Because “Interstellar” deals with such large conception, it’s a film packed with impressive spectacle. Rarely has the massiveness of space been better portrayed. Space is immense, black, and empty. No sound travels through space, giving the environment a sterile, cold feel. Yet there’s something wondrous about it too. The film fills its wide, wide frames with huge, impossibly big images. As the character approaches Saturn, the ship seems tiny in front of the massive, orange planet. This is only the film’s first, unforgettable image. The second comes when the crew nears the worm hole. When shown in previous films, black holes are always portrayed as a sucking rabbit’s hole in space, a tunnel leading down deeper. “Interstellar,” instead, shows the black hole as a spherical shape, a reflective object in the vastness of space. The space ship entering the worm hole, infinite space being reflected above and below, all the cosmos spiraling around them, is an indelible image. These are fantastic images, unlike any other ever put on cinema before.

For all its high-minded ideas, “Interstellar” is also an adventure film. It contains good old fashion thrills too. After breaching the worm hole, the astronauts first land on a dank, watery planet. The entire world appears to be covered with water yet it usually floats tepidly at ankle level. Until, the characters notice too late, that the mountains in the distance aren’t mountains. They’re waves. This leads to the action high-light of “Interstellar.” Nolan’s camera places the viewer in the cockpits of the space ship. The sound design rumbles, giving the viewer a great idea of how dangerous the situation is. The film shakes and stutters, carrying every rough bump and shutter through the theater. On the water planet, a massive wave barrels down on the astronauts. Barely, they escape its wake, rushing up the side of the water, the ship’s fins splashing across the surface. It’s an intense moment.

For all the wonder the film assigns space travel, it never understates the danger of the mission. “Interstellar” is incredibly grim at times as well. The situation on Earth seems hopeless. Apocalyptic dust storms tear through the countryside, blotting out windows and busting into homes. How grave the situation is must be stated clearly, to give the film’s mission even more resonance. That grimness continues into the middle section. The conditions on Earth grow worst. Families flee their homes and towns, desperately looking for safety anywhere. Meanwhile, in space, Cooper and his team touch down on the film’s second alien world. This one is inhospitably cold. So cold, in fact, that the clouds are frozen. The space ship navigates huge frozen expanses of ice. The surface isn’t any more greeting. The ground is grey, rough, and extends past the horizon. The characters walk across stone bridges, above more grey, unwelcoming ground. The images are stunning in their hugeness. Yet this is not a planet we’d ever like to visit. It’s no mistake that “Interstellar’s” darkest moments take place on this hellish, frozen ice world.

Nolan has been accused in the past of being cold, of uninterested in the trials of its human characters. It’s not entirely inaccurate to say he’s a director more interested in ideas then people. “Interstellar” is obviously emulating the works of Kubrick, who could be accused of many of the same flaws. This movie, in particularly, is modeled after “2001,” which was perhaps Kubrick’s coldest, most scientific film. However, the Nolan brothers smartly provide an emotional heart into the crazy, huge world of “Interstellar.” Beyond its massive ideas, this is a movie about family. The early scenes focuses heavily on Cooper’s relationship with his kids. Son Tom is more practical and seems content with his future of being a farmer. Daughter Murphy, however, follows in her father’s footstep, of being scientifically minded, of wanting to solve the mysteries of the universe. Before leaving for space, Cooper has to assure his daughter that he’ll return someday. He holds her as she cries on her bed, uncertain of his return. It’s not treacle, the emotions instead being honestly earned. The film frames its epic story not in terms of Cooper saving humanity. Instead, his goal is to return to his kids, to ensure a future for his children. It roots a very big story in something personal, small, and understandable.

Of the many reoccurring themes in “Interstellar,” a case can be made that the enduring power of love is its most important. At the halfway point, Anne Hathaway’s Dr. Brand assures everyone that love is a constant. That we love people who are dead or gone, that it transcends time and space. That’s a potentially gooey, overly sentimental expression. However, “Interstellar” is practical in its application. The downsides of the theory of relativity are rarely explored in science fiction, if they’re acknowledged at all. “Interstellar” builds most of its conflict around the idea. While Cooper and the others are exploring space, the clock is always ticking back home. Hours on the other side of the worm hole are years back home. While Cooper is gone trying to save his family, his family is growing up without him. The film brilliantly illustrates this by having the crew receive scrambled, far-off messages from Earth. Within minutes, on a fuzzy monitor screen, Cooper watches his kids grow up. He watches his son fall in love, get married, have his first child, and loose that child to the harsh realities of a declining planet. How this makes Cooper feel isn’t expressed through words. Instead, the camera focuses on his face as he weeps. Along with its big ideas, the screenplay reaches for big emotions too. By approaching those emotions sensitively, they never feel cheap or manipulative.

In the final hour, these twin themes of exploration and the power of love intermingle. “Interstellar” saves its most far-out ideas for its finale. Family and love prove to be the answer to the film’s biggest concerns. Throughout the film, references are dropped to fifth dimensional beings, entities so advance that time is a physical concept to them. This promise is paid off at the climax. The film illustrates what time as a place might look like. It’s another impressive image in a film full of them, a sprawling, unending cavern of time. Without spoiling too much, here the film comes full circle. The tiny concerns of a family breaking apart are connected with the fate of the human race and our potential as a species. Amazingly, “Interstellar” does not stop there. Instead, it travels further ahead, showing how mankind might survive the problems of the future. The grimness of the first act builds towards unbridled optimism. Love connects everything. The film ends on a note of exploration and closure.

Further anchoring such a conceptually advanced film is a sturdy cast. We are knee-deep in the McConaissance. Matthew McConaughey’s graduation from shirtless pop culture punchline to Academy Award-winning actor is well established by now. Nolan cast the man for his all-American persona. McConaughey plays a scientist but not as a stuffy egghead. Instead, Cooper is an adventurer and a dreamer, another way to make the film’s huge ideas more accessible to the common folk. The supporting cast is full of Nolan regulars doing good work. Anne Hathaway plays Brand, a serious scientist who, unexpectedly, masks a deeply feeling heart. It’s a cliché by now, especially since her undeserved Oscar-winning turn in “Les Miserables,” that Hathway makes the world cry when she cries. But, hey, it works. She’s an actress capable of summoning up great emotion and passing it on to the viewer. 

“Interstellar’s” supporting cast features smaller but equally strong performances. I left the film a fan of Mackenzie Foy, the actress who plays Murphy as a young girl. She’s a powerful performer with an innate likability. Hopefully, she has a rich career ahead of her. Jessica Chastain plays Murphy as an adult. It’s the harder part, as the adult Murphy has been hardened by disappointment and sadness. However, Chastain brings her own strengths to the role. Watching her regain hope is one of the biggest joys of the film. Underrated actors like Wes Bently and Topher Grace do their best work in years here, finally given parts worthy of their talent.

And one of the biggest surprises of the film is its robots. The robots aren’t much more then abstract shapes. Their resemblance to “2001’s” monoliths was no mistake, I’m sure. Yet those simple rectangular shapes prove surprisingly dynamic. The robots unfold in multiple ways. They waddle back and forth, stiff legs moving mechanically around. Spindly arms unfold from the blocks, reaching for switches and controls. As stiff as they appear, the robots can move surprisingly fast. Another scene from the movie I won’t soon forget is one of its automatons cartwheeling across the surface of the water planet. Fantastically, the robots have a personality. They’re programmed with attributes like humor and honesty. Bill Irwin and Josh Stewert voice TARS and CASE, the two robots most featured in the film. TARS proves rather lovable. He has a quiet sense of humor and, more importantly, drives the plot several times. The finale would not be as affecting without TARS’ warm, comforting voice.

“Interstellar” is not flawless. A surprise appearance from Matt Damon is the film’s biggest problem. Damon’s performance is fine. Instead, the character’s role is more problematic. In the middle of a huge epic about many complex ideas, “Interstellar” pauses for more routine elements. The movie attempts to link the subplot of a lying, murderous scientist desperate to return home with the film’s reoccurring theme of man’s drive to survive. Instead, it seems a bit like a lesser film interceding on a more cerebral story. A fist fight between two guys in clunky space suits will not change the opinion that Christopher Nolan is a director that doesn’t know how to film action scenes. The guy can pace and set-up a thrilling sequence fantastically. Yet the grittier business of two people slugging it out appears beyond his grasp.

I’ve also heard some complaints about the film’s sound mix. It is, indeed, sometimes deafening, blotting out even the dialogue. Nolan says its intentional and I’m inclined to agree with him. Dialogue being overshadowed by the booming sounds of the universe fits into the film’s cosmic ideas. It also doesn’t happen very often, preventing it from becoming tedious. It helps that the film features the best Hans Zimmer score in years. While on the water planet, the film emphasizes that an hour down there is a year back on Earth. The score, meanwhile, simulates a ticking clock, never letting the viewer forget what is at stake here. Zimmer’s deafening, throttling bass frequently gives way to sorrowful or lovely melodies. Compared to his thudding work on the Batman films, it’s like an entirely different composer made this elegant, longing, exciting score.

As in “Inception,” Christopher Nolan has managed to build a hugely compelling film out of complex, difficult to digest ideas. However, “Inception” was more about narrative juggling. It took big ideas into the smallest place, the human mind. “Interstellar,” meanwhile, plums deeper ideas on a far more cosmic scale, spreading huge concepts across the biggest place known to man, outer space. The film packs in far more “wow” moments then any other mainstream Hollywood film in recent memory. It’s a great Christopher Nolan film, a great science fiction, a great space epic, and a great movie, period. [Grade: A]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

The idea of space travel is frightening and daunting. Imagine the claustrophobia within a space ship knowing that the expanse of Space is right outside the porthole. Regardless of whether you believe in God or any form of an afterlife, one of my sincerest hopes is to somehow witness the wonders of the Universe firsthand. "Interstellar" offers a glimpse into that possibility but is grounded in the limitations of Man's science and technology. Even though this film trumpets the need to explore the galaxy, it tethers itself by choosing to hammer home the message that the force of Love is greater than that of Gravity.

I am a parent that has watched one of my children grow into adulthood while the other is still a teen. It was very heartwarming but also sad to hear Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) talk to his daughter Murphy about how, the moment you have kids, you become nothing but a memory to them, a ghost. It turns out that this plays an important role in saving the world, but it emotionally pulls on you. It created tears that felt a bit manipulated. Most moviegoers put a lot of value in how a film affects them emotionally and "Interstellar" provides this in abundance. It wasn't to the abhorrent levels of, say, the final moments of "Toy Story 3", but it really killed what I ultimately hoped would be a greater exploration of the unknown. Cooper, the great explorer, is as much of a sentimental fool as I am. This is the biggest miss of "Interstellar". If I had wanted something this overwhelmingly emotional, I could have watched "Beaches" or something. Did people really see "Interstellar" to get a weepy drama?

My opening thoughts read as though I disliked this film but I mostly enjoyed it. I was amazed by its use of sound more than the visuals, which I thought were purposely dulled. The color palette for space was nearly black and white but I tend to believe that space isn't "Star Wars" shiny, anyway. The planet-scapes were massive but a little disappointing. The wave world seemed to only exist within the context of the film to reinforce the plot's insistence on impacting the characters with the passing of time. The success of this is illustrated by the effect of time on Romilly back on the docking station. While Cooper and crew are only on the surface of the wave world for a few hours, they return to Endurance to find he has aged over 23 years! This moment hit me more than all others. Imagine being totally isolated for so many years. Romilly even chose to forgo cryo-sleep for the most part.

The robots were the greatest creation the film offered. The teamwork of TARS and Cooper docking their ship to the damaged Endurance had me leaning in my seat trying to help them lock on.

The second act and its inclusion of Dr. Mann isn't needed except to provide a couple of action sequences.

The final 20 minutes were pretty muddled and hurried. There are too many twists to comprehend and let sink in before the next one pops. A little less time crying and a little more time plotting would have been appreciated.

The bottom line is that "Interstellar" mostly worked for me. This film was not nearly as successful to me as my favorite Nolan-work, "The Dark Knight", or even its prequel and sequel. It doesn't rank with "The Prestige", either. And honestly, I'd have to watch "Momento" another ten times to know what I think of that mind-bender. This does easily bypass the make-crap-up-as-you-go delivery of "Inception", though.

One of the most encouraging things about Nolan is that he's making movies that require people to pay attention in a culture that's losing the ability to concentrate and focus. Odds are that mankind's future is more "Idiocracy" than "Interstellar", but there may be still be some hope for the latter.