The great outdoors are anything but great. I do not understand the appeal. It’s hot. It’s bright. And at any moment a tree will just shower you in its reproductive bits.
It also smells.
At any rate, what better way is there to discuss Christopher Nolan’s recent movie Interstellar than making a post on it nearly six months late. There’s a certain poetic irony about covering a film about time dilation and relativity and dredging up its existence long after people cared about it.
But I only saw it recently so, whatever. This is happening. Get used to it.
As some a priori information, I’m a big fan of Nolan’s work. Even before the Batmans launched him into the public sphere so astronomically, he had been creating films that entertained and intrigued. Even when I wasn’t fully on board with the final product (Insomnia), I could still appreciate what he was trying to do. And, generally, speaking, he was doing things no one else was.
For that, I love his output. He’s a director that focuses on themes and ideas more than gaudy explosions and cheap thrills. Not to say that he doesn’t have them at all. Memento has plenty of exciting scenes interwoven around it’s basic premise of a man with anterograde amnesia, what with his involvement in crime and murder. Insomnia still follows a detective and his hunt for a despicable serial killer. It’s just that he flavours these clichés and tired conventions with a fresh perspective or novel idea.
For this reason, I’m a big fan of The Prestige and Inception which I think are both examples of Nolan at his best. That they were some of his most recent work, and occurring while he was still making blockbuster comic book hero movies was all the more intriguing.
Thus, I was excited to see Interstellar when it was announced. Unfortunately, it had fallen victim to Hollywood’s recent attempts at starting a hype train and I “learned” about the movie a year before it was even releasing. My issue with such advance marketing is, by the time the movie actually comes out, I’ve already forgotten about my initial interest and almost never see it in theatres. I’m not that invested into the movie industry to plan my entertainment around release schedules and whatnot.
So, here we are. Me having just finally seen the film which everyone has already discussed and reached their own conclusions about with nary a helpful voice to raise to the topic. Well, I have my thoughts and I’m going to share them regardless of whether these points were mentioned before or not.
Let’s start with the big picture.
I’m pretty luke-warm to Interstellar. It’s not Nolan’s worse (which I still maintain is a distinction which belongs to Insomnia) but it isn’t his best either. There were a number of elements that I enjoyed and about an equal number which I did not. That’s perhaps the most vague description one could possibly give for a film.
But before I go on my huge whinge fest, let’s discuss those elements that I enjoyed. There’s something really interesting about the opening of the movie. The way it’s present and the slow reveal of information I found to be a compelling way to introduce a world set far into the future and very different from our own. The documentary talking heads ground us in a video framework of which is all too familiar to anyone that has stepped into a museum. We’re simultaneously greeted with a recording format that immediately conveys a sense of “past” and familiarity while the subject matter is weird and captures our attention. What is this dust that seems to settle everywhere? What is this blight that’s affecting the neighbour’s crops?
The basic premise for the setting is initially shown as so mundane that we are almost slow to realize how science fiction the work really is. You don’t realize that this story is taking place in the far future, after some inexplicable war/population collapse and a possible post-apocalyptic time. However, the tragedy of whatever has occurred (and thankfully the disaster is kept hidden to allow our imagination to fill the blanks) is conveyed in understandable imagery that evokes memories and studies of the Great Depression. We know things are bad without needing characters to list generically how bad things really are compared to the world in which we actual live.
There’s a real elegance to how the audience begins to learn of the troubles facing the planet yet also realizes this takes place in a time far removed from our own so when we do reach the titular interstellar portions, it doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere. What’s more, I absolutely love the way that artificial intelligence and advance robotics are integrated into this future. They’re relics of that same indescribable past, with many of them slowly falling apart and descending from the skies as their computational innards decay and bring them down to earth. Then, the survivors scoop these old relics up and re-purpose them as automated farming tractors.
Oh, and this information is revealed while the main character and his offspring are heading to parent/teacher interviews.
It’s unfortunate, then, that all this time slowly introducing the world truly feels like a waste later. It’s so well crafted that I found it really frustrating how little of it is important for the narrative. In fact, the elements that are key to the rest of the story–Murph’s mysterious ghost and her father’s interaction with the “paranormal activity” happening in her room–is probably the least interesting and most shoehorned part. The magic bookcase serves blatantly as a story deus ex machina, required solely to move the plot forward because there was no elegant solution present.
Even more maddening is, in the later acts, when the Nolans attempt to bring the story back to these humble beginnings as part of an overarching plot. It really exposes how the whole backstory for Matthew McConnaughey’s NASA astronaut is made really flimsy in order to give the character wide-spread appeal and make him “relatable.”
Truly, the story doesn’t really begin until Farmer Cooper and his precocious daughter are sent on some wild geo-cache trip given by co-ordinates provided by the magic bookcase in Morse code. There, we discover that the fabled NASA research institute wasn’t abandoned but went underground (for reasons) and Agent Cooper is press-ganged into joining a rather rag-tag and dubious mission through a recently discovered wormhole to find a world on which humanity could relocate.
It’s at this time that we’re presented with the weakest explanation for how the planet is going to shit. Some mysterious disease is killing off all the delicious vegetables and possibly eating the nitrogen in the atmosphere and/or the oxygen and pooping out nitrogen? Michael Cain doesn’t spend a lot of time making the excuse clear and it’s hard not to think–as he waxes to great lengths about the difficulty of space travel and the effects on time by relativity–that it wouldn’t be easier to… you know… cure the blight. Maybe in this unmentionable disaster all the biologists were killed or something.
Anyway, after delivering the first of many repeated quotes of Dylan Thomas’ pretty forgettable poem, Cosmonaut Cooper is convinced to pilot the last remaining spacecraft on earth since he’s the only one alive to have done so (even though his last mission barely left the atmosphere). Course, we learn later that he isn’t really necessary, since twelve other shmucks flew ahead of him, and it’s hard not to wonder why all the fuss is made about him joining a mission that has been years in planning and quite happy to execute without anyone even being aware that he existed.
This ends up being a troubling trend of really poorly conceived or explained character motivations that pop up continuously for the rest of the movie. With great reluctance, Cooper agrees to this mission even though he knows it will take a lot of time and he’ll likely not see his soon to be orphaned children grow up and become adults. He hops on board with Catwoman and a pair of disposable extras and rattles his way into space and the great beyond, all the while maintaining some ineffectual stoicism that’s meant to make the audience feel pride over the fact that the world is going to shit and only those unrelenting Americans can ever truly keep it alive. Or something. There’s a few moments where it feels like I missed having my accompanying flag to wave throughout the film.
Once we get to space, we hit Interstellar’s second strength and that’s in creating absolutely gorgeous visuals. Nolan really hits the cgi cinematography as we’re transported through wormholes and explore some really alien planets. In fact, it feels a lot of the time like I’m watching some futuristic Blue Planet series and the only thing I’m lacking is Attenborough’s soothing voice-over. We learn… things while the spaceship meanders on its ten year journey with the crew kept in cryogenic storage so we don’t have to hire another actor that looks like old Matthew McConnaughey. Presiding over this delegation are two robot companions who are perhaps the best members of the crew and certainly my favourite characters.
Once we’re through the blackhole, the band of adventurers have to decide on three returned signals over prospective planets that they want to visit which will become humanity’s new home. Since Nolan wants to play with time as a theme, they hit up the closest one first–and the one where even if the mission were to progress according to plan would also take upwards of seven years, relatively speaking to Earth. And while the planet is pretty cool, the action on it is pretty dumb and the explorers find that after their little foibles have been resolved, nearly twenty four years have elapsed. That’s twenty four years of aimless puttering around space “learning all we can about blackholes” and still struggling to come up with a half-decent pesticide at home.
Grumpy and forlorn, the crew then hit up the second planet on the list because they’re reluctant to indulge reason because the characters would rather quibble over nonsense like “the power of love” than actually doing their mission. Here is the movie’s most egregious offence. Since there hasn’t been any truly villainous entity for us to hate, we’re introduced to Matt Damon that decides to spend the next twenty minutes needlessly twirling his moustache than actually following a compelling plot.
Interstellar’s best strengths are when it’s not following traditional movie structure. It’s weakest moments are whenever it falls back on “established wisdom.” A lot of the action beats and “raising the stakes” moments are forced and illogical. The cheap emotional manipulation is some of the laziest I’ve ever seen. There’s lots of arguing and misdirection that’s entirely unnecessary all so we can have a “third act twist.” It’s the farm opening all over again, where the film structure motivates the plot instead of the internal character designs and desires.
By the end of the film, it’s hard to shake the ever growing pile of “Whys” accumulating as you watch. Why did the random third guy on the water world stand outside the ship even though he was the first to return to it before the water mountain descended? Why did their fourth member of the crew spend twenty four years bombing around on a ship when he knew even a five minute delay–certainly a reasonable amount of time considering the away team is searching an entire planet for a single individual–would cost him a few years? Why did Michael Cain spend his entire life “working” on an equation that he’d already solved when he could have just plainly told everyone the situation and still got enough people to volunteer (he did get twelve for the original mission so he only needed three more). Why did Matt Damon program a bomb in his robot co-pilot and why didn’t he just outright tell them he lied about his data when they showed up to thaw him? Did he think they would shoot him with their non-existent guns? Did he think they’d leave him behind even though their mission is to desperately save humanity and they already wasted all their fuel getting to him? Like… what was the plan?
Also, the tesseract was stupid. I’m certain plenty of people have argued over it when the movie first came out. I can’t help but feel that this was the weakest “interesting” element of a Nolan movie. Future humans built a time machine but only for Cooper to radio his daughter random zeroes and ones recorded by the robot TARS. And they did it in such a manner that Cooper would be the instrument behind all the random messages delivered from Murph’s Magic Bookcase trusting that “love will lead the way” was a good enough lampshade to explain away all these lingering questions and arbitrariness.
It’s a shame, too, since the movie is strongest when it’s following a hard science fiction route and eschewing traditional story elements. The most powerful “human” scene is after a few minutes on the water planet, Cooper and Catwoman return to their ship to discover that their loved ones back home have lived their lives in the intervening minutes. We didn’t need pointless deaths to feel sad when you have your secondary characters literally ageing before your eyes. We don’t need Matt Damon to try and kill everyone in some weird mad struggle to open an airlock (speaking of which, how does an astronaut know how to make a bomb but not open an airlock?) when we could have easily had more powerful and interesting conflict by the team bickering his selfishness and the cost it accrued to them and their mission.
There was plenty of ideological debate to be had without Michael Cain having to intentionally lie about his plan to rescue the people of Earth on a magic spacecraft. It seemed like there were a lot of missed opportunities in Interstellar as the story shot for the lowest hanging fruit. What we ended up with was morsels that were rotting on the vine instead of the delicious treats that were just within reach if only we had dared to go just a bit further.
It was pretty though.