Saturday, November 15, 2014


Alternate Title:  Journey Through the Plot Hole

One sentence synopsis:    An astronaut-turned-pilot must lead a small team of NASA scientists on a desperate mission to find a new home for humanity.

Things Havoc liked:  There are ineffable qualities to a great film, something which has always eluded mechanically-minded directors like Michael Bay. You cannot simply list a series of traits and establish greatness, it is something that has to be earned anew with every single film, and this fact, more than anything else, is why I have always held studios and filmmakers who can consistently produce greatness in such high regard. Marvel, Disney, Scorsese, Aranofsky, Affleck, anyone who can put not one but a string of spectacular films together is worth regarding with respect. And so we come to Christopher Nolan, the reigning King of High Concept, whose staggering ambitions and unfailing cinematographic eye have resulted in not one but an entire series of towering films, ramshackle perhaps when analyzed closely, but flat-out staggering when considered in totality. Momento, The Prestige, Inception, the entire Dark Knight trilogy, even the third one, which teetered on the brink of total collapse, but held together just long enough in my mind to transform into a masterpiece, all these films have showcased Christopher Nolan's yawning ambition to bring staggering metaphysical concepts to the screen with as much lush verisimilitude as possible, and the skill by which he has thus far been able to do so. And so we come to Interstellar, perhaps his boldest effort yet, a Kubrickian-showcase of classic semi-hard-science fiction exploration and adventure in alien worlds and even more alien realities. I was sold on this notion from the very first trailer.

So let's begin with what he has given us. Interstellar is a gorgeous film, a rich, vibrant showcase of imagery and land/spacescapes breathtaking to behold on largely any level (IMAX, Digital Enhanced, Normal) that you care to witness it. It's not that the "effects" are good, though there is that, and more that the simple artistry of presenting things on screen is operating at an exquisitely high level. Even when the film is presenting concepts that stretch our capacity to imagine, such as wormholes, frozen clouds, or extra-dimensional tesseracts, the movie comes up with a way to present what is happening stunningly and intuitively, and shots of the greater stellar phenomenae to be found throughout the film, particularly the accretion disk of a supermassive black hole, are simply inspired. Design, of spaceships and shuttles and equipment and robots (particularly robots) is just as inspired, reflecting a near-future setup that never goes beyond the realm of plausibility. The robots, indeed, are one of the most unique things the film has to offer, a strange arrangement of four tall pylons connected at the center by a rotating hinge, enabling them to walk and even roll (sort of), while unfolding to reveal manipulator arms and datascreens. Given deadpan snarker-voices and the best lines in the script, the robots liven the film every time they're on screen.

There is more to design than pretty visuals however, and Nolan, if nothing else, has those elements nailed down. The film's score, by veteran composer Hans Zimmer (of a thousand other things) is a typical Hans Zimmer score, beautiful and melodic, electronic and orchestral all at once. Rather than go with the traditional marching-band-style space score, Zimmer prefers a sort of electro-choral feel for the entire thing, punctuating sequences where the dialog is pulled out in favor of the soundtrack and the visual design. The cinematography is spot on as well, using smoke and flame and shrouded mist to set up dramatic backdrops for whatever happens to be ongoing, while the outer space shots are worthy of any collage of NASA's or episode of Cosmos. Whatever this film's flaws may be, it looks and sounds fantastic, elements which may, by themselves, serve to justify a look at this film in all the lusciousness of a digital (or even 70mm) cinema.

Things Havoc disliked:  But I doubt it.

I've loved Christopher Nolan's work for a decade if not longer, but he has always had a side to him that threatened to undo everything. His films are often, if not always, so high in concept, so creaky and laborious in construction, so riddled with elementary problems of plot and common sense, that it requires all of his skill to distract the audience from everything that doesn't make sense. Until Interstellar, he was always able to pull the song and dance off, at least for me, with a combination of judicious exposition, stirring concept and vision, and and masterful cultivation of tension, excitement, and energy. Inception, possibly Nolan's greatest work, was basically nothing but exposition, but the exposition was so tightly crafted, and the world so cleverly realized that nobody noticed. The Dark Knight Rises pushed his skills to the limit of what was possible, laden as it was with so much super-tech and plot contrivance that many people rejected it utterly as a complete disaster, though I felt that the immense weight of the two previous films, as well as the elemental, mythic themes of the movie earned it honors. But even if you were prepared, as I was, to follow Nolan that far, the problem with this approach is that it is entirely reliant on your movie being grand and heavy enough to paper over these forced exposition sequences and narrative holes, and Interstellar, frankly, is neither grand enough, nor heavy enough to even come close.

The concept is fine. Mankind has used up the Earth and must venture into space. But that story is too simple for Christopher Nolan, spinner of cinematic webs, and in consequence it is beladen with all sorts of incoherent crap that serves only to muddle the plot and confuse the audience. We are presented with a world wherein most crops have gone extinct, where the human race is dying off, where governments have lost so much of their resource base that even the various national armies, generally the last things to go in an Apocalypse, have been abolished. One might expect, given the above, a scenario like Mad Max or The Road, but instead, inexplicably, we are given a world where people have new cars, and the fuel to run them, where the Federal Government, bereft of its armed forces, still has the means to print standardized science textbooks and disseminate them, where interstate travel remains reasonably common as do automated combine harvesters and advanced wireless communications. Worse yet, halfway through the film, we actually change apocalypses, as the artfully-crafted starvation narrative is, without warning, junked in favor of a completely NEW apocalypse, also junked in turn when the time comes to muddy the issue. We are told that society has turned against science, for what reason we never know, to the point where the Moon Landings are being taught to children as propagandistic fakes used to scare the Russians, and yet NASA, outlawed and off the books, still manages to build underground space stations (don't ask), employ thousands of highly-qualified engineers and scientists, and even casually employ technology that has specifically been called out earlier on in the movie as not existing anymore. Granted, it's not like Nolan's previous films were lacking in these kind of contradictions. Dark Knight Rises involved someone fixing a broken back by punching it into shape. But the previous movies managed to hide their holes by giving us something else to think about. In Interstellar, it's the entire movie.

Or at least it's the entire movie until it becomes time for exposition theater, and this is where the mediocrity of Interstellar begins to really confuse me. Nolan once made an entire movie out of exposition (Inception), but here he seems to have forgotten how, as he has scientists laboriously explain to one another concepts that no scientist in the world, let alone one selected for a humanity-saving NASA mission, would be unfamiliar with. How often do you think an astronaut who has just spent two years embarking on a journey to a wormhole would need to have another astronaut explain to them, at length and with diagrams, what a wormhole is? Worse yet, the reason all this exposition exists is apparently so the filmmakers can impress us with how legitimate the science of the film is, something they have taken immense pains to showcase. Fair enough, but it's not. Not at all. Not even to the point where liberal-artist me was fooled for more than five seconds. And I must report that the actual scientists that I saw the film with had extremely negative reactions, ones whose negativity increased proportionally with how close their personal field of science was to astrophysics, to the point where the physicist in residence declared to me with perfect candor that this was the worst movie he had ever seen.

Look, I don't mind bad science in movies, not at all. Sunshine had bad science, as did 2001, a movie Interstellar desperately wants to be, to say nothing of a lot of Nolan's previous work. But those movies used bad science in the service of actually making a movie, creating a premise, based on bad science though it was, that was interesting enough to hang a story on and explore something amazing. It's not that Interstellar doesn't have the same intention, it's that even with bad science, there must be consistency for the audience to have any prayer of understanding what the stakes are and what is and is not possible given the rules they've been taught. This film is all over the map. Some sections are interesting, particularly a visit to a water-planet circled by immense tidal-waves, locked in orbit around a supermassive black hole whose gravity is such that it distorts time itself. But the majority of the film consists of half-understood scientific concepts regurgitated at length before being casually shattered in the next breath. Relativity is important until it's suddenly not. The black hole's distorted gravity slows time until it suddenly doesn't. A world-ending blight works one way, then suddenly another, and on and on until all the painstakingly-prepared science lectures turn into nothing but standard movie technobabble with slightly more realistic phrases sprinkled in. By the time we're trying to mathematically quantify human love, and apply it to physics (yeah), the entire exercise is revealed as a colossal failure. The bad science movies I cited above worked because the movies were not about the science. Interstellar is only about the science, until at last, long after it's far too late, it tries to reveal that it was actually all about sentimentality, something Nolan does not know what to do with, and never has.

You'll notice that up until this point I haven't even mentioned the cast, usually the thing I lead with, and the reason for that is that with a movie this disjointed and artifice-laden, the cast is almost irrelevant. Matthew McConaughey, who has been on a hot streak of almost unequalled proportions in the last five-odd years, does his best with what he's given, but the role is almost indescribably generic, an astronaut-turned-farmer-turned-astronaut again with no real motivation beyond wishing to save his children's lives. Anne Hathaway, as the leading scientist on the mission, is conscientious and dedicated, as are Michael Caine and John Lithgow and David Gyasi (of the infinitely superior Cloud Atlas) and everyone else in the film. Nobody gives a particularly bad performance (though I still don't much care for Jessica Chastain, who also gets most of the worst lines), but their performances are effectively moot in a film like this, even when they're allowed to emote. Michael Caine does himself no favors by repeating Dylan Thomas' famous poem 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' about seven times, but frankly that's irrelevant too. It's as though they weren't brought into the project to act, but rather to narrate it to the audience, or simply to provide the vehicle by which the audience can bear witness to its magnificence. In that regard, the mere fact that these fine actors are able to serve this task adequately may speak volumes to their professionalism and skill. Lesser actors would have been utterly destroyed.

Final thoughts:   Back when I reviewed The Dark Knight Rises, I said that it was a movie to which I could have given an 8 or a 4, but not a 6. I ultimately gave it the former grade, as I felt that ramshackle though it was, the edifice held together long enough to produce something unique and triumphant and truly special, not that everyone agreed with me. Interstellar is a similar enough film with a similar enough set of attributes to warrant the same disclaimer, and yet this time the result is not even slightly in question in my mind. The movie is simply a failure, a grand failure perhaps, but a failure nonetheless, an idea stretched past the limits of its tensile strength, toppling into ruin around its embattered architect. There is something to be said for failing upwards, and it does remain the case that I would unquestionably wish to watch movies from someone who produces only 8s and 4s rather than from someone who produces uniform 5.5s on my scale, but none of that makes Interstellar any more of a success than it is.

I had extremely high hopes for Interstellar, and why wouldn't I? It had trailers that looked spectacular and a pedigree that could not be ignored, not after so many high-wire acts of Nolan's had proven masterpieces. But perhaps the silver lining here must be that this movie proves just how good films like Inception and Dark Knight really were. It is far harder than it looks to make a movie hold together under the weight of so much explanation and so much plot contrivance. So hard, indeed, that this time, even Nolan himself could not.

Final Score:  4/10

Next Week:   Disney cashes in its pass from Frozen.

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