Thursday, November 13, 2014

Interstellar Review

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Released in 2014

It’s odd, hearing Matthew McConaughey talk in space. His is a voice of the earth, American earth — the kind of slow, colloquial drawl to pass the time while watching baseball games, driving past cornfields or losing your mind on HBO.
In Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, McConaughey’s hero Cooper leaves these icons of Americana (well, two out of three) behind in order to save them. Naturally, Cooper takes that star-spangled sensibility with him through the cosmos, and it’s that from-the-gut-ness, as Stephen Colbert might say, that wins the day, or something like that. Throwing McConaughey and all he stands for into a sci-fi retelling of The Odyssey is a simple but potent concept, one this clumsy and often visually pedestrian movie works hard to undermine. Yet Interstellar drops its sentimental payload with such aplomb that it’s futile to resist it, which makes it, intentionally or not, a pretty thoroughly American movie.
On a remote, dust-ravaged farmhouse in the near future, Cooper lives with his family, or what remains of it: daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and the father of his deceased wife, Donald (John Lithgow). The days of Homo sapiens are numbered due to a disease called “blight” that destroys crops, but the timbre of the earthbound first act is quiet, even calm, as the adults adapt to or just ignore the intensifying hostility of their surroundings in order to provide for their children a comfortable existence.
Murph is daddy’s girl, a restless, red-haired intelligence nurtured by Cooper’s attention and playful humor. The rapport between father and daughter is sweet and just strong enough that their estrangement, once Professor Brand (Michael Caine) recruits Cooper, a former pilot, to lead an expedition through a wormhole adjacent to Saturn in search for hospitable planets, sets the emotional stakes for the rest of the film. With Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), the professor’s daughter, Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and a sarcastic A.I. system named TARS (Bill Irwin) that uploads the comic relief of HAL 9000 into the shape of The Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cooper sets off, determined, of course, to find a new home and return to his own.
Interstellar is as flawed as Hollywood tent-poles come. It’s worth noting that Nolan’s style has long been one of the most compromised in the business, eschewing narrative concision for verbosity at every turn yet resorting to flat, recycled compositions to constrain actors hired to talk and talk and once in awhile act. That he and his brother Jonathan, who co-wrote the screenplay, so waste John Lithgow by sitting him down on a porch to listen to McConaughey spoon-feed purple prose (“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”) in static medium shots not once but twice should mandate a budget cut of 90 percent for their next film, with Lithgow and, I don’t know, Sigourney Weaver as leads.
This visual and verbal blandness carries over into space, where the razzle-dazzle you’re paying for sits next to a lot of shots of astronauts sitting around espousing the themes or else questions of their movie. Of the half-dozen people I have spoken to about this, not one has failed to mention Amelia’s speech about how love “transcends time and space,” or mock vomit while doing so. During one of the protracted sequences that cross-cuts between the astronauts quarreling and Cooper’s now grown-up children (more on that in a bit) back home for no purpose other than to remind you how little use the latter have in the plot, I wrote in my notes, “This is bad. How bad?”
Yet since watching Interstellar to its completion and mulling over it quite a bit, I have taken a softer tone. This is not cohesive or exemplary filmmaking, not at all, but a bunch of moments in it land, moments that define Cooper and present him to us without pretense. In an atypically understated scene, we learn that Cooper walks around the cabin listening to sounds of rain, thunder and chirping birds, an ambience that calms Romilly and reminds us of the simple pleasures (and completely unique ecosystems) they are fighting to preserve.
For the stakes here are devastating, are they not? Cooper not only faces the easy possibility of never seeing his children again but also, by exploring planets where time elapses at a slower rate (the relativity physics of which the film attempts to explain many, many times), of seeing them die before him. A parent’s worst nightmare, and Cooper grieves over those lost moments in one of the most affecting scenes in any blockbuster, ever. It’s the rare full stop in a movie that runs for almost three hours and yet always seems to be in a rush, and it cuts through all the talk of multiple dimensions and “quantum data” to get the heart of our heroes’ and Nolan’s endeavor.
For while he has gained a devoted (I’d say too devoted) following for his so-called “heady” themes and tricky narrative structures, Nolan has always been a closet sentimentalist, obsessed with dead family members mainly wives) and wringing these clichés for all the male angst, guilt and mopey faces they are worth. Here, at last, he has made an old-school tearjerker that starkly, painfully illustrates the new-school science of his plot through an intimate family drama that should resonate with just about anyone.
The trouble with Interstellar, then, is that it does not know how simple it is. The tension between inspiring awe and explaining that awe — a tension no doubt enforced by studio executives and the loathsome bunch that judges fiction for its scientific veracity — deflates a fascinating scene in the last act, where Cooper explores some Inception-like impossible architecture and refuses to stop postulating as to its origins. Kubrick, the obvious precedent, let his mysteries just sit there, unnervingly silent, and the legacy of Interstellar will be a short one for wrapping up all its loose ends so neatly and anxiously.
Yet as much as this film wears an unearned intelligence on its sleeve, it is still about a man who is not a thinker but a doer. No matter how much the directing or writing may saddle the purity of that man’s struggle, Cooper’s farm-grown charm carries him through a wormhole and pulls us in with him. Perhaps it’s only fitting that he comes face to face with the secrets of the universe and can hardly contain his excitement, for he holds the instinctive assumption that he must share these stories with his children, in due time.
3 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

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