Movie Review: Interstellar
Some simple math for those of you that don’t want to read my entire review:
2001 – Arthur C. Clarke = Interstellar.
Sure, it’s more complex than that, Christopher Nolan is no Stanley Kubric…and Stanley Kubric is no Christopher Nolan. The directors stand on their own with their own styles and what-have-you. Hrm. As an aside…I wonder what a Kubric superhero film would look like? Back on topic, even though Interstellar did indeed have a science advisor…well, maybe because what it deals with is so far on the theoretical, it felt like it didn’t. But let’s rewind a bit and try and put this review more in an organized format as opposed to stream of consciousness…although…given the subject matter…
We open to Cooper, our main character, having a nightmare about flying a space shuttle-like ship…establishing that our boy here has some very slight outer space experience…scratch that, has some LEO experience. [Low Earth Orbit. Seriously, if you don’t know what LEO is, what the hell are you doing here? – Ed.] Now Coop here is played by Matthew McConaughey…and the fact that he doesn’t make me want to kill him…sorry, never a big McConaughey fan…hell, he’s actually REALLY likeable in this! Bravo, sir, bravo. Well, Coop wakes up in what must be a John Mellencamp wet dream, rustic farm house on farmland…probably Kansas or Nebraska, maybe Iowa, I dunno. Okay, actually, we open a bit before Coop’s bad dream, we’ve got videos of old people talking about dust and such. It’s our set up on the “blight”, a…bacteria…I think…that is consuming crops and slowly making the Earth inhospitable. So far, corn is surviving but we do witness the “last okra harvest”. Issue #1 pops up here: Why make up something that’ll kill us…when there’s no damn shortage of things from the headlines that’ll do just fine? Well, I imagine on one hand, it allows the film to be viewed in a vacuum, not being preachy on any particular issue…which…let’s face it, talking ANY of those things that could wipe us out will piss off a bunch of people and given how much it money it takes to make movies these days, studios would want to avoid that. Fine, but sadly, it’s this thinking that makes today’s movies far less impactful than those that would’ve tackled topics like this in the 70s and early 80s. So, yeah, “blight” has already wiped out wheat, now okra…and corn probably doesn’t have long.
Back to Coop. He wakes up from a nightmare to find his daughter, Murphy, standing there, mentioning her ‘ghost’. Say it with me now…”It’s not a ghost, go back to bed.” And, of course, it’s not a ghost, but I can’t help but share with you…man, I was having some serious M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s “Signs” flashbacks (and that IS NOT a good thing!). Shit…I’m spending way too much time on the Earth stuff. Let me see if I can fast-forward. Issues #2 and 3: Okay, so from Cooper’s dream we know that manned spaceflight hasn’t been done in a while and that something went wrong with the last attempt…they barely cleared the stratosphere. And that’s what makes the unmanned drone they spot on the way to dropping the kids off at school so damn special…so special in fact that they drive on a flat tire through a buncha corn…you know, the rare food stuff that everyone’s growing…to get at it. Ordinarily, I’d let slide the whole Hollywood “computers are magic” trope that’s used to hack into the drone and take control of it…but two of the damn trailers prior to the film were “cyberthrillers” about scary hackers doing bad stuff and “only one man” (in deepest movie trailer voice possible) “can stop them”. So that didn’t help. To cap off issue #2, so, if the drone was so damn special, why is it never touched on again in the film? Did something inhibit flight into the upper levels of the atmosphere? Is it gone now? I mean, obviously, it is, otherwise this movie ends pretty damn quick and is named wrong! (Issue #3 was that damn tire…seriously, they drive on that shit for a LOOOOONG ass time.)
One thing I have to stand up and cheer this movie for is the next scene. Murph’s causing some trouble at school, so a parent-teacher conference is convened. Apparently, the root of all this is Murphy’s insistence that the Apollo moon landings DID happen, as opposed to what the teacher is trying to pass off as education…that it was all just a propaganda device to cause the Soviets to bankrupt themselves in chasing after this “impossible” dream. Ordinarily, this is where I’d try to say something clever like ‘insert record scratching noise here’ or some such. No. Sadly, there are people who actually believe this shit. And even worse, this depiction makes total sense. I grew up in a rural area and I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t be a damn bit surprised if shit like this was being taught in my old school system…right alongside how Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs to work in their 6000 year old world. Obviously, this is a movie, not a documentary…but even this little segment, highlighting how fucking dumb people are becoming, shunning the science that’s right in front of us in favor of concepts that are more familiar and comfortable…you know, because some guy 2000 years ago thought it was a good way to explain the world around him? Science hobbled by a book 2000 goddamn years old…if that makes sense, please explain it to me in the comments below. Okay, end of rant. Anyway, Coop does everything short of punching the idiotic teacher out (and Mr. Nolan, if you could somehow do a reshoot, could you PLEASE insert that into a special feature on the eventual Blu-Ray release?) and continues to encourage Murph anyway.
On the way home from all this fun, we get…DUSTSTORM!!! Of course, when asked “Did you kids close your windows?” well, good old Murph didn’t…don’t everyone be surprised at once. (You notice how I keep talking about just one kid, even though Coop had 2? Yeah, the oldest boy really doesn’t have a whole lot to do. He’s there but I’m not sure I’d consider him a vital part of the story.) Anyway, all that dust in Murphy’s room falls in thick and thin lines, not all over the damn place as normal dust would. Spooooky ghost! Blah blah blah, it’s communicating. Turns our they’re coordinates that lead to…dun dun dunnnnn…NASA 2.0 who have very clearly been busy during the “shit don’t fly” days that must’ve ended just prior to the film’s start. This is where the movie starts to go into space mode. Holy crap, I just did a page and a half just on the set up…and we’re not even to the movie proper!
Let’s just skip a bit and get into space shall we? This isn’t to slight the movie…not at all, most of the set-up is done fairly well…aside from Issues #1, 2 and 3. It was nice to see John Lithgow as Coop’s dead wife’s father. I’d been wondering what the hell happened to him. Oh, it’s important to introduce Michael Caine as Dr. Brand and his daughter, Amelia, as played by Anne Hathaway. Dr. Brand talks Coop into taking up this mission. What mission, you ask? Okay, so a wormhole appears in the space around Saturn…I guess because Saturn is cool. (Honestly, I was just glad it wasn’t Jupiter…and so was Arthur C. Clarke.) This wormhole leads to a system of planets very close to a black hole named Gargantua, three of which are inhabitable. NASA 2.0 knows this because they sent other scientists to do the scout work. Record-scratching sound time! Did I just misinterpret the opening of the damn movie? Because if there was a “no fly era”, how’d these other scientists do the pre-work? Okay, let’s revise…maybe there WASN’T a “no fly era”…let’s go with a “people so damned panicked that they went with a funding for the present as opposed to funding for the future approach”…hey, just like now! Man, I’m getting preachy on this one. Right, so, space. Well, here the movie becomes kinda like ‘science fiction’s greatest hits’. Some might decry this as a lack of originality but I like greatest hits collections so I’m okay with this. For example, the scene where they describe folding space? Right out of Event Horizon…well, except the explainer uses just an ordinary piece of paper, not a centerfold, and he doesn’t go crazy and kill everyone later on. That’s someone else. The robots in the movie were an interesting design choice for robots, but are very VERY clearly nods to the aforementioned 2001, as they are, when stationary, very black monolith-y. We end up running into 3 monolith-bots during the span of the movie, TARS (thank you Barsoom/John Carter novels), CASE (no idea) and KIPP (named after the scientific consultant for the film, Kip Thorne). The configurations these bots display in performing their tasks…well, it was pretty cool to watch and definitely a nice break from the extremely complex bots we’ve been seeing as of late (such as Transformers or the upcoming Ultron). As I mentioned, we’ve got three worlds to take a look at in the span of this film, each of them, from data that was received from the earlier teams (who somehow got there), possible homes for a colony. Not so much of a Sci-Fi greatest hit, but more like conventional storytelling…we’ve got three choices, wanna guess which one is the “just right” planet? The last one, of course. Still, this is a review, so we gotta do this in order. The first one ends up being closest to the black hole and I can’t remember if 1 day there was 7 years back home or if 1 hour there was 7 years in the movie theatre, but anyway, it did do two things really well. First, yay, relativity! I think this is maybe the first movie I’ve seen that really tackles it head on, or at the very least, breaks it down so that the typical movie-going audience gets it without a picture-in-picture pop up of Michio Kaku or Neil DeGrasse Tyson explaining it. Second, well, it ends up being a water world…and a water world that close to a black hole…with that kind of gravity? Yeah, that’s gonna be some bitchin’ tidal effects…and those a displayed really well…which ends up being not so good for Wes Bentley’s character. This leads us to another one of Sci-Fi’s greatest hits…someone’s gotta die on the away mission. But, breaking convention, Bentley’s character is none of the following: black, wearing a red shirt, talking about how close he is to retirement, missing his family/newly born daughter or son. So, you know, seemingly random. That’s good. Well, that and they left the black guy on the main ship, which, by the time they return from ultra-mega-surfing…let’s just say they were down there for a while. On to planet #2…oh, wait…drama time. Okay, so we’ve got Dr. Mann on one planet and the data he’s been sending has been pretty good, routine and so forth. Oh, forgot to mention, Dr. Waterworld…yeah, dead on impact, but again, thanks to relativity, on the planet it was just moments ago whereas away from the planet…it’d been a bit of a while, so up on the ship, they had gotten data from that ships descent and it had only recently gone out…ish. Then there’s the third planet, farthest away, can’t get there and make a return trip (another Sci-Fi greatest hit that lets you know that THAT is the habitable world!) which it’s scientist, Dr. Edmonds, hasn’t sent data in a while but his does look the most promising. Oh, and Anne Hathaway is in love with him. Your standard argument ensues where objectively Hathaway is shot down and she gets pissy about it.
Now, on our journey to planet #2, inhabited by Dr. Mann, I’ll take a break from the play by play to my main gripe about the film. In reading the above, believe it or not, I mostly liked the movie and I look forward to dissecting it more when it comes out on home video. While sure, the writing is filled with the standards of science fiction and the argument is DEFINITELY there that in trying to be this generation’s 2001 it really doesn’t quite make it. And I’m leaving a bunch of stuff out, believe it or not…given this review’s length. Hell, I haven’t even mentioned middle-aged Murphy, played by Jessica Chastain or old Murphy. But it’s in our investigation of planet #2 where this movie did something that made me say “movie, I wanted to like you.” And for the most part, I still did…in spite of this next thing. And it was kind of a biggie. Going back and forth from planet #2 to what’s going on back on Earth with Michael Caine and middle-aged Murph, now working at NASA, both of them end up using the same narrative crutch: I lied. Whether it’s Dr. Brand saying that he lied about solving the equations of gravity that would allow the Earth’s current population to be saved or Dr. Mann fudging his data just so that someone would come and pick him up off the icy “Hoth looks like Bermuda in comparison” planet #2, this crutch used twice…and in such close proximity…made me think that this movie should’ve borrowed its title from one of Al Franken’s books: “Lies and the Lying Liars that Tell Them…IN SPAAAAAAACE!” Okay, that last bit’s mine. Still. It just made me to start hating everyone that was left in the movie. Mann was a crazy jackass, Anne Hathaway was being whiny because she didn’t get her way and has to wait to see her boyfriend. Sure, McConaughey’s Cooper is doing the stereotypical “I gotta make it back for my family” sort of thing…but that’s just it, it’s expected, and I was okay with it BECAUSE it was expected. The black guy (hate to keep referring to him as that…hang on…google search…ah, here we are, Romilly)…ahem, Romilly ends up getting exploded by one of Mann’s “hey, I’m crazy and no one must learn the truth” booby-traps. Thus marking the end of a character that…well, at least he was honest. Murph’s all right once she gets over her abandonment issues but by that point...we're way deep in the movie.
With planet #2 being a bust…and all the shenanigans that ensue from that, well, now we’ve got a wounded ship that’ll never make it to planet #3 because…oh, hi there black hole! So that Anne Hathaway can go and see her boyfriend, well, they queue up another Sci-Fi greatest hit, using remaining ships/landers/whatever as boosters, jettisoning them (and those within them) once the fuel runs out. This ends up offing CASE and, oh noes, Cooper.
OR DOES IT…?
Yup, we’re in 2001 territory again, folks…or, perhaps more appropriately, a mix of 2001 and Disney’s The Black Hole (which never really gets the attention it deserves I feel…) with just a dash of Mr. Mxyzptlk. Turns out Coop doesn’t die in the black hole, but is now in the Fifth Dimension where he’s about to have a Crisis on Infinite Bookshelves! I need to trademark that before DC gets it. It’s in this higher plane that Cooper is able to see all of time spread out before him, but it’s not the cool ‘all of time’ that The Doctor sees outside the windows of his TARDIS. No…this is all of time as if he were stuck behind Murphy’s bookshelf. Let me tell you, that really makes me want to get crackin’ on that whole time travel thing, how about you? (I just realized that could be taken in a creepy, stalker way…no…I don’t want to be stuck behind a little girl’s bookshelves…actually, I just don’t want to be stuck behind bookshelves, period…and if that’s where time-travel gets us…fuck it.) It’s here we find out the secret of Murphy’s ‘ghost’ and the cyclical nature of the film. Once Cooper’s task is done here, including one final message to middle-aged Murph, the powers that be kick him out of the tesseract…because…reasons. Like, this review is going on too damn long reasons. We, and future humanity, find Coop floating outside the wormhole where, as fate would have it, future humanity has a space colony nearby. Enough with the play by play…watch the damn movie, let’s just skip to my opinion or wrap up.
I wanted to really like this movie. And to be honest, I do. Visually, it’s amazing…some things we’ve seen before, just better and some new things too. As you can tell above, there’s things to like in the story and there’s things that are just gonna nag at you. And by nag I mean the sort of nagging that you get from your significant other…the type you TRY to block out…but it just keeps hitting that one nerve, the one that makes you twitch and think about murder. You know the one. In interviews, I’ve read Nolan defend his film in saying that it requires multiple viewings to soak it all in and he’s likely right. And I look forward to the Blu-Ray release so that I can do that. But coming straight out of the movie, it looks more to me like Science Fiction’s Greatest Hits compilation album…and it’s one of those bands that has songs you really love and songs you REALLY hate. Interstellar puts them all on one disc and seeds the bad amongst the good. Fortunately, this doesn’t hurt the narrative flow and never detracts from the awesome spectacle…but also makes you anticipate a return to the cool shit so you can get as far away from the lying or the moping or whatever as quickly as you can! Ultimately, while flawed, if a movie like this can re-ignite the passion Americans once had for spaceflight and space exploration, then I may take back all of what I said above and hail this movie the way most popular reviewers have. If it fails in that regard, well, the movie gets an A for effort…and an A+ for sticking the finger up to those Apollo conspiracy theory asshats.