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Entries in Interstellar [2014] (1)


Interstellar (2014)

Shadow of the Star Child

Interstellar is a hell of a theatrical experience. Co-writer/director Christopher Nolan succeeds where many other filmmakers have fallen short since 1968, by nailing a visual and technical successor to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. He and his crew have created simultaneously beautiful and terrifying celestial vistas and unforgiving alien worlds that use plausibility to ignite our imaginations (what if a planet's deadliest life form was a knee-deep ocean?). Like last year's Gravity, the film revels in practical sets and innovative shooting techniques that place the audience firmly alongside its characters as they step into the vast, black unknown--making an actual trip to the movies not only a plus, but a must.

Despite all the visual splendor, it is with a heavy heart that I rate Interstellar a really good movie, and not a great one. It has moments of greatness in it (moments that have stuck with me in the five days since I saw it), but the magic and emotional honesty are too often buffered by what I'll call the business of space procedurals. There's lots of docking, calculating, hypothesizing, landing, and talking to ghosts (seriously), and not enough raw exploration.* There's also not quite enough originality in the Christopher and Jonathan Nolan's screenplay to put this is in the same overall league as Kubrick's masterpiece; in a weird way, Interstellar is the Nolans' stab at a Tarantino movie.

For anyone reading this as a deep-space transmission, Quentin Tarantino is a popular American filmmaker who made a career by folding his favorite parts from relatively obscure genre and foreign films into snappy, ultra-violent American content that re-mapped our cinematic landscape. Tarantino morphed derivation into innovation, fashioning a new pop universe that retained the spirit of his influences while also declaring itself (rightfully so) a unique, stand-alone thing. With Interstellar, Nolan gets the homages right, but he falls short in putting his own stamp on the story.

Of course, I don't expect one hundred percent originality in mass entertainment, but it feels as though the Nolans have nakedly Scotch-taped their screenplay together from movies they're banking on your never having seen--namely Sunshine, Event Horizon, and Europa Report. In the film, a small team of scientists blasts into the cosmos to find a cure for a doomed Earth. They use a wormhole near Saturn to traverse galaxies, in a process described by sticking a pen through a folded piece of paper (this lawsuit-worthy reference got a decent chuckle at the critics screening I attended). The crew runs into trouble on a couple of planets, combating harsh elements and a space-crazy fellow traveler. Cue the horrifc deaths, the not-enough-fuel-to-get-home speech, the zero-hour rigging of busted equipment, and our hero struggling for oxygen.

There's also a healthy bit of Inception thrown in for good measure. Interstellar purees time and space to tell a mostly effective story about parenthood and loss. Getting into specifics would be cruel and spoiler-y. Suffice it to say that, visually, the Nolans' third-act ideas are mind-bendingly good; they just show up towards the end of a three-hour road trip we've taken one too many times before.

Much as Sam Raimi was pressured to include Venom in Spider-Man 3, it feels as though the Nolans were compelled (internally or externally) to add unnecessary scale to their movie. The emotional themes, arresting space imagery, and powerhouse performances from Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi, and Jessica Chastain would be more than enough to fuel a solid, memorable, hour-and-a-half epic. But after ping-ponging between Earth and the wormhole; uncovering government conspiracies; learning the truth about ghosts; and muscling through all the derivative plot points I mentioned before, the filmmakers' vision of a vast, mysterious universe winds up strangled by narrative claustrophobia.

Yes, the overarching story about McConaughey's relationship with the daughter he leaves behind to save the world is gripping stuff, but there was absolutely no reason to return to the Earth scenes after the Endeavor crew takes off. A good half hour (if not more) of the film is devoted to a big secret that could have been just as artfully conveyed through the highly effective (and gut-wrenching) videos-from-home device already in play. A couple of nice, brain-teasing touches aside, Interstellar's entire last hour hurls genre conventions at mainstream moviegoers--lest they be scared out of the cinema by all the big ideas from acts one and two.

Let's take a moment to address a major spoiler. Please skip to the next paragraph if you haven't yet seen the film. Avert your! The Nolans devise a fascinating solution to mankind's problems: a guiding alien force that leads us through the wormhole, which turns out to be a highly evolved version of ourselves. Again, the visuals here are delicious, but the underlying architecture doesn't make a whole lot of sense. In 2001, Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke at least had the advantage of working with an advanced and entirely alien species, narratively. The stargate/star child sequences that close out that movie don't have to make a lot of sense--they just have to convince the audience that (true or not) the trippiness makes sense to someone at the top of the production. Making the Interstellar's "aliens" us raises basic questions, not ethereal ones--questions such as, "If time travel is a thing, why not simply equip mankind with the tools it needs to survive, rather than setting up a hard-to-get-to wormhole and planting riddles inside a single astronaut's brain?"

Intentional or not, Interstellar is a re-purposed gift bag that's been gussied up with ribbon and tissue paper to distract from the fold scuffs. Imagine looking inside such a package to discover a a drawing of the solar system from your four-year-old son, along with a blu-ray of a movie you already own. The momentary, conflicting feelings of promise, misty-eyed pride, and disappointment is this movie, in a nutshell.

In the end, I laughed. I cried. I yawned. I re-affixed my jaw a few times. That's more than a lot of people ask from movies today, and we're lucky to have Christopher Nolan forging new(ish) frontiers. But there's a restraint and comfortability at work in Interstellar, one that belies its central themes of optimism and survival.

*Granted, a sci-fi thriller with all the realism stripped out would be little more than Transformers in Space, but at just under three hours, Interstellar's overgrown verite beard could use a good shave.