Friday, November 7, 2014

Interstellar: Way, way out

Interstellar (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, perilous action and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.7.14

Nobody could accuse Christopher Nolan of possessing modest ambitions.

His newest big-screen extravaganza is a grim sci-fi drama that could be viewed as a reverential blend of 1951’s When Worlds Collide and 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with additional nods to 1972’s Silent Running and Robert Heinlein’s 1956 novel, Time for the Stars.

When a solar-powered drone cuts across the sky above their corn field — a striking
reminder of science long absent from a decaying United States — Cooper (Matthew
McConaughey, left) attempts to hijack it while being watched by children Murphy
(Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet).
Along with — and this is a problem — the bleak despair and distasteful human behavior found in the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road.

I had the same problem with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s final entry in his otherwise impressive Batman trilogy. He and co-scripter (and real-world brother) Jonathan have a harsh view of people facing large-scale calamity, a trait shared with novelist Stephen King, at his gloomier moments. All three tend to assume the worst from mob mentality, with little of the nobler instincts that might make our race worth saving.

Then again, perhaps I’m unduly optimistic, choosing to believe better of my fellow citizens.

Such philosophical musings aside, Christopher Nolan has, over time, focused more on high-concept narratives and visual pizzazz, and less on character development. That’s a bigger problem. His dream-within-a-dream-laden Inception may have been a jaw-dropping head trip, but its characters were flat, sterile and uninvolving: two-dimensional archetypes about whom we didn’t give a damn.

Nolan has become more puppet master than actor-oriented director, manipulating his characters solely to maximize unexpected plot developments, as opposed to allowing them behavior that seems recognizably credible. In a way, then, Nolan is akin to his dueling magicians in The Prestige — Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale — forever tricking each other for the sheer sake of one-upmanship.

That’s not as immediately noticeable with this new film, mostly because Matthew McConaughey delivers enough agonized angst to carry the first two acts. He has matured into a richly expressive actor, and several of his scenes here are heartbreaking: none more so than the manner in which his character’s face yields to uncontrolled sobs, while catching up with some long-distance correspondence.

But that comes much later.

Nolan & Nolan open their drama at an undetermined point in our near future, when an ecological crisis has transformed the entire country — indeed, the entire world — into an agricultural dustbowl. Entire strains of grain have withered away, never to return; only corn is keeping a diminished population alive. We’re also presented with some truly ludicrous institutional rebellions against science, such as school children being taught that our Moon landing, and the entire Apollo program, were faked with movie sets.

That tired canard, again? In a post-Internet age, where it would take seconds to dispute such nonsense? Seriously?

Observant viewers also might wonder what has happened to all of Earth’s animals, since this film offers no evidence of dogs, cats, horses, birds, lizards or even insects. This also seems an unlikely detail, or — at the very least — one requiring some explanation.

But OK; we’ll let those go.

McConaughey stars as Cooper, a former engineer and test pilot resigned to an agrarian existence as a farmer, charged with helping keep humanity alive. The acres of corn surrounding their modest home are testament to generations of such homesteading: a lifetime of honest labor regarded fondly by Cooper’s father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow).

Cooper’s son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) shares Donald’s instinctive love of the land, while daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) takes after her father’s investigative, exploratory spirit. And, of late, her bedroom has been “haunted” by something that knocks books off shelves, and disturbs the ubiquitous mounds of dust that families long ago gave up trying to sweep away.

Much of this film’s narrative power comes from the story’s unexpected jolts, and I’m loathe to spoil them. Suffice it to say, after this dour introduction, that Cooper unexpectedly finds his way to a clandestine NASA facility run by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), with an able assist from his own scientist daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway). They’re overseeing the construction of a truly massive “space ark,” because the long-term prognosis for mankind’s continued existence on Earth is dim.

It’s time to leave the nest, and a potential escape hatch has been detected: a wormhole just outside Saturn’s orbit, which leads directly to a galaxy that otherwise would take multiple lifetimes to reach. Probes and hastily mounted one-man missions focused on a dozen potentially inhabitable planets in this distant galaxy; three have been deemed likely candidates. Now an ace astronaut/pilot is needed to command a more ambitious trip to make the final selection, and hey: Cooper is the perfect candidate.

But there are numerous catches to this opportunity, not the least of which is the time issue related to travel in and around a wormhole. Mere hours for those within its range — which is to say, Cooper and his small crew — will translate into years, even decades, for the family members waiting back on Earth.

For young Murphy, then, it’s as if her father is about to abandon her forever.

This father/daughter dynamic is the heart and soul of Nolan’s film, and young Foy bonds well with McConaughey. She’s spunky, resourceful and insatiably curious, as well as being both charming and mischievously precocious. When Cooper clutches her tightly and promises to return — McConaughey displaying every ounce of parental devotion — we want to believe him, as she does.

It’s harder to get a bead on Hathaway’s performance. Amelia is obviously intelligent, but at the same time given to outsized influence by emotion over intellect. (Nolan & Nolan give her a particularly dumb soliloquy on the potentially existential nature of love.) More than once, I wondered how she possibly could have qualified for this mission, given her erratic nature; I guess it pays to have fathers in high places.

It’s not that Hathaway isn’t sympathetic; we certainly root for her. Even so, Amelia just isn’t very interesting.

David Gyasi is far more successful as Romilly, the team’s astrophysicist: a sensitive soul who serves as the mission’s voice of calm and reason. We definitely feel for him. Wes Bentley plays co-pilot Doyle, a lab jockey who is greatly relieved to focus on his scientific work, once Cooper agrees to pilot their ship.

The two remaining crew members are unusual surplus military robots dubbed CASE and TARS: both fascinating echoes of the drones from “Silent Running.” But unlike that film’s Huey, Dewey and Louie, CASE and TARS are sentient and programmed with a morale-boosting sense of humor and esprit de corps.

Lithgow and Caine resonate strongly in their respective “wise elder” roles. Lithgow reflects quiet resignation: a sense of trying to come to terms with the Earth’s new environment, no matter how hostile. Caine, a stalwart in Nolan’s films, is the vision of our trust in science to save the day, if only at the last possible moment.

As the adult Murphy, Jessica Chastain is a pragmatist whose efforts become increasingly crucial as this story builds to its highly intense climax. Casey Affleck, as the adult version of Murphy’s brother Tom, is given an impossible emotional sweep that nobody could carry with any conviction: yet another example of Nolan’s frankly bizarre take on human behavior.

Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s space footage is impressive, absolutely on par with the realistic drama so recently depicted in last year’s Gravity. Production designer Nathan Crowley and visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin have a field day; we’ve not seen this much world-building since 2009’s Avatar.

And, needless to say, everything looks truly spectacular on a massive IMAX screen ... although the music (Hans Zimmer) and sound effects bellowing from the equally massive IMAX speakers have a tendency to drown out important dialogue.

Once we build to the climax, Nolan and editor Lee Smith employ cross-cutting between simultaneous (?) events to amplify tension, much the way they did with “Inception.” That works quite well ... to a point.

Eventually, we hit the film’s “money sequence”: a mind-bender clearly designed to out-weird both the “star gate” finale from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Nolan’s own deeply layered levels of reality in Inception. This film’s descent into its maelstrom of celestial manipulation is guaranteed to divide viewers: Sci-fi über-geeks and Nolan’s acolytes will deem it way-cool to the max, while more skeptical souls may conclude that the narrative backs itself into an impossible corner ... and then cheats to escape it.

That said, this story’s many bumps, hiccups and plot twists certainly hold our attention. Even at a rather self-indulgent 169 minutes, Nolan’s newest film never flags, and isn’t boring. We are, however, left with a lot of questions once everything wraps up, and the epilog is a hearts-and-flowers cop-out just as preposterous as Tom Cruise’s survival at the end of this past summer’s Edge of Tomorrow.

Ultimately, Interstellar isn’t as portentous or cosmically Significant as the filmmaker clearly desires; Nolan has a tendency to think far too highly of his anxiety-laden fairy tales. Yes, they’re gripping, well mounted yarns ... but hardly Homeric archetypes.

Still, if you’ve enjoyed his oeuvre until now, you’re bound to love this one as well. 

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