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I had a very disturbing thought after watching Interstellar, the new thinking man’s sci-fi blockbuster by the Nolan brothers, Jonathan and Christopher (who also directed).
Earth is on its last legs and our only hope is to find another planet that we can move to. In other words, we’ve destroyed this world, but no worries, we’ll just pack up shop and move to another one and start all over. That is, until we use that one up and have to move again, I suppose. And again. And again.
I guess it’s no big deal. After all, we still have a possible 8.8 billion planets to make our way through. Which means that it’s a problem I won’t have to worry about in my lifetime.
But I’m not sure here. I guess when all was said and done, I didn’t find the ending to the movie to be as glorious a paean to the human spirit as much as I think I was supposed to.
In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that the movie was unintentionally saying that we, as humans, suck, but that’s okay, because we have almost a trillion planets to suck with before mankind has to come to an end.
So instead of a tribute to man’s will to survive, for me it felt more like a tribute to man’s ability to destroy anything he touches…and get away with it.
I have to say that as much as I admired much of the Nolans’ meditation on the ability of mankind to always come up on top when things are down, I also felt about it much the same way I felt about Birdman.
Birdman, like Interstellar, is huge, ambitious and intelligent. It’s a triumph of directorial virtuosity. It tries to go where no man has gone before.
At the same time, like Birdman, I never really had an emotional connection to what was going on or to the central characters; the virtuosity tended to hide what I felt was a lack of anything that substantial going on underneath; and some scenes seemed to be there for virtuosity’s sake, rather than really carry the story forward (in Birdman, one was the moment where the central character has to make his way through Times Square in his tighty whities after being locked out of the theater; here, it’s a very long sequence where the astronauts encounter a fellow spaceman gone stark raving and they have a long action sequence that doesn’t seem to have any real purpose but to be a long action sequence).
At the same time, I also have to admit that in comparison, Birdman is far wittier, clever, insightful, with better acting, and in its own way, by virtue of being earth bound, far more ambitious.
So Interstellar has a lot going for it. But it’s also, I strongly suspect, a huge white elephant of a movie. Big and in the way and now that you have it, what do you do with it?
The basic plot premise is that there is a world-wide blight of Biblical proportions robbing our planet of all its food sources (and if you don’t buy my religious adjective, listen closely for a quick mention of wheat and seven years which will have meaning to anyone who’s seen Joseph and His Amazing whatchamacallit lately).
The film begins with a series of older people addressing a camera, giving oral histories of the difficult time when dust storms roamed the earth, pummeling everything that got in their way.
There is a painful, nostalgic feel to these scenes, filmed as they were as if they are parts of a PBS American Masters documentary on the Depression. There is also something important here because it does basically tell us that in the end, everything is going to be all right.
One of the witnesses here is played by Ellyn Burstyn, now a Hollywood legend, I guess you might as well say, with the years etched dramatically into her face, a person who has seen and lived through much.
These early scenes suggested that maybe the whole movie thing might turn into something. But it never did, at least not as much as I was hoping it would.
I’m not really sure I even fully bought this world. Though there are some wonderful and powerful scenes of small town life and farms in middle America and of approaching deep, dark clouds of dust, the world as a whole never quite felt like it was on the brink of starvation.
At the same time, is it really all that important? All that really matters is that the world is approaching an apocalypse and attention must be paid.
Whatever your feelings about these early scenes, enter NASA who has discovered a wormhole in space that will enable the earth to send manned ships to the other side of the universe in search of sympathetic planets to colonize in relatively no time. In fact, NASA has already sent out exploratory missions and now what is needed is a follow up to see if anything was indeed found.
Actually, this is where the screenplay started getting a bit wobbly for me. The characters here never really seem to grapple with that other elephant, the one in the room. A wormhole, as they explained, doesn’t happen naturally, someone or thing had to create it.
My first question would be, well, if there is someone out there doing this so we can save ourselves, if they really have that much power, why pussyfoot about it; why not just come to the earth and tell us how to turn our planet around and/or take us to one of these other inhabitable locations themselves? I mean, what are these beings from another planet or dimension: cock teasers?
(Because of this, I began to suspect to some degree what was going on—it is so often what a screenplay avoids saying as much as what it says that can give the game away).
The movie as a whole is obviously highly influenced by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s seminal cinematic masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Interstellar has flat, soothing, humanistic voices emanating from robots that look like black slabs; scenes in space alternate between terrifying silence and an emotional music score (a wonderful one by Hans Zimmer, by the way); and an astronaut trying to reenter a ship manually.
But beyond this, there is a significant difference. While Asimov and Kubrick implied their philosophical look at humankind (to the degree that people still argue about what it is they were really trying to say), the Nolans have their characters talk about it endlessly.
The result is a screenplay struggling to fit a movie’s preconceived ideas and grand plot points and that never seems to grow organically out of the situation or characters, stilted and meandering. And it careens uncertainly from soap opera and melodrama to sci-fi mumbo jumbo that I could never really follow (I loved Star Trek, but I never understood much of what Scotty said, with or without the accent).
It’s a movie that wears its philosophy on its sleeve, with all the cringing and awkwardness that implies. And yet, even for being so obvious and in your face, still difficult, if not impossible, to understand.
And it’s all delivered by a cast that is filled with enough A-listers (or close enough listers) to populate The Grand Hotel.
Matthew McConaughey as Cooper (Gary Cooper anyone? Anyone?) brings his good ol’ boy down home Texas can do attitude to his role. If anyone can save the world, I have no doubt he’d be the one who could do it.
Anne Hathaway is the astronaut who puts personal feelings before scientific objectivity (but, you know, she is female).
Michael Caine and John Lithgow play battling father figures, but since Caine has the British accent and played Bruce Wayne’s butler, well, who the hell do you think is going to win?
Cooper has two children, Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (played by Timothée Chalamet). When they grow up they turn into Jessica Chastain (and later Ellyn Burstyn) and Casey Affleck.
I don’t know who got the better deal, but I’ll go with Tom. Murph starts out as a spoiled brat of a princess who wants her father to stay with her rather than go off and save the earth. I suppose one can forgive her because she’s so young. But when she turns into Chastain, she’s a lot older and still the spoiled brat, so temper tantrum petulant she has refused to send any messages to her father after all this time (I mean, it’s been more than twenty years, for God’s sake; get over yourself).
In addition, some other thespians manage to be recognizable here and there. The mime Bill Irwin is one of the robot voices (I don’t think that’s meant to be ironic, but who knows); Wes Bentley is a fellow astronaut; Tophur Grace is Murph’s colleague as an adult; David Oyelowo plays a principal; and my God, is that William Devane from Marathon Man as a NASA Board member (I’ll end the suspense; yes, it is)?
All give solid performances and it’s always fun to watch a series of known actors parade through a movie like this so you can point them out and tell your fellow audience member, I know who that is.
It all culminates in a climactic scene in some sort of time warp in which events are constantly repeated over and over again at the same time. It’s all supposed to circle round to some earlier scenes and sort of explain everything while resolving the story line. I was tempted to call shenanigans, but like much of the movie, it looked really neat, even if I wasn’t sure what it meant or how it worked.
In fact, I think much of how I feel can be suggested by a similar feeling I had about a quote that runs through the movie. While trying to figure out what exactly to do in a particularly serious situation, Brand (Hathaway) says that “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space”.
This was a quote that when I heard it during the previews I asked my friend what it meant and he had no idea.
Well, I’ve now seen the movie and I can tell you with confidence…I still have absolutely no idea what it means.
However, I do strongly suspect that it’s pretty much bullhockey (pardon my French).