Wednesday, November 26, 2014

To Squee Or Not to Squee: Interstellar

Cautious Enthusiasm: To infinity and beyond.

I kept myself in the dark about Interstellar. I watched the trailers but I avoided any and all featurettes, and did not read any reviews. I did not want to know. Of course, I couldn’t avoid gleaning the general critical consensus, which is that this film is not super great. Good, just not super great. I’m drawing my own conclusions, dammit! This isn’t like Guardians of the Galaxy where everyone knows the plot in advance! I want to form an untainted opinion!

I have. Interstellar is very good. And not super great.

Oh, well.

I now get what they mean when they say, “There’s a great movie somewhere inside this one.” With Interstellar, it’s obvious what’s great and what isn’t. It’s a powerful and moving two-hour film that just happens to be almost three hours long. Director Christopher Nolan makes brainy action films, and he does it extremely well. The Dark Knight remains something akin to a masterpiece and Inception is in my top five favorite movies of all time. He’s tackling something very different with Interstellar. A thrilling film that does not, or should not, rely on explosions, or chases, or villains. A movie where the adventure and excitement comes from discovery. Awe. Super-high stakes. It’s supposed to be very brainy and science-y, and, to be blunt, that’s not what the moviegoing public generally wants to see. Alienate the masses with an overly wordy and slow-paced film, or alienate smart people by making Aliens without the aliens? Nolan tried to compromise. The film shines for most of its run time, then comes dangerously close to suckage when it panders to a lower denominator. Look at me, all snotty!

WARNING: I’ll try not to spoil details but I may spoil generalizations. The film begins in the near future. The world is ending with a whimper. The details of society’s breakdown are kept somewhat vague, but there is drought, there are diseases, and we’re running out of food. Old-school farming is back in vogue, not out of yuppie ideals, but out of desperation. America’s heartland is covered in corn. When the corn dies -- when, not if -- we will starve. One of the farmers in this future dust bowl is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), formerly of NASA, now a widower with two kids. He wants his children to escape their hardscrabble life, but escape is no longer an option in a world where science and the arts have been deemed a waste of resources. Due to a convoluted series of events, an...entity...that inhabits Cooper’s daughter’s bedroom leads Cooper to discover what’s left of NASA: a handful of brains in a bunker, led by Michael Caine, constructing a last-ditch scheme to save humanity. A wormhole to another galaxy has opened near Saturn. Wormholes don’t just pop up like zits; someone put it there. Others have been sent through, looking for inhabitable worlds, but the latest mission will be the last, and Cooper’s the best man to fly the ship. Of course he is.

Yeah, the movie’s big on making Cooper a Jesus figure -- a humble man pushed toward his destiny by a higher power. Sometimes this works and sometimes it feels like the screenplay’s hard at work. (Considering that all the Earth scenes seem to take place in the same ten-square-mile chunk of the Midwest, it sure is convenient that Cooper happened to live so near to the secret NASA project!) It would work a lot less without McConaughey, who’s pretty much perfected the art of seeming like a normal guy, a hero, a wild card, and your best buddy, all at once. This movie is largely about human emotions, with space as the backdrop, and there are moments where McConaughey’s emotions are as raw as a wound. Cooper must leave his family, possibly forever, because this isn’t Star Wars: space travel takes years at best, generations at worst. The ship blasts off, carrying Cooper and three other makeshift cosmonauts (played by Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi, and Wes Bentley), and it’s hardly a spoiler to say they make it through the wormhole. Next comes a hazardous cosmic ballet involving the humans, their ship, some planets, and a massive, syrupy black hole that adds even worse implications to the problem of time passage. Back home on Earth, Cooper’s daughter grows up to be Jessica Chastain, and works tirelessly to prove that the rest of humanity hasn’t been left to rot.

The movie is beautiful in its lack of spectacle. Yes, there are amazing starscapes and alien worlds, but, again, this isn’t Star Wars. Star Wars was a fantasy that happened to be set in space. Interstellar, while playing somewhat fast and loose with science and physics, is as realistic as it can be while still being a blockbuster movie. The look, sound and feel of the technology hammers home how fragile it all is, how we’ve always shot people into space in ramshackle vehicles that could be pulverized with the flick of a cosmic eyelash. It’s all a series of improvisations made by people who can only guess what they’re heading towards. The alien worlds are dreamlike, and the dangers faced by Cooper and his crew are all organic and real, except for the glaring exception I’ll describe in the next paragraph. There are a couple of wry robots aboard, and they look like, given thousands of years of natural erosion and geological forces, they might eventually turn into R2-D2. The special effects are amazing, but they don’t demand your attention; Nolan has always gone for practical, naturalistic effects whenever he can, and nothing we see here looks like something you couldn’t theoretically find in outer space.

And the script is...well, it’s sturdy. But it makes some grave errors. (SLIGHTLY MORE SPECIFIC SPOILERS AHEAD!) The first half of the film is ace, but the last block is...honestly...pointless. There is an element of human villainy. There are some action scenes that exist only to be action scenes. And it drags. On and on it drags, a tiresome detour before the big sound-and-light finale. They could have easily utilized the “bad guy” in a mature, thoughtful way, considering that character’s motives and circumstances. But apparently there needs to be an antagonist. Apparently the film can’t be too absorbed in science and discovery, or else the audience might fall asleep. Me, I became sleepier during those “exciting” action scenes, because they served no point beyond delaying the important parts of the climax. As for the climax itself, I won’t spoil a single detail, but A) I guessed the big twist very early in the film, and B) the film kept going long after I figured it should end. The “epilogue” was there because they wanted to tie up all the loose ends, but...considering where Cooper goes and what he does, was it too conventional an ending? Or too sentimental? Or both? Its clumsy third act is why I didn’t adore Interstellar, why I don’t think it’s as good as Inception, why Nolan can’t yet say he’s made his magnum opus. Sorry, sir. But you let conventional action clich├ęs sneak in and you got overwhelmed by your own epic tale. Points lost.

Still. Don’t be deterred from seeing Interstellar, because it’s one of the best-made science fiction films in recent years. It looks great. It’s beautifully acted, though some of the supporting cast is marginalized. Nolan has struggled to write good female characters, but he’s found a muse in Anne Hathaway. Her playful turn as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises was such a refreshing surprise, and here, she goes the other way, giving a wounded performance that in some places is closer to her Fantine from Les Miserables. (Chastain fares worse; she doesn’t have enough to do and spends way too much of the film standing in a single room, staring into space.) And, again, Matthew McConaughey anchors everything with his easy charisma and boiling-over emotions. I don’t even mind how annoying it is to type his name. McConaughey McConaughey McConaughey. He’s just that good.

It’s a shame that Interstellar wasn’t that which I mean, as good as we all hoped. It’s not going to redefine movies and Christopher Nolan is probably going to make better films down the line. I’m glad he went outside the box to make this one, because it shows he’s not limiting himself to action and Batman. Trim the fat from Interstellar and it’d be another minor masterpiece. As it is, it’s worth your time. And time, as this movie demonstrates, should be spent well. Do not go gentle into that dark knight.

VERDICT: In space, no one can hear me squee. But it’s a solid squee anyway.

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