Mankind Was Born On Earth, It Was Never Meant To Die Here
Due to the tone of this review, many may feel that I am being overly critical of this movie. The truth is, I think Interstellar is a powerful example of spectacle cinema but it’s also a very pretentious arrogant release which could have been a deeply better and shorter film. In other words, Interstellar is the thinking audience’s Avatar.
In an unidentified year in the not too distant future, the Earth is ravaged and dying. Those that remain in the dustbowl environment have become a caretaker generation, prioritising farming over artistic, athletic and scientific feats; survival is all that matters. Enter ex-pilot Cooper (it’s only really made clear later in the film that this is his surname) played by Matthew McConaughey. Much like everyone else, he has been forced to give up the very thing he was good at in order to perform farming duties for the preservation of the species and to provide a home for his aging father-in-law and two young children. After a particularly violent dust-cloud covers their house, Cooper’s daughter Murphy discovers a message in long strips of dust. Cooper deciphers the code as binary for co-ordinates, which leads him to a secret facility. Yeah, I know, just.. just stay with me for a second. The facility itself is run by the remnants of NASA who are concocting a Plan A / Plan B last hope scenario, which Cooper is hurriedly put in charge to pilot. Plan A is to take readings from a wormhole that has just opened, figure out how to harness gravity and transport all of humanity to a new habitat. Plan B is to colonise embryos on a new planet but has no escape plan for those who are still on Earth. So, Cooper and a small team of scientists and two robots set out to the unknown depths of space in an attempt to save the human race, in one form or another.
So, why am I so irked by this film? I’ve already explained that it’s a very well made film but it’s just as much schlock as other fantastical blockbusters but we inexplicably give it a pass because a.) it’s Nolan and b.) it’s very intelligent sounding. The best analogy I can come up with is gourmet fast food. Interstellar is a new restaurant that has opened up with a celebrity chef running the place, the décor is vibrant and interesting, the ingredients are the best possibly sourced and the staff are wonderfully pleasant. And as you look down the menu, you notice the only three items on sale are burgers, hotdogs and fried chicken. Suddenly there’s a wash of humility and all the pretentiousness and outwardly imposing elements of the restaurant fall away as you order fried chicken. It arrives in a container shaped like a bucket (but ironically) and tastes amazing. Yet no one eating in the restaurant will acknowledge that it’s effectively the same as eating at KFC, it’s just packaged better. The film has 1970s production design, 1990s writing and 2010s CGI. Five years ago, Moon was released using the same formula but with 1970’s writing, leading to one of the greatest science fiction stories of the last decade. Interstellar tries so hard to do the same but somewhat fails and settles on above average commendable filmmaking.
I should add, the above wasn’t a conclusion I came to lightly. It was only at a specific turning point that the film started to reveal what it truly was under the surface. Assessing their options, the crew identify three potentially habitable worlds and set out to recover any data. The first mission is a complete disaster, with loss of life, fuel and (thanks to the effects of the black-hole’s gravitational pull) time. Running out of options, the remaining crew members cannot visit both planets and are only able to stop off at one. The first (and closest) was discovered by Dr Mann, leader of the initial planet finding project and heralded by every character as the finest example of mankind. The second is further afield and was discovered by a scientist whom Dr Brand happens to be in love with. So the three remaining scientists begin a discussion as to which of the two planets is the more viable, which quickly devolves into Anne Hathaway giving an emotionally impassionate speech (which largely boils down to “I just want to”) and culminates with “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space” aaaand you’ve lost me. And then I started looking back at how the story had got us this far. McConaughey is playing a single father who provides the audience with an orgy of exposition: hacking a drone to show he’s clever, confronting the teacher about the Apollo mission to show he believes in science so much, more than enough examples that he’s just a regular guy trying to protect his kids, claiming the Earth is dying but no one seems to be able to explain exactly why, getting NASA to hire him to fly their last-chance rocket at the last possible minute because “you’re the best pilot we ever had” despite crashing his ship and ‘going off radar’… a few hour’s drive down the road!? And they even used the folding of space/time analogy from Event Horizon! I swear this could have been a late 90’s/early 2000’s Roland Emmerich script with the lead character being played by Owen Wilson. And now we’re being told that the daughter of one of humanity’s greatest scientists, a pioneering astronaut and brave physicist is only really in space to see her fucking boyfriend!? Goddamn it Nolan! Every bloody film! If there’s one area of cinema you don’t excel at (and there aren’t many) it’s the actions, motivations and dialogue of your female characters. And remember, despite all this, I still think this is a good film.
Furthermore, both my wife and I called the film’s plot twist (if that’s the correct terminology) right from the start, meaning that the movie instantly sullied itself by laying too many clues and threads. I wasn’t surprised, nor was I overwhelmed – which is what I had hoped for. Now, that’s not saying that I’m smarter than anyone who didn’t predict the finale, it’s just a statement that I’ve seen SO many films and in their various forms/genres, these tropes now act as hazard signals to me. Subsequently, seeds being sown for the audience to catch up stand out as warning signs to me and I end up muttering, “Oh they better not be going where I think they are with this.” But that’s one of the many reasons why studios love Nolan. He’s a high-brow director with deep thoughts and concepts that he has somehow been able to produce and market to the masses. Not only that, he comes from an independent background, so he also completes his work early and comes in under budget. But if we put all these negative aspersions to one side for just a minute, I have neglected one of the key elements of this release. From a technical standpoint, Interstellar is very very good. The CGI is incredibly impressive, the production value of the costumes and sets are wonderful and the overall feeling of isolation and desperation are brilliantly conveyed through the sound design. On top of that, Hans Zimmer’s score was gargantuan and overbearing – utilising a simple reoccurring theme and an exceptionally loud final output volume. As I viewed this release in IMAX, the experience is increased, combining the roar of the rockets with the thundering chords of the organ, to rattle and shake the entire room, as if Hans Zimmer was screaming from the recording booth, “GIVE ME ALL THE BASS YOU HAVE!”
As with all troublesome films, I maintain it’s worth a watch. There are those that will love every second of it and praise it as the greatest explorative science fiction release of our time, whereas others will say it follows in the footsteps of giants and remains stuck firmly in their shadow. I wouldn’t say it’s definitely either but it’s a solid release that is thought provoking, tense and thrilling but happily trips into the pitfalls of countless other mindless blockbusters while shouting out, “I meant to do that!” Which is certainly not what I was hoping for.
7th November 2014
The Scene To Look Out For:
I have found that the best science fiction is presented as bold-faced fact by directors who have very little interest in telling a typical science fiction story. And the best deep space stories aren’t things like Star Trek or Star Wars but effectively adaptations of fifteenth century naval exploration. But this movie shouldn’t have had the multiple happy endings, it should have ended like Aguirre: The Wrath Of God. Before bedding down for the first of their deep sleeps, Cooper and Brand discuss the nature of evil, the concept that nature is just a powerful frightening force but there is no malice within it. To which Cooper adds, “Only what we take with us.” Which is a crucial argument of this film that is glossed over far too quickly. I know it sort of returns when Mann and Cooper are wrestling in the wilderness, wondering which will prevail but that becomes a bit on the nose. And naming the character who is supposed to represent the best of us but turns out to represent the very worst of us, Mann? Come on Nolan, that’s just a little blunt, even for you.
I appreciate a lot of people won’t like the design of the robots TARS and CASE (and admittedly, I can’t really figure out if I like them or not) but I greatly enjoyed the personalities. With his humour and honestly levels boosted, TARS acts as the comic relief, while CASE is the more temperate sardonic cynic – yet both are distinctly different and I felt more for them than I did someone like Doyle [Wes Bentley] or (to a lesser degree) Romilly [David Gyasi].
“Once you’re a parent, you become the ghost of your children’s future”
In A Few Words:
“Much like Prometheus, there’s a plethora of interesting and truly wonderful elements but the reach overall whole exceeds its grasp and reveals itself to be deceptively stupid”