Friday, November 7, 2014

New movie review: Interstellar

Matthew McConaughey explores the nothing in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.

The vast emptiness of space is an ideal setting for a contemplative exploration of humanity, loneliness, and the need for love and community. At the same time, the chaotic machinations of the universe mean there are galaxies full of stars and planets around which to base an epic science-fiction action-adventure movie. It is possible Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar would have been a good film if it had told a story about any of that. Alas, it is neither a good film nor very interested in storytelling.

Bloated, empty, and incoherent, Interstellar shows up at the theater with a bag full of tricks amounting to nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Having never been a convert to the cult of Nolan, maybe I am not the target audience for this film, but it is hard to imagine who would be. This is classic big-budget gimmickry, which wants so badly to pluck our heart strings, engage our minds, and overwhelm our senses but succeeds only in being cloying, pontificating, and very loud, often all at the same time.

Emotionally manipulative to its core, the film might have had a chance at drawing tears and inspiring empathy if we knew who any of these people were. Instead, Nolan looks down on his creation as a god might and observes the little ants running around on their corn farms and the wastelands of uncolonized planets. The question becomes: Why should any of us in the audience take a different view?

Late in the film, this thesis becomes clear when two characters – one of whom we have only just met – engage in a fistfight and roll around on the ground. Nolan pulls back to reveal the scope of the icy landscape on which they stand. The intent is to frame these petty people as small when compared to the backdrop of the universe and the scale of the problem they are trying to solve – to save the human race.

It almost works, except that we are meant to care about who wins the fight. By forcing us to want the “good guy” to win, the movie undercuts its message of human pettiness and frailty and encourages the audience to join in the squabbling. This is just one among many examples of the movie trying to have its philosophical cake and eat it, too.

Humanity is dying. A vaguely discussed famine has gripped the world, and as food supplies dwindle and dust storms rage, a small governmental organization – NASA – believes it has the answer. We will leave the planet. Missions are sent to explore the universe and find habitable worlds for us, while back on Earth, the destruction continues unabated.

The movie is at odds with itself almost from the very beginning. It wants the sci-fi spectacle of so many outer-space actioners, but it also wants the human emotion of a low-key drama. It delivers only one of these – the one with explosions. Splitting the film between an environmental disaster drama on Earth and the action of space exploration, Nolan and editor Lee Smith seem at loss for how to connect the two threads. Too often, they build to incredible climaxes at one location only to cut away to the other, but rather than build tension, these cuts destroy any momentum the story may have gathered.

None of this would be as problematic if the characters existed as anything beyond broad sketches, but somehow, in a nearly three-hour movie, the script forgets to give any of the characters even rudimentary reasons for their often-baffling decisions. Quite clearly, they are movie characters making choices that benefit no one and nothing but the plot.

As Nolan films are wont to do, Interstellar draws a superb cast for even its smallest roles. Leading the way are Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain, supported by Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, and Nolan regular Michael Caine. They all give fine performances, taking into account the material with which they have to work, but apart from one or two strong moments from McConaughey, they are lost in the morass of sentiment and barrage of spectacle to which the film has committed.

The most ready comparison is to Nolan’s own Inception, with its puzzle-box plotting, lecture-hall pedantry, and larger-than-life visuals. Without wanting to start a debate on the merits of Inception, I hope we can agree the dream worlds of the film were somewhat lacking in imagination. In his latest, Nolan doubles down on beyond-the-stars blandness and delivers some of the least intriguing intergalactic worlds this side of an Arizona desert.

With infinite resources at their disposal, the filmmakers give us one planet that appears to be all shallow water and one that appears to be all ice. I have no doubt worlds such as these exist in one form or another, but to set a movie there seems a dubious prospect at best. In Interstellar, we visit both and find little of interest on either.

If you insist on seeing this movie, I would urge you to pay the IMAX surcharge – assuming you can find true IMAX in your area – as there are two bravura space-travel scenes worth the added price of admission. Even these are comparatively staid against something such as Stanley Kubrick’s “Beyond the Infinite” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but they are the only moments where you might feel anything but bored while sitting in the theater.

This is the final and most egregious sin of Interstellar. As much as it wants us to think about our place in the universe, the way we treat our planet, and the connections we form with others, it simply fails to foster any interest in its ideas. By the third or fourth time a character advises others to “rage against the dying of the light,” it becomes clear this movie has no new ideas. The script is comprised only of shopworn pseudo-philosophies that might look good on a dorm-room poster, which is just as well, since a lot of college freshmen are going to be hanging this one on their walls.

Were one to look too closely – and I would discourage anyone from doing so – the only things to be found are dangerously destructive ideologies that espouse the supremacy of humanity and the human race’s right to seek and destroy. It is a literal scorched-earth policy writ large on the big screen and passed off as an intelligent take on our special place in existence. If this movie is correct and the universe is empty but for us, so much the better, and we have gotten what we earned. We are kings of nothing.

See it? No.

No comments: