Monday, November 10, 2014


 Let me begin with the condemning negative, for it can only go uphill from there.  While watching Interstellar a part of my brain - as happens with most films - tried to come up with how best to describe it.  There's always a pitch-style formula, and with Interstellar the nice version is that it's what happens when you mate Kubrick's 2001 with a greeting card.  The mean version is that it's basically the best possible version of an M. Night Shyamalan movie.  If both of those sound damning, they are and they aren't.  Even when paired with a greeting card, 2001 connotes an epic property -- and Interstellar is indeed that.  The film never struggles to evoke real scale and succeeds in allowing us to understand our insignificance.  It runs big, shows us hours of massive, grand images while speaking in distances and times that build a sense of urgency in the viewer.  Then it does that other thing. The greeting card thing. Out there amid the wormholes and mysterious planets we find a repeated refrain: love will guide us through. Love is a magical power. Love "is the one thing that transcends space and time."  Happy Valentine's Day, human race, we're gonna combat this slow-burning apocalypse with the power of love.

 To a certain extent, I'm ok with that. As hokey as the film's founding argument sounds, for the first three acts of the film it's believable as the driving force for our protagonist.  We learn early on that the Earth is dying.  In a presumably not-too-distant future America is suffering through a nationwide dust bowl.  It's an environmental disaster of the vaguest kind; everything covered in dirt, harvests burning out, We're stuck following around Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) an ex-NASA pilot turned farmer raising his kids in less that optimal conditions.  He mumbles things about man's lot and our place in the stars, bemoans society's lack of imagination, and has his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) provide scientific evidence for the poltergeist she believes haunts her room. One thing leads to another and Cooper stumbles upon the top secret remains of NASA. Poof. We're in space. Poof. Time passes. Poof. So much time passes. Poof. Planet to planet. Poof. Philosophy. Poof. Physics. The stakes mount, the people of Earth age, time in deep space remains the same, you get the idea.

For a good chunk of the movie, this is compelling stuff.  Christopher Nolan knows how to make an idea-heavy movie without losing its popcorn worthiness, and for a long while we're saddled in for the adventure.  Possibilities and theoretical physics are thrown around in a way that's accessible to a pretty wide audience, and there's something quite heartbreaking about watching gravitational time dilation -- that which makes time run faster on Earth than for our astronauts -- play out between a father and his children.  They're running against a clock of global and personal stakes, trying to save the people they care about before they're gone while also, ostensibly, trying to save the planet.  It becomes more pressing as Murphy ages into Jessica Chastain, or as Brand (Anne Hathaway) receives news of her aging father's passing.  Add to that the majestic quality of the images and, well, it's all very lovely.
Where Interstellar falters is in knowing the limits of its guiding contrasts.  Nolan seems to want the film to operate first as a kind of equation and then as a lyric poem, and in between he forgets that the complexity of the story he's working is not one that lends itself to easy outs and expository solutions. As a result, the film is frequently phenomenally jumpy in a way that becomes too noticeable.  On the one hand it grounds its plot points heavily in science, on the other it repeatedly begs us to suspend disbelief and solves major problems with a jump cut.  

The grand narrative Interstellar wants to play with has long been the territory of a certain type of cerebral science fiction: we are small in the universe. We are insignificant in the face of time. Our greatest accomplishments are the relationships we form, and everything else is unimportant.  The film conveys this in the way so many (including Gravity) have before: through scope, scale, and great swaths of deep space.  In this, Interstellar is successful. 

Then, it just keeps doing it. Then it describes doing it. Then it tries to hammer home the idea one more time. And again. And again.

That's the thing.  Interstellar can't decide if it's a detailed narrative or a poem.  More specifically: it spends a hell of a lot of time being an overly plotted Nolan actioner, then tries to become Terrence Malick.  These are different types of film with very different approaches to story, and so Interstellar becomes a muddled experiment that grows all the more cloying as it comes to a close. Ideas are fighting one another for attention, and Nolan is quick to patch all the air holes with another one: the idea of love.  It's a nice patch, but a flimsy one.  Love may conquer all, but it certainly does not solve a turn this cheesy. As the film gets more convoluted, the dialogue gets worse, the relationships become hollow monuments to sentiment, and the feelings it wants to evoke don't feel deserved.  It's clear that Interstellar is trying to move us, but where it succeeded in early scenes it falls utterly flat in its conclusion.  By the end, we're running on the fumes of what we ourselves are bringing to the table. The relationships aren't written in anymore, and the wonder - when we need it most- disappears. 

It's a shame, really. For much of its run time, Interstellar is a movie worth seeing, and perhaps the visuals make it so regardless.  As it carries on (and really, that is precisely what it does) it fights itself until it drifts, ironically, tone-deaf and gentle into that good night.  

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