Saturday, December 27, 2014

Interstellar - movie review

(Spoilers yada yada...)

Cards down: I don’t know much about quantum physics, black holes, wormholes or how differing gravities affect the way time behaves. I guess I was sick the day we covered all that stuff in Mr Webster’s physics class circa 1985. I certainly don’t know much about the fifth dimension – I have enough of a struggle navigating the three I can experience first-hand.

But this much I do know: if I were a retired astronaut/the last chance for humanity and had been asked to pilot an against-all-odds lifeboat mission to another part of the universe, and knew that I would really need to understand how wormholes worked, mainly because a crucial part of said mission was piloting a spacecraft through a wormhole, I’d probably ask the eggheads at NASA to explain that stuff to me before I took off. I certainly wouldn’t want to have that stuff explained to me using a pen and a scrap of notepaper mere moments before I gunned the throttle and blasted through said wormhole. You know, because boy scouts.

So that’s a good concern, I think. Quite reasonable. However, for me this concern is much less of a problem than a symptom of the several much larger problems Christopher Nolan faces in Interstellar.

But first here’s what I liked.

Matthew McConaughey. I was never much of a fan, at least until I saw Dallas Buyers Club. I always found him a bit smug. Cocky. Too pretty for his own good. Plus it’s always seemed clear that he’s allergic to whatever they make shirts out of. But it turns out he can actually act. I mean, really act. So that’s something. Yay for epiphany!

The girl who plays his daughter, Mackenzie Foy; she can act, too, as can Jessica Chastain, who plays his grown-up daughter. Anne Hathaway is never given much to work with in this project, but we know she’s a good actor because... Les Mis? Michael Caine can act as well - it’s just that we don’t get to see it in this performance. ("Do…not…go...gentle…into…eurgh…beeeeeeeeeeeep…” Please.)

Oh, do you see what’s just happened? I’ve already digressed from the bits I thought were good. Fortunately I don't have much more to say in that vein anyway. The visual exploration of the fourth and fifth dimensions is mind-bending in a good way, the sound editing is dynamic (if a little too loud for the dialogue), Hans Zimmer plays the hell out of that pipe organ, and much of the cinematography is very good, although not to the standard that was set by Gravity. The science is…well, not my bag, as I pointed out at the top, so in that regard I will have to defer to greater minds than mine and stick with what I do know, which is storytelling.

So these are my main concerns.

Length. Yes, it’s just too damn long. The pacing around the beginning is all right, but the bit between him learning about the mission, making the decision to go, pissing off his kids and then actually being in space doing the mission is ridiculously rushed. And after than…more slow bits, punctuated by a couple of less-slow bits. Christopher Nolan is a seasoned film-maker, so I’d assume that he should be able to count to three. That is to say, the number of acts most movies need and/or manage to make do with. But if the experience of making Inception taught Nolan nothing else, it should have been that just because you can have the standard number of acts, then have another, doesn’t mean you should, even if you’re the writer, director and producer. But evidently Inception didn’t teach him this at all, because he counts to three then, like Guy Pearce’s character in Nolan’s best film, Memento, forgets where he’s up to and decides to start over. Sidebar: perhaps its the rising price of movie tickets and the resultant fear of a decline in multiplex-style entertainment, but it seems to me that movies seem to be getting longer with no real added benefit to the viewer (American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street and The Hobbit, I’m looking at you.)

But it’s not just the amount of film stock Chris Nolan and the other producers allow Chris Nolan to burn through for his own self-indulgence. I question the very premise under which McConaughey’s character Coop finds NASA, which is (apparently) run by a committee in a board room, an old scientist still working on a chalk board, and some teamsters in a concrete silo. In the mountains just near Coop’s inexplicably verdant farm. Undetected by the rest of the world, and accessible by dirt roads. Which (presumably) also serve as the supply route for all the stuff an interstellar lifeboat mission would require. Which is, by any estimation, a lot of stuff, not least of all the ageing Saturn V rocket which, bizarrely, later turns into something vastly more advanced, and capable of getting in and out of the gravitational orbits of roughly earth-sized planets with the ease of a Suzuki Swift delivering pizzas on a Saturday night.

Perhaps the greatest error in the storytelling of this film isn’t the plot holes (Back to the Future is like Swiss cheese, yet remains completely satisfying) or even the over-arching premise, but that Nolan seems unable to decide which story he’s telling. Is Interstellar a science-fiction adventure/thriller? Then plot holes and pacing are a legitimate worry, as is as the implausibility of the requisite science being explained on a scrap of paper (for instance). Is the film about being forced to choose between family, personal legacy, and the survival of humanity? If that’s the question one really wants to ask, it shouldn’t take almost three hours to answer it. Or is this movie a morality tale that asks that most troubling of questions – what happens if we continue to treat our planet like a frat house during mid-semester break?

Let’s assume it’s the latter. If Interstellar is intended as a morality tale, it has, at its heart, a disturbing caveat: that if and when science finds an escape clause for humanity's self-destructive narcissism, our social and moral imperative must be to grasp that opportunity as soon as it appears. In other words, don’t miss the lifeboat when it’s being lowered from the sloping deck. But who amongst us wants to be waiting for a mysterious wormhole to be discovered so a committee can send a reluctant corn farmer, a woman who acknowledges her own level of emotional compromise, and a packet of Mr Fothergill’s winter vegetable seed mix to the far reaches of the next galaxy in the hope we can start over?

Here’s an interesting stat. Interstellar cost almost $165 million to make. In 1979, George Miller made Mad Max for $400,000. Indexed, that would be roughly $1.7 million today. About one hundredth. As two cautionary tales of dystopia borne of environmental neglect and social decay, I know which one made me think twice about the world we hope to leave for our kids.

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