Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan)

Posted: November 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

As a love letter to his daughter, “Interstellar” is likely successful for Christopher Nolan.  In most of the interviews about the film, either Nolan or his cast has talked about how the film was largely informed by Nolan becoming a parent.  That’s all fine and good, but Nolan decided to make his love letter a sci-fi film that attempts to deal with theoretical concepts like relativity and wormholes, and also could be seen as politically charged.  As a result, one expects Nolan to have something more to say than “Love is really awesome”, which is the prominent surface message of the film.

Perhaps a summary of the plot is in order before we go further.  We’re introduced to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot and engineer who, after a crash, became a farmer growing corn.  Earth, in the not-too-distant future, has been faced with a food shortage due to a combination of dust storms and overpopulation.  The film doesn’t give us much backstory on the cause of the dust storms (so the film isn’t necessarily about Global Warming explicitly, though one cannot ignore it implicitly) or what the shape of the Earth in total is like.  While the film takes us to the outer reaches of our solar system and into galaxies unknown and even different dimensions, the film only lets us see one small town on Earth for some reason.  In any case, we learn from a parent-teacher conference that most of the planet’s educational resources have shifted to push children into the occupation of farming, to make up for the food shortage.  We also learn that there is no more military (because starving people would never result in violence, right?) and also seemingly superfluous non-farming technologies like MRI machines have been done away with (o…kay?).  Oh, and to keep kids from dreaming big dreams, the federal government now lies to kids and tells them that all of the Apollo missions were faked to bankrupt the old Soviet Union.  So we have a lying Federal Government, which is something Conservatives would like, but also an anti-science government, which is something Liberals will jump on.  This film is very confused as to what its politics are, and ultimately its message is.  You have enough red meat in the film for either side to say the film supports their particular ideology, but in the end it seems the film is pretty agnostic on politics.

The main themes seem to actually be twofold: Pragmatism vs Ideas and Selfishness vs Altruism.  Making people practically produce food and not dreaming for the stars is our first encounter with the former theme.  We also get discussion about how in the past there were new ideas and gadgets that came out all the time, but now it’s just about sustaining food.  We also, later, get a scientist who gives up on an impossible equation and goes along with a practically sensible but morally cruel course of action.  We also get three characters sitting around trying to decide whether to make a choice based on hard data, or a choice based on, I’m not kidding, love.  They choose hard data, and the choice doesn’t work out well.  Yeah. This is a film where love is better than evidence, because the evidence has been falsified for selfish means.  Okay, I suppose that last part is pretty Climategate-Conservative.  After Nolan pretty much took a swipe at Occupy Wall Street in “The Dark Knight Rises”, I suppose the film might lean slightly into Conservative territory, but the big picture remains pretty muddled.  After all, the film also complains that this is a future where NASA is shut down because the people wouldn’t stand for money being poured into it when there’s a food shortage and all; a nice swipe at people who nowadays claim the space program is a waste of money and would like to see it privatized.  Cooper even points out that we wouldn’t have MRIs without the space program, so it’s a rather non-budget-cutting-Conservative argument that we should fund seemingly non-practical programs because they will lead to practical applications later.

Cooper has two kids, a son Tom (played by Timothee Chalamet as a child and Casey Affleck as an adult), and a daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn), who is named after Murphy’s Law.  Yeah, give your daughter a boy’s name and a name that Cooper tries to spin as a good thing but, come on, we all know the layman’s interpretation of that law, and it’s kind of a shitty thing to name your kid.  Tom is content to keep his head down and run the farm, even though Cooper would like him to go to college (this society is one where college is out of reach from all but the most intelligent, because society can’t afford to educate manual labor…I’ll let you decide which political ideology that is speaking to), Murph is bright and has an impressive book collection in her bedroom, but still thinks strange things happening in her bedroom are the result of a ghost.  After a brief investigation, Cooper surmises that her “ghost” is actually a gravitational distortion, and that leads him to (trust me on this) a secret government facility within driving distance which houses the secret, underground NASA headquarters.

Once here, we meet Professor Brand (Michael Caine) who seems to be the head of NASA and is trying to work out how to save the human race, which currently can only grow corn and soon the corn will due out, leaving everyone to die either of starvation or from inhaling dust.  They’ve come up with two plans.  See, someone or something(s) have/has placed a wormhole near Saturn.  This wormhole allows humans to travel to a distant galaxy where there may be inhabitable planets.  Years earlier, NASA sent about twelve astronauts through this thing and they’ve gotten weak signals back indicating that at least three planets may be inhabitable.  The mission, which Brand wants Cooper to pilot, is to find the best planet for repopulation, with the goal being either to take everyone off Earth and bring them to the planet or, if that is not feasible, repopulate the new planet with fertilized embryos (unless Anne Hathaway’s character is going to be the surrogate for hundreds of babies, it’s never adequately explained how this plan will work).  The catch is that, because of relativity and such, time will not move at the same rate on these other planets (some of which orbit a black hole) as on Earth, so through various circumstances we see the people on earth age about twenty years while our astronauts age at a normal on-screen rate, for the most part.  Anne Hathaway is Brand’s daughter, and we also get Wes Bentley and David Gyasi as the rest of Cooper’s crew.

That other big theme, selfishness vs altruism, it comes in to play a lot.  Is it more selfish to leave your family behind to save the human race, or altruistic because that family will surely die if you don’t succeed?  Is it wrong to lie to people so as to not cause a panic?  Is it wrong to give false hope if it means a greater good will happen because of that lie, whereas the truth would lead to no such good?  Without venturing into massive spoiler territory, I hesitate to elaborate more.  We also get one character later that makes completely selfish and evil choices and serves as the film’s main human villain.

On a surface level, the film largely works.  You’re invested in the characters enough, it chugs along entertainingly, and it has some interesting visuals, though not as awe-inspiring as “2001” (the film “Interstellar” desperately wishes it were) or even Aronofsky’s underrated “The Fountain”.  The third act is kind of a mess, with a nonsensical trip into the fifth dimension that feels uber-cheesy.  Also, it makes me wonder why fifth dimensional future beings would help the human race out enough to give them a wormhole, but not put it closer to Earth (it takes the astronauts two years to get to it), and not place the other end of it near the correct planet to colonize.  They are obtuse in the worse ways religious people claim a god to intervene in human affairs.

“2001” isn’t the only film “Interstellar” cribs.  It completely steals the 90s horror film “Event Horizon”’s whole fold-a-paper-in-half-to-demonstrate-a-wormhole bit.  It also borrows the space travel hibernation conceit from Ridley Scott’s “Alien”.  The film “Interstellar” most resembles is Scott’s later “Prometheus”, in that it’s an entertaining and ambitious, but flawed and pretentious near miss.  One little thing about the film I did like where fake testimonials from the future where old people deliver to the camera their experiences about living in the dust-ravaged Earth.  It brought to mind the (non-staged) testimonials from Warren Beatty’s “Reds”, and it’s a nice narrative device, even if only used briefly in the beginning.

Of course, the film would not be complete without semi-sentient robots, and the film gives us two (plus a third broken one). TARS and CASE have a weird design, kind of blocky but with the ability to form various shapes in an almost Rubix Cube-y fashion.  Maybe even Tetris-y.  They are kind of cool, I suppose, but it feels silly a great deal of the time as well.

“Interstellar”, much like Nolan’s better “Inception”, is ultimately done in because the film thinks it is more original and clever than it actually is.  “Inception” was a cool and twisty movie about dreams, but unfortunately all of the dreams were rather pedestrian and unimaginative James Bond fantasies with our heroes shooting a bunch of NPCs.  “Interstellar” is an entertaining, well-made, watchable film that suffers from a lack of a coherent message, a sense of unearned self-satisfaction by dealing with theoretical physics on screen, overtly borrowing ideas from other films (even the “Elysium” space station is nearly directly ripped off), and a cheesy sentimentality that we might expect from Spielberg, but not from the man who brought us the phenomenal “Memento”.

Still, up until the third act (or at least until the last part of the second act and Matt Damon’s appearance), the film works well as you are watching it.  Much like “Inception”, it’s only after the film is over that its flaws smack you across the face.  It’s a fun film to watch, for the most part, but all of that work and craftsmanship on film can’t make up for the deficits in its screenplay. C+

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