Sunday, November 16, 2014

Interstellar (***1/2)

Directed by Christopher Nolan


Those who may have a distaste for Chris Nolan's movies may dislike his redundant narratives, his over-reliance on pathos as a motivating tool, his high-class manipulation no doubt helped by a lucrative partnership with music composer Hans Zimmer; but no other Hollywood filmmaker has a grander sense of scale, nor is their anyone else making American movies today that has an imagination as vast as the ego it takes to visualize it. He has the ambitions of Kubrick, even if he is more relenting as a storyteller. He also has the Spielberg-ian urge to play for emotion, even if he doesn't always earn it. But if I sit here and say that Nolan is not quite Kubrick and not quite Spielberg, I'll also admit that he has set himself up as one of the singular voices in commercial filmmaking today. Finally free from the constraints that the Dark Knight trilogy placed upon him, Nolan can now focus on furthering the reach of the stories he wants to tell. None of his movies prior to Interstellar ever came close to what this film aspires to. 2010's Inception was made on a grand scale as well, and that film was a masterclass in mainstream suspense thrillers, perhaps the best one we've seen this decade. Interstellar doesn't have quite the same compressing, suffocating feeling that was so crucial to Inception's success - where Inception is a film that keeps moving inward, Interstellar keeps moving outward. Interstellar makes up the difference with pure spectacle, a cinematic journey into space exploration unlike any we've seen in a good long while.

Interstellar has more in common with Inception than it may seem initially. They're both following male protagonists sobered by the loss of their wife, and they both watch that protagonist go through Odyssean journeys to get back to their children. Inception has a tortured Leonardo DiCaprio traveling through other people's dreams (or maybe just venturing through the landscapes of his own? The film's mind-bending process is boundless, which is what made it so great). Interstellar follows Coop (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA pilot and space engineer who now lives as a farmer on a version of Earth not too far into the future where the population has succumbed to excess and now tries to survive on quickly-dwindling resources. In this world, farmers are incredibly important. Life on Earth has become somber, dust and dirt covers everything and threatens to end agriculture at the nearest moment. The film takes careful strides to avoid any mention of climate change, and that's probably for the best; I'm not sure how the film would do in dealing with that kind of a "message" when it's got so many other plot points to deal with. Coop lives widowed with his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), and gets help from his wife's father Donald (John Lithgow). Tom is a good farmer and will rightly take Coop's spot at the head of the farm when the time comes, but Murph is more intelligent and more precocious, and she pokes at her father's more adventurous side.

When Murph thinks that "ghosts" are sending her and Coop signals by falling books from her staircase, Coop actually indulges his daughter's thoughts and figures out that the signals are possible coordinates. They drive out to where the coordinates lead and come across a top secret lair where NASA is still running in secret, led by Professor Brand (Micahel Caine), Coop's former mentor, and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway). Coop's arrival sparks some inspiration in the professor, who believes that random chance has proved fateful, and that Coop can help them in their mission. What is their mission? Long ago, NASA discovered a wormhole near Saturn which can transport space travelers to another galaxy with twelve planets. They sent a collection of scientists into the wormhole and each one visited a different planet and sent back data. Now NASA needs to send another ship to visit the three most promising planets in order to find a safe haven for the people living on what is now a quickly perishing Earth. The professor thinks that the newly arrived Coop is just the man to pilot this mission, along with Amelia and crew. The trip will definitely take years and possibly decades. Considering the relativity of time, what is an hour outside the wormhole can be substantially longer on Earth. If they find a workable planet, how will they transfer those on Earth? The professor promises to have the physics equation solved in time, and asks Coop to trust him. For a man with two children, this leaves Coop with an incredibly difficult decision.

Coop decides to accept the mission, and alienates Murph in the process. His emotional daughter cannot find it in her heart to accept her father's decision, even while Tom accepts it with grace. The guilt that Murph pushes onto Coop is the specter that hangs over the entire film - we have to see this relationship repaired, and the only way for that to happen is for him to come back. On the ship, 'Endurance', Coop and Amelia are joined by expert geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), the brilliant physicist Romilly (David Gyasi), as well as two artificially intelligent robots named TARS and CASE that are equipped with the closest thing they can come to real personalities. They travel toward Saturn, spending most of the time in enforced hibernation, and wake up just in time to enter the black hole and begin exploring the three planets that best met the criteria for colonization. Back on Earth, a now adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) works with Professor Brand to attempt to solve the physics of transporting the humans to a safer planet. Her heart is still filled with bitterness from her father's abandonment, but she seeks to help him finish what he started, even as the adult Tom (Casey Affleck) continues quixotically to work on the farm. The time race between Endurance's mission and Murph's struggle to find a workable theory is not unlike the multi-layered dream which plays out the third act in Inception, playing with time to increase suspense enormously.

Interstellar does drop an avalanche of plot on you in incredibly difficult times. I watched the film always feeling like I was ten minutes behind in terms of information that I needed to know. These are the kinds of scripts that Nolan weaves with his brother Jonathan Nolan, heavy on exposition and technical jargon but also moving at the speed of light. It's like trying to watch an entire season of Game of Thrones crammed into two hours. There comes a point where you can either fight stubbornly against the ever-expanding Nolan domain or you can just succumb to the majesty. I've always found it easy to succumb to Nolan's non-Batman films, because he has so much visible care for the characters, even if they are hollow. When you accept that Interstellar is not a film meant to be comprehended fully, that it's apparent intelligence is just a shield for science fiction melodrama, than it can truly be appreciated in ways that are intoxicating. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick didn't think that he needed a structured narrative - he thought that the wonder of space travel provided enough on its own. Nolan is obviously less sure of this. At nearly three hours long, the film isn't exactly efficient in the ways that it chooses to spend its time, but there are specific sequences that create more suspense and develop more excitement than any other film I've managed to see this year. It earns its best moments more than it manipulates us into them.

Coming a year after Alfonso Cuarón brought new life to science fiction cinema with his Oscar-winning Gravity, being the space travel movie that has to follow that grand opus is a bit tough. Interstellar doesn't have Gravity's ungodly tension, and Gravity's singular story allows for much more character to seep through. It's an interesting dynamic to consider that Interstellar is another in a line of film's which gives fathers - even widowed ones - the go-ahead to leave children behind for the greater cause. Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone in Gravity didn't have quite the same luxury; she had to wait for her kid to die. Gender politics aside, Gravity did a number on science fiction filmmaking, and Cuarón along with his cinematographer, the great Emmanuel Lubezki, both did legendary work from a formal standpoint. Interstellar is shot by Hoyte van Hoytema, a DP quickly building his own impressive resume. It's the first time Nolan has worked with the Dutch-Swedish cinematographer, and while Cuarón had Lubezki focus on the small details - the guts and bolts of a soyuz spacecraft - Nolan asks his cameraman to envision the wondrous scope of his world. The two films break ground in how they envision the cold, drab depths of space on the movie screen. I'll admit now that I don't know much about space or physics or science in general for that matter. I tend to take these kinds of films at face value with their information. Gravity, and now Interstellar, makes me feel safe under that assumption.

The peak of the McConaissance has come and gone, flushed with the charismatic actor's less-than-endearing Oscar speech, but it hasn't stopped McConaughey from taking premium roles - and there are few roles for working actors more premium than staring in a Christopher Nolan movie. As Coop, McConaughey plays the space pilot and father as the epitome of unflappability, a loving family man who never loses sight of the bigger picture. There are few actors who have the star power of McConaughey who would also take the chance at playing this role so low-key. Nolan's eye for leading men isn't exactly innovative. He puts his protagonists through emotional ringers, and they usually end the film with more mental damage then they started the film with. Coop probably ends up in a better situation than Al Pacino in Insomnia or Guy Pearce in Memento, but it doesn't necessarily mean that Nolan is lightening the load. That the Nolan brothers keep writing these protagonists with dead wives is a block on them, but that they can actually visualize this character in a variety of ways is what keeps them going. Back to McConaughey. If Nolan had double-dipped with DiCaprio for this film, it would not have worked nearly as well. One of the issues with Inception is that it's hard to imagine DiCaprio as someone even having children, let alone caring about them. McConaughey brings out this aspect of Coop so effortlessly and its such a key to the film.

Some have already waged heavy artillery at Interstellar, especially those who find its tenuous connections to science a pretentious fraud. Nolan inspires these types of animosities because he has the fortitude to make his films for a broad audience. He doesn't have David Fincher's hatred of humanity, Paul Thomas Anderson's austere auteur-ism, or even Wes Anderson's twee sarcasm. Those three guys may be the best contemporary filmmakers we have in America, but none of them have ever had the commercial success of Nolan. There's something to that, and just because his film's are serious affairs doesn't necessarily translate to Nolan being as self-serious as he's occasionally painted out to be. To be fair, Interstellar is sullied by a final act which showcases a brilliant imagination and vision without any real meaningful explanation as to how any of it could actually happen - it only stands out because the rest of the film is so careful to cover its tracks. It's a flummoxing place for Nolan to make a statement about the human capacity to love. If it works at all, it's because of its tonal consistency with everything that came before it. To be turned off by the logistics of the film's last half-hour is to recognize that the film has logistical issues at all. I'm not claiming that they don't exist, I'm just saying that the very nature of Nolan's style of filmmaking is that he bets that he's good enough to make you suspend the proper amount of disbelief to make his movies work. You either buy into it or you don't. Interstellar had me buying my way in.

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