Monday, November 10, 2014

We are of Bajor


Interstellar is at war with itself, and from its first moments it embraces a three hour-long contest between opposites.  It is astonishing visuals against lazy ones; a clutter of ideas against empty-headed disinterest; and a real attempt to explore humanity's place in the cosmos against emotions delivered with all the nuance of a slap from an iron glove.

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan (based on the poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into the Night" by Dylan Thomas)
With Matthew McConaughey (Cooper), Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain (Murph), Michael Caine (Prof. Brand), Anne Hathaway (Dr. Amelia Brand), and Bill Irwin (TARS)

Spoiler alert: moderate

The foremost thing about Interstellar is that it is staggeringly obvious in every way it could possibly be.  Interstellar's obviousness can be a strength, for what is more obvious than shots of a tiny, tiny spaceship, floating like a mote across the eye of God, against the nightside black of Saturn?  Absolutely nothing could be more obvious, yet the list of things that are more awesome to behold is a short one.  Interstellar's obviousness can also be a weakness, and there is a climactic "plot twist" that is signalled in the first act so loudly and unmistakably that, two and a half hours ahead of time, everyone in my theater, everyone in each adjacent theater, and every random passerby at the concession stand knew, almost exactly, how Interstellar was going to end.

I might not even be kidding.  Let's talk about Interstellar's presentation, shall we?  Not the 70mm presentationwhich I'm sure is just glorious for all of those who live in the center of the universe, around which all else revolvesbut its regular IMAX presentation, the one that most people will get to see.  It is in some very important ways actively detrimental to the film.  Is it beautiful, before the eyes?  Yes, often, it is extravagantly beautiful.  And that's why I recommend IMAX wholeheartedly for those who are already deaf.

Personally, as a hearing individualat least a formerly hearing individualI'd like to go to Christopher Nolan's house and repeatedly detonate half-tons of dynamite in his yard while he's trying to speak, much as Matthew McConaughey tried to speak in many of Interstellar's scenes but without any audible success.  Unfortunately, since Nolan is reputed to communicate to others of his kind in 1s and 0s over a high-frequency radio link, this may not affect him as I hoped.

That reputationthe one Nolan has for being little but a cold logical calculatoris, of course, undeserved.  For one thing, have you ever seen those Batman movies?  Certainly no transhuman intelligence came up with those.  Once beyond the shadow of the bat, an accusation of faulty emotional wiring becomes even harder to support.  True, Nolan's primary interest has always been how narrative structure can be used to manipulate timeand, Christ's wounds, is Interstellar no exception to this.  However, it takes a near willful disregard of the human element in every one of his films, from Following onward, to seriously suggest he doesn't care about or understand feelings.

True, Nolan's feelings are almost always baldly stated.  A rewatch of Memento to mark the occasion reveals that Leonard Shelby's monologues are scarcely more subtle than Guy Pearce breaking into your house at 3 a.m. and holding a terrifying seminar on the picture's emotional themesbut they're human, all the same.  (It doesn't help Nolan's case, I admit, that he's repeated himself over and over like a computer caught in a loop: six times out of eight his characters' emotional arcs can be boiled to "science fictional or otherwise fantastic elements permit me to continue to avoid facing loss in an adult manner."  Interstellar is yet a seventh exploration of basically the same subject, only in a far lighter register.)

Lack of subtlety can suggest lack of comprehension, but some people just don't think subtlety is all that great, and that's mostly a matter of taste.  Inception doesn't still resonate only for its puzzlebox tricks or its admittedly-badass action; rather, there's at least as much obvious emotional intelligence in that movie as there is any other kind.  Indeed, Inception handles the audience's emotional response so well thatto my knowledgenot a single person until now has ever questioned what the protagonist's function in the plot is, other than to serve as its complicating element.

The answer, by the way, is "he hires somebody to do his job for him."

But now, there's Interstellar... and Interstellar is pretty much all the evidence you'll ever need, forever, to prove that Christopher Nolan really is a robot trying to understand what people experience, and that his "brother" Jonathan Nolan (in truth his programmer) is at least a cyborg, the massive hole in his limbic system having been replaced with what appears to be, at first glance, a can opener.  I'm a little annoyed that something that was never really truebut widely perceived as trueis now going to be considered ironclad fact.  Worse, they really did bring it upon themselves.  Everything anyone has ever said was bad about Nolan is front and center in Interstellar, and bigger than ever; the neatest trick Nolan plays here is that even so, it's still a really good movie.  Just, for my part, a disappointing one.

The qualified failure to deal with sentiment would matter less, naturally, if Insterstellar were a cold logical calculator itself, like 2001 or Primer.  It isn't.  Indeed, it's a film where love is explicitly made into something like a fundamental force of the universe, and I just kind of dribbled vomit on myself, so excuse me.  Moreover, despite being initially conceived by a scientist, Interstellar decides that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from screenwriting convenience long before the flipped-out finale.

We begin on Earth in the midst of complete agricultural collapse, thanks to a "blight" that, ironically, remains far more vaguely-defined than all the fake physics to come.  This is sensible, however, because fundamentally it is the judgment of God (or, in Hebrew, NLN).  As a result of all this wrath, the entire population has been forced into smallhold farming, as more efficient industrial farming simply wouldn't have required our hero, Cooper, to have given up his promising career as an astronaut in order to grow corn(Interstellar just hates farmers, though at least its Dust Bowl imagery is more palatable than all the French Revolution/Occupy imagery in The Dark Knight Rises.)

When shall come that hoped-for day, that we beat our spaceships into plowshares?

Cooper's raising two children, though only his daughter, Murph, mattersand it's so bluntly clear which of Cooper's kids is his favorite that it borders on cruel, but I don't think this was intentional.  She's obviously a genius, which means that she comes into confrontation regularly with the GOP dictatorship that's taken over the U.S. or whatever remains of the U.S., getting into an actual fistfight with other students over whether the moon landing hoax being taught as history is true.  Turns out, in the first of several thousand conversations that begin with an unspoken "As you already know...", that the facts might inspire students to seek STEM degrees, and nothing could be more damaging to a society facing an extinction event than learning math and science, just like nothing could be more natural for a society than developing an intense hatred of space travel as their planet's environment literally dies before their eyes.  Meanwhile, NASA has become a secret society, feared and despised by the world they are sworn to protect.

Anyway, I'll permit Interstellar its unintuitive premise, even though Interstellar doesn't care about it at all.  Through convoluted means, Cooper rediscovers NASA, and they rediscover him.  His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to journey through a wormholethat we discovered 50 years ago out near Saturn, and nobody mentioned, since NASA just can't stand being fundedThey need him and his crew to catch up with the surveyors already present on the three prospective New Earths that lay on the other side.  Two of these planets, I feel like it isn't a spoiler to say, are patently unsuitable for human life.

This one has a gravity 130% that of Earth, no land, and no oxygen, and it is in the gravitational thrall of a black hole.  All of which were facts readily ascertainable without touching down on it, but that's not going to stop the Spirit of Exploration!

Cooper's bigger problem is that his duty to save humanity will take him away from his family for decades, thanks to time dilation.  (Don't understand basic shit?  Interstellar will have characters explain it to other characters who, if they don't understand it, should never have come within a hundred miles of this all-important mission.  Flight of the Navigator didn't spend this much time explaining it, and that movie was aimed at ten year olds.)

Contact between Earth and the explorers is intermittently possible.  Yet due to what she perceives (for about a day) as her father's vainglory, Murph nurses an indefensible grudge well into her thirties, coming around only when the plot has something for her to do, at which point she finally learns to do math.  Young Murph is the first hint that Interstellar will fiercely subordinate recognizable emotion to plot, yet will expect you to believe in these crudely-maneuvered chess pieces as full-dimensional characters when they want them to touch your heart.

In the Gamma Quadrant, completely avoidable complications inevitably arise.  The most interesting is the tension that builds between what is called Plan Awhich is a resettling operation only feasible (according to dialogue in the film, but not supported by it) if humans develop a gravity driveand Plan B.  Plan B's the less desirable option.  While it would ensure the survival of the human species via a colony of fertilized eggs and artificial wombs, it would do nothing to save anyone on Earth.  Very interestingly, given that Cooper leans heavily toward it himself, the closest things to villains in Interstellar are those who value personal or familial survival over that of the race.  (However, given that Interstellar is constantly calling attention to its own philosophical constructs, the fact that no one even mentions that one of these quasi-villains is also an enormous hypocrite suggests that the Nolans themselves may not have noticed it.)

The upshot is that Interstellar momentarily considers a surprising break from Spielbergian values, then abandons all of its interesting ideas in favor of a screenwriting solution.  I don't blame it, necessarily: despite its pretensions, it's not a film about ideas, and it gives up trying to be in its third or possibly its seventh act.  At this point, Interstellar instead pours its every energy into outright bullying an emotional investment out of you, with Hans Zimmer wailing on an organ like a drunken Ewing Klispringer.  To its credit, Interstellar does this in a thrilling, neverending sequence cross-cut through time and space that stops pretending it gives a shit what black holes and event horizons are.  But this is only before Interstellar goes beyond the infinite, "revealing" (in theory) just how shockingly written it has always been.

I've spent an inordinate time on the script, but it's a lot of script.  To sum it up, it's not even a bad scriptstructurally, its elegant, like most of Nolan's scripts, albeit afflicted with the occasional staging problem and gaping plot hole.  And also like the usual Nolan script, it's less clever and less ambitious than it thinks it is, but unlike the usual Nolan script, the difference between reach and grasp here is hugely felt.  Lastly, even if I agree with him, I can't ignore that Nolan's bid to make us feel ashamed for giving up on space colonization totally fails in light of the fact that in Interstellar we find absolutely nothing of value in outer space that we didn't already have within ourselves.

But Interstellar is not, despite the impression I might have given, a science fiction novel.  It is a science fiction movie, and in terms of audiovisual splendor... it might not be 2014's best, but it is close.  This is the consolation prize critics have generally decided to give it, so I shruggingly join that chorus.

Interstellar makes some minor but really obnoxious filmmaking missteps, however: I hope you like that stationary camera shot from the shoulder of the spaceship that blocks out most of the background, because you will see it one hundred times.  I hope you like it, also, when what looks like an emotionally eviscerating long take of a weeping human face instead decays into an impotent shot/reverse-shot scheme, because that's exactly how Nolan decided to play it.  In some other respects, it's simply kind of boringly madewhen you compare the loving care put into Interstellar's space shots with those of 2001, it comes out even; but when you compare the level of interest in making its interiors look good, Interstellar is light years behind.  (Also, the Icelandic wasteland standing in for both sides of the silly Inceptionish ice planet gets very old very fast.)

Still, disregarding its weaknesses, Insterstellar is boss: Nolan's commitment to modelwork and sets and enormous rear projection screens is entirely credited, even if it doesn't always work; those deep cosmic vistas could be described as incomparable if they weren't readily comparable to other films, but they're still totally, unreasoningly gorgeous.

...what were my problems, again?

Finally, whatever the clumsiness it took to arrive there, when Nolan abandons the flimsy cover of homage, and decides to rip off Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Clarke wholesale... well, he rips off Grant Morrison and Alan Moore instead, and it's honestly kind of amazing.  I said that Interstellar's attempt to manipulate emotions is a qualified failure.  In its climax, one can see that the loud earnestness that has seemed so calculated is also so poorly calculated that it must be true: the film's just so vulnerable in this moment that you don't want to hurt it.  It's not the kind of manipulation that really works, the kind that makes you own all the feelings the film is forcing you to feel.  But if you're going to be emotionally blackmailed by any movie this year, not one is going to do it with more stargates, more exploding spaceships, and more crazy geometry than Interstellar.

Score:  6/10

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