16 November 2014

First Impressions: Interstellar

There's always been this tension between movie theaters and home entertainment, at least since TV gained mainstream popularity in the 1950s which led to all those zany "epic" movies of the 1960s that attempted to draw people back to the cinema. Nowadays, thanks to viewing options at home being generally better than that of a movie theater in every possible way, it's tougher and tougher to get people out to the movies.

Or at least that's the myth Hollywood would like to sell you. There's some argument that ticket sales aren't what they should be, but movies have never made more money at the theaters worldwide, even if inflation is outpacing them a bit. The core struggle then started with the advent of VHS, which meant we didn't have to wait for re-issues in theaters or basic TV airings to re-watch our favorite movies. Nowadays we call this option, "Blu-Ray." And it's pretty great. There's really no reason to sit in a dark, crummy, sticky theater watching a half an hour of commercials before a highly anticipated film anymore.
The real star of the movie. Sorry, I mean black hole of the movie.

Every once in a while, though, a movie will come along that demands to be seen in the Bijou. Last year that movie was Gravity (2013). This year it's Interstellar (2014). I'm not sure if all such movies in the future will be IMAX space movies, but whatever. Interstellar is the latest from Chris Nolan, who seems to really really struggle to make a poor film. Although in all honesty, he has plenty of time to screw up, as this is really only his fifth original full-length studio film in addition to his three Batman movies. Between this and Inception (2010), though, he's getting this knack for directing really epic films with hard science-fiction bends combined with esoteric intellectual diversions that would otherwise never see the light of day. And that's a good thing because a film like Interstellar needs the kind of budget that a dude like Nolan can guarantee. And for sure, SPOILERS from here on out.

And this thing looks gorgeous. I was fortunate enough to see it in 70 mm IMAX, which was a gorgeous, seat-shaking spectacle to enjoy. It's also a passionate expression for the worth of film above digital, which Nolan has been pretty vocal about. There's just no denying that Interstellar looks amazing, which when you're crafting black hole rendering software so advanced that papers are written about it, it's a solid trip.

A guy like Steve Spielberg might have been able to pull off Interstellar as well, and a version from his hands would have been pretty interesting. You can actually see a lot more of Spielbergisms than Nolanisms in this, from the focus on family relationships, particularly the viewpoints of awe-struck children, to the (seemingly) presence of extra-dimensional beings that guide our protagonists, which could be right out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). It's very much a Nolan humanist move to make those extra-dimensional beings actually future humans.

Nolan's not only a hardcore humanist but first and foremost a realist, which certainly informs this entire film. The science is pretty realistic and based on a lot of the works of a dude named Kip Thorn, who is mostly agreeable. Some of the Internet, it would seem, is regurgitating a lot of this science and seems perplexed by the density of how much the film plays with the nature of humans experiencing bends in space-time based on Einstein's Theory of Relativity. I understood most of it, which I realised is mostly due to Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos that aired earlier this year, which in turn inspired a healthy amount of googling. There is some merit in a movie version of Cosmos that is also fueled by a pretty compelling narrative.

The rest of Interstellar borrows bits from The Astronaut Farmer (2006), Gravity, and especially at the end, comes as close as we're going to get to a modern adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). All those movies, though, although perhaps aesthetically similar or similar in certain plot details, were about pretty different things, which allows Interstellar to stand on its own. For instance, Gravity was all about one woman's struggle for survival. Interstellar is chiefly about a father fulfilling a promise to his daughter. With splashes of balancing that desire with a general desire to save humanity strewn in there.

This balance of character desires is really really good screenwriting. There's all this underlying personal baggage to every character in the film, which is unfortunate, because they're all tasked with saving the residents of Planet Earth. Only Wes Bentley and the Black Guy (David Gyasi) seem to be reasonable people on the mission. This includes everyone who came before them, like Dr. Mann.

That's a little on the nose, by the way - that Mann is the closest thing we have to a villain in this film. Yes, man is evil and should not be trusted. The interesting bit is how Mann and Michael Caine thought outside of themselves and their own loved ones in order to ensure the survival of the species. They're thinking on a much grander scale than anyone else in the film, and although their actions may be selfish, they're pretty human in their sacrifices, full of regret and longing. It works well as a way to humanize the bad guys in this film without stooping to either blatant evil or making the villains needless sympathetic (I always think of the Sandman in Spider-Man 3 [2007] as a film that tried to over-humanize its villain's motivations, which ended up conflicting with his actions). They're still not even villains, really, just characters with motivations that conflict with the survival of our immediate characters. Hell, that's a great PC villain description if there ever was one.

I'd like to get to the rest of the characters and actors a bit later. Let's talk first about this vision of the future that Nolan is highlighting, because he's never really done science fiction like this before, again because of his realism. There are some easy comparisons to Inception in the sense that these are both intellectual blockbusters that aren't really that hard to figure out conceptually, but really just use a surface-level complex plot to mask some important themes that cut to the heart of human nature. Also like Inception, it's all about a dad going to insane lengths to get back to his kids. With Inception it was reaching across dreams and sub-consciousnesses, with Interstellar it's a mutli-million mile journey across time and space. Kids are important, after all.

I thought a little of Looper (2012) at the start of this film, just because Nolan's crafting a very foreseeable future, here, which is terrifying. This is only natural, though, because he's a filmmaker who very much stays within the bounds of plausibility. This is, after all, the man who took one of the most outlandish superheroes, one that has spent much more time in camp than badassery, and created this whole "gritty" superhero film revolution. Nolan has made his buck on the serious-minded treatment of the outrageous, and he does it with such a careful hand that no one really rebuffs him. I mean, I do, because the self-seriousness of his films constantly borders on pretentiousness, but there is also a simple fact that these are really well-constructed movies that always make audiences think. And since they're usually successful, I would consider getting many people to think is a good thing. The only unfortunate after-effect is the attempt of other studios to apply this treatment to other properties with a less deft hand, which results in strange tonal clashes in films like The Lone Ranger (2013) or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014).

Anyway, the future is plausible and terrifying. It's no accident that the most common profession in Interstellar's future is farming, only corn is left, and there's a stringent run of anti-intellectualism and anti-science running throughout earth. It's about time that some mainstream film paid attention to the growing food crisis worldwide, and particularly rampant under the corn empire in this country. As if the Relativity parts seemed lifted from Cosmos, this seemed lifted from a recent multi-issue series from National Geographic concerning the daunting task of feeding 9 billion people in a few years. It's easy to see corn as everyone's answer, because corn is in everything anyway, especially animal feed, which is where most of our grown corn ends up.
And Catwoman herself!

There's also this inherently misguided notion towards world problem-solving where kids are taught to give up on their dreams and instead focus on short-term solutions to humanity's hunger. Interstellar's society isn't concerned with anything but growing food, which isn't really a move towards sustainability. It's a subtle argument, but the film constantly bemoans an engineer living a farmer's life, the fact that no one's inventing anything anymore, and how our paranoia and insecurity has caused us to lean increasingly Luddite lives, to the point of re-writing history to make us seem less great technologically. There's also potshots at an institutionalised school system that squashes creative thought in favor of the pursuit of these misguided solutions. Murph is clearly a child prodigy and for most of the film Matt McConaughey is the sort of lovable dad who encourages us to cause trouble that we've always wanted. Thanks, buddy.

Once the film leaves the ignorance of Planet Earth behind, it becomes this dialogue, often brought to the text of the film, between the value of saving loved ones vs. saving the species. It ruminates at length over the power of human love, which comes across as so less corny as writing it does here. It's love's ability to focus human caring on a very specific fellow member of the species or the entire species as a whole. I remember this conversation with the Architect of the Matrix, actually. And I figured out that Love is the most powerful force in the Universe like 11 years ago. Seriously, my buddy and I made formulas. Way stronger than gravity.

So, sticking with this, I actually knew very little about this movie going into it. I actually didn't even know Anne Hathaway was in it until I saw a screenshot of her on some online article the day I saw it. So while watching this film it was cool to go along and then say, "Oh shit! Casey Affleck?! Whoa! Jessica Chastain?! MATT DAMON?! Ok, Topher Grace." The cast does a really nice job, and it's worthwhile to stand back and think for a second, "Wait, this movie has four Academy Award winners among its principal cast? Holy shit." But really, this is the McConaughey show.

Finally, finally, the McConaissance has a blockbuster poster child. It's the latest solidification of his comeback as an actor, to top his recent journey into respectable indie filmmaking and his turn in one of the greatest shows of our age, True Detective. And not every Hollywood beefcake can play a scientist. For realz. It really feels like this capper on a great year this dude has had. And of course I have to comment that like every Nolan hero ever, he is a white male with a dead wife / lover. Actually I don't think Pacino had one in Insomnia (2002), right? Anyway, my loud laughter when McConaughey said his wife was dead, because Nolan does this so often was certainly inappropriate.

So, Interstellar is sweet. It's full of really down to earth domestic themes as well as very high, cosmic trippy, "humanity's place in the universe"-type themes with awesome genuine character beats, a coherent and compelling story, and a gorgeous-looking iconic aesthetic design. Hot damn this was a good fucking movie, folks.

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