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Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: Interstellar (2014)

* * 1/2

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain

Whatever else you might say about Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, you certainly can't accuse it of lacking in ambition. This is a film which operates on a grand scale, creating new cinematic vistas which, like Gravity last year, ought to be seen and experienced on the big screen. On a purely visual level, Interstellar is often spectacular. Narratively and thematically it is severely wanting and emotionally empty. The "emotional" part wouldn't necessarily be a problem - plenty of great science fiction films are best described as "cold" or "clinical," after all - but given that Interstellar's story all comes down to the power of love, that lack of emotional impact is a problem. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of talk about feelings throughout, but what does that amount to when the characters are so thin and so much of the dialogue is a re-write or two away from being ready for consumption? But, hey, at least it looks great.

Set some point in the not too distant future, Interstellar opens on a world ravaged by food shortages, with the soil no longer able to sustain most crops (the film doesn't specifically mention it, but there's also a noticeable lack of animals) and increasingly intense dust storms threatening to suffocate what remains of humanity. Scientists speculate that they've already seen the last generation of humans that will be able to survive on Earth, and society has reverted to an agrarian state in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable. One of the people forced by necessity into farming is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former test pilot and engineer who sees humanity's future as being up in the stars, rather than down in the dirt. A widower, Cooper is raising two children - Tom (Timothée Clement), who aspires to take over the farm, and Murph (Mackenzie Foy), a headstrong 10 year old who gravitates towards science - with the help of his father-in-law (John Lithgow), but after discovering a secret NASA base run by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), he makes the difficult decision to leave his family behind to join a mission to find a new planet for humans to inhabit, which Brand believes lies on the other side of a wormhole that has been discovered orbiting Saturn. The other members of the mission are Doyle (Wes Bently), Romily (David Gyasi), and Brand's daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and they are to explore three planets which a previous mission into the wormhole have revealed have the potential to sustain human life. Each of the planets - Mann, Edmunds, and Miller - are named for the astronauts who landed there to conduct the survey and, as Brand explains it, Plan A is that once the team has confirmed one of the planets as habitable, the rest of humanity will follow aboard the NASA base, which is actually a space station. Failing Plan A, there is a Plan B, which involves populating the selected planet via fertilized embryos to be born through surrogacy.

After traveling through the wormhole and crossing into the next galaxy, the crew must decide which of Mann, Miller and Edmunds to visit first, taking into account necessities such as conserving fuel and the strength of the data which has been sent back by the astronaut on each planet. Miller is the closest planet, but it is also so close to a rotating black hole called Gargantua that each hour spent on it will be equivalent to 7 years on Earth. Leaving Romily behind on the ship to study the black hole, Cooper, Amelia, Doyle, and their robot TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) embark on what they intend to be a quick mission down to Miller to assess the planet and retrieve the astronaut if she's still alive. When they land they discover that the planet is covered in water and subject to massive tidal waves which make it uninhabitable and leave their ship so waterlogged that it takes them hours to return to Romily. 23 years have now passed on Earth and Tom (now played by Casey Affleck) is struggling to carry on as a farmer, having lost his first child to the harsh conditions on Earth and watching his second son die slowly, and Murph (now played by Jessica Chastain) has joined Professor Brand at NASA. Because of how much fuel has been spent as a result of the expedition to Miller taking so long, the crew can no longer visit both Mann and Edmunds and must decide between them. Amelia wants to go to Edmunds in the hope that the man for whom the planet is named, and with whom she is in love, is still there, but the data provided regarding Mann is more promising and, as Cooper reasons, Mann is still regularly providing updates whereas Edmunds has long since gone dark, suggesting that he's already dead. They set out for Mann, where they find a planet covered in ice and the astronaut's robot disabled, but the astronaut still alive. Events then transpire which leave Cooper and Amelia in dire straights but which eventually brings Cooper back in contact with Murph in a way that transcends time, space, and dimension, and might just save humanity.

What I've revealed about Interstellar's story is really only the tip of the iceberg. A lot happens in this movie and there are many narrative threads, including Murph's long standing resentment of her father for leaving Earth, the fractured relationship between Murph and Tom (who disappears from the film in a way that seems particularly heartless in light of how much of the story hinges on the power of a parent's love for their child), a secret being kept by Brand, a secret plan being carried out by Mann, and some inter-dimensional stuff that loops time back on itself. There is a lot to take in with Interstellar and right up until the crew touched down on Mann's planet, I was more or less on board with all of it. Sure, there was no shortage of clunky, exposition-heavy and overly didactic dialogue, but what I was watching was so visually awe-inspiring that I was willing to chalk those flaws up to minor quibbles in an otherwise great movie. Then the film introduced Mann the planet and Mann the human being and fascination started to give way to frustration and the story issues started to become more glaring and less easy to see past. The film lost me right when I should have been most engaged. [spoilers ahead] A lot of the things about the film with which I take issue are, on their own, ultimately minor so I'm not going to get into all of them, but I am going to mention the two things that bothered me the most. One, late in the film Brand reveals to Murph that there was never any actual expectation that Plan A would pan out and that Plan B was secretly the real plan all along. The fate of humanity hinges, then, on those embryos which are to be carried and birthed by a surrogate and yet NASA only sends one woman on this mission. Was Amelia expected to be the surrogate for all of those embryos? Aside from the fact that that seems to be asking a lot from her, Brand didn't actually inform her, or any other member of the crew, that that was the real plan that NASA was counting on. Because they're willing to take chances to see Plan A work, Amelia ends up in just as many dangerous and death-defying situations as the other members of the crew, which means that had she died before they learned that Plan B was the only real plan, then they would've had a bunch of fertilized embryos with no womb to implant them in. That's a pretty big chance to take.

My other big problem is basically the entire portion of the plot devoted to Mann, which is so ill-conceived that it temporarily upends the entire tone of the film and plays out like a horror movie in miniature. Let's see, after receiving all sorts of communications about what a great planet Mann will be for restarting humanity, when the crew lands there they find that it is covered in ice and ammonia-saturated so that the air isn't breathable (red flag), they find Mann's outpost and when they go inside they find his robot disabled (red flag), and then Cooper goes for a long walk with Mann, who starts talking about how NASA needed to send humans rather than robots to explore the planets because humans possess instincts for danger and survival (red flag). To the surprise of no one except for the crew, Mann lied about the conditions on the planet as a means of ensuring that he would be rescued from it, and then he tries to kill Cooper. The only good thing about this entire section is that it provided the setup for the film's best line, courtesy of TARS who, after being asked by Cooper what his trust setting is, replies, "Lower than yours, apparently."

Before going into it, Interstellar was one of the films I was most anticipating for the year. I expect that it will end the year as the film which left me feeling most disappointed. It's the first Christopher Nolan film that I've seen that I didn't like (with the exception of The Prestige and Following, I've seen them all) and where I felt the flaws were far outweighed by the strengths. The visuals, as I've said, were amazing. McConaughey's performance is fine, though it labors at times against the film itself, which allows the characters to make grand declarations of feeling, but which renders those moments so airless that the emotions seem as though they've been hermetically sealed. At least McConaughey gets an actual and fully-realized character to play, which is more than can be said for much of the rest of the cast. There's been a bit of noise about the possibility of Chastain gaining a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance here, but I just don't see that. Chastain is good because Chastain is always good, but surely she's had far more challenging roles than this one, which requires her to do little more than ring the same note over and over for most of the time that she's on screen. I know that mine is going to be a minority opinion (the film has only been out for a handful of days but it's already gained enough of a fandom to have ascended to #11 in the IMDB Top 250), but I just don't see what others see in this movie. Parts of it were amazing, and for that reason alone I'm glad I saw it on the big screen, but too much just didn't work for me.


Candice Frederick said...

I totally agree about Mann and the overwhelming plot. But I loved the human aspect, the emotional arc that prevails throughout this film. I do believe that the science part is supposed to be theorized and present failure, human failure. It's not perfect, but it's ambitious and it shows the vulnerability of the human connection more than many other sci-fi films.

Norma Desmond said...

Definitely it is ambitious, and I'm sure that it will receive well-deserved Oscar nods in the technical categories.