The various dimensions of the relatively not so bad “Interstellar”
December 31, 2014 § Leave a comment
If the Nolan brothers are right, that is to say, if they have correctly understood and applied that which theoretical physicist Kip Thorne brought to the “Interstellar” project as one of the key originators of the story concept and one of the production’s major scientific consultants, and if Jonathan Nolan learned anything whilst he was hitting the physics books in an effort to lend a degree of credibility and rigor to the script that he was to pen for Steven Spielberg back in the mid-late 2000s (who was then attached to direct the project for Paramount), then they may very well have solved one of the central mysteries of Stanley Kubrick’s game-changing “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a film whose cultural gravity “Interstellar” will find frankly inescapable. The eerily intimidating monoliths which seem to function as intellectual wormholes in that 1968 masterwork, appearing out of the blue and somehow propelling humanoid apes from Bone Age to Space Age (via moments of bravura editing and during menacingly scored sequences), have long been considered the handiwork of some benevolent Higher Intelligence whether alien or deity, if these two are even mutually exclusive; one that is for some reason invested (presumably) in the development of humankind so much so that it strategically places these knowledge-radiating/thought-stimulating objects in their midst in order that they may take much needed evolutionary steps forward. Either this, or the gleaming pillars are somehow symbolic of freakish and largely unexplained aberrations in human intellectual capacity and output of the kind that enable for quantum leaps in mankind’s status as a thinking species i.e. raw genius, eureka moments, and the like. The alternative that director Christopher Nolan and his brother and long-time writing partner Jonathan posit with “Interstellar” is probably not in the least bit novel and has almost certainly been someone somewhere’s explanation for the uncanny omnipresence and effect of Kubrick’s monoliths: the explanation being that humanity itself is somehow responsible for their existence and timely appearances; that the ancestors are in fact being guided by the descendants. But unlike gods and extra-terrestrials, there are branches of physics which actively seek out and continue to find means by which the law-bending feats of survivalist exploration and trans-dimensional communication that take place in “Interstellar” can be explained. It’s a classic case of fiction being inspired to dream big and dream bold by the most radical and/or pioneering schools of scientific thought, and in this way it is very much of a kind with “2001: A Space Odyssey” which seemed to pre-empt the 1969 moon landing on the precedent of everything that had led up to Yuri Gargarin’s milestone 1961 trip aboard Vostok 1 and the trajectory of the Space Race thereafter. Perhaps it won’t be a mere year before humans begin sliding through space-time like mole rats and sending back messages from the future, but the latent hope present in science/speculative fiction is that it will somehow foreshadow actuality, however great the timespan between the two may be.
Following up his woeful “The Dark Knight Rises” with another “Inception”-like special effects extravaganza that indulges his obsession with malleable realities and flexible time, Christopher Nolan offers up a tale set in a frighteningly not-too-distant and very topical future where food shortage is a far greater scourge than war, presumably because Gaia is taking her last breaths after millennia of abuse at the hands of mankind. A still wiry Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an ex-NASA pilot/engineer turned farmer who – with his bright spark of a ten-year old daughter, Murphy – discovers a secret project spearheaded by his former employers, one aimed at seeking out a new home for earthlings. Intent on honouring his species’ age-old exploratory drive as well as securing a viable future for the human race, Cooper joins three other astronauts on a journey outside our solar system. Anne Hathaway, sporting what must be a post-“Les Miserable” head of short hair, returns to work with the British director after her memorable turn as Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Here she lends her body and her voice to the character of Dr Amelia Brand, one of Cooper’s fellow astronauts and the daughter of Professor John Brand, the chief scientist heading the “Lazarus missions” and the film’s Janus of sorts, wearing both the hat of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ at various points. As old man Brand, Michael Caine turns in the same kind of performance that Nolan draws from him in the Batman pictures: that of a painfully sympathetic idealist who sounds like he is perpetually choked-up with emotion. On a similar note, Hathaway, unlike her critic-silencing brilliance in the third Dark Knight film, seems – like most of the cast, to be perfectly honest – somewhat stunted by the didactic plottiness and afterthought characterisations of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay. The thing about Nolan pictures is that the individual performances within them which end up dazzling viewers – Heath Ledger’s The Joker and Hathaway’s aforementioned Catwoman to name but two – tend to do so in spite of a yoke-like plot threatening to strangle out much of their spontaneity. Ledger’s turn is so striking precisely because, as an actor, his ability to break free and create a character that seems to breathe in a seemingly airtight cinematic vehicle is totally and utterly simpatico with the philosophy of the character he is portraying, in that The Joker’s chaos injects something organic and accordingly exciting into the film. Sadly, the various burdens of “Interstellar” prove to be a force strong enough to stifle its largely promising cast filled with some ever dependable presences. In fact, the most interesting performance might belong, by the slightest margin, to the young actor Mackenzie Foy who plays the young version of Cooper’s daughter, Murphy, if only for the fact that her youth is something of a welcome counterpoint to the very ‘adult’ mode of weariness and tight-faced brooding that tends to suffuse this particular director’s films.
y = height = spectacle
“Interstellar” is to 2014 what “Gravity” was to 2013; no, not the space movie of the year, but the Hollywood-brand cinematic event that demands to be viewed seated in front of the largest possible screen and wrapped in the richest Dolby cocoon. Accordingly, Christopher Nolan, being militantly pro-film (that is to say, shooting on film stock as opposed to hard drives), has commanded his flock of fans and rabid defenders – as well as the general public – to see his latest offering projected in 70mm and/or on IMAX. Living a mere hour from the world’s (apparently) largest IMAX screen, in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, there are few excuses not to choose this viewing option. Sadly, though, apart from the intimidating size of the visuals during the colossal-wave-on-a-distant-planet sequence which, combined with the physical vibrations that growled through the auditorium seats in these very moments, most likely startled hundreds of pairs of eyes and butt cheeks, “Interstellar” did not seem to benefit whatsoever from the IMAX treatment. In fact, the picture might very well be considered to have been betrayed by its own native format. How else is one supposed to interpret the feeling of walking out of an IMAX theatre wishing that they had seen the movie on an average digitally-projected screen one-third the size?
Now, it may very well have been that the projection on this particular day was for some reason lacking, but it seemed as though the visuals were almost ill-suited to the format: dark, distractingly average in resolution and often poorly focused, none of which make a lick of sense because (a) under-exposure is a complaint more frequently directed at films projected in 3D, (b) IMAX film, being 70mm and capturing images at a whopping 18K, should be the pinnacle of motion picture resolution, and (c) Christopher Nolan, while inconsistent on certain fronts, is always technically impeccable and would not overlook focal flaws. Hyperbolic as it may sound, watching this film was at times akin to watching a pirated version projected onto a goliath of a screen. In addition, unless one is in the rearmost row, there is often an urge to scan the screen, even when seated right in the mid-axis. Were the movie more in awe of outer space, providing single long-held, panoramic shots of cosmic vistas, the act of physically panning one’s own field of vision up and down and left to right might have been warranted, even contributing to the sense that one is in fact staring out a spaceship window, glancing around wide-eyed. However, Nolan is not the kind of filmmaker to place the focus of interest on the peripheries of the frame, the result being that the eyes remain glued to the centre of the screen, creating a kind of blind-spot pan-and-scan. Most disappointing, though, is the fact that “Interstellar” is nowhere near the visual feast that it is touted as being. “The Tree of Life” would have been far more spectacular on IMAX, and not simply the ‘origins of the universe’ sequence but every spiritedly shot, swooping, crystalline image. As strange as it might sound, “Interstellar” is almost conservative (not necessarily reserved) in its depictions of space and space travel when compared to even recent films from the same corner of the sci-fi canon i.e. the aforementioned “Gravity” and Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine.” The question then becomes: does “Interstellar” have any actual fuel of its own – as a cinematic event – or is it coasting on the pedigree of its cast and crew and on the expectations that the name Nolan inspires? Because it is simply not as striking – in any sense – as Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 foray into space. The fact is, the financial success of “Interstellar” is a great deal more presaged and expected than was that of “Gravity” which did decent business almost in spite of its being something of a chamber film whose technical virtuosity was oftentimes more in service of the illusion of verisimilitude (as pertains to space-travel) and fluidity of visual narrative than it was of explosive set pieces, not that the film has a paucity of action or energy. In this sense, Nolan is either more commercial or more conventional than Cuaron, or both; because the way in which the experience of space travel – of weightlessness, claustrophobic vastness, infinite silence, loneliness – is imagined in “Gravity” seems to have been a major part of its Mexican director’s agenda, as is true of Kubrick’s approach with “2001,” subjecting the viewer to lengthy stretches of silence and isolation that simultaneously astonish and exasperate. On the other hand, for a film whose ambition and grandeur has been made much of in the lead-up to and surrounding its release, it would be inaccurate – and disappointingly so – to consider “Interstellar” particularly audacious in its depictions of space exploration. Everything from the hibernation pods to the videophone to the lone man hurtling through mangled space-time…all these have found their way onto the screen in the last century.
The one singularly unique touch that Nolan and his collaborators bring to the canon of ‘space cinema’ is the moderate scientific rigor with which cosmic entities and principles such as blackholes, wormholes and temporal relativity are dramatized visually and utilised narratively. When it comes to spectacle, Nolan seems less interested in awe than he is in exhilaration, and in this way he proves to be very much a filmmaker of his time, of this particular time. He has little patience for the visual grace of weightlessness or the endless black of outer space and doesn’t bother to dwell on these, with which there is nothing intrinsically problematic. But it is surprising that a film of such considerable length, set primarily in the vast unknown and cobbled together by a crew of artisans with access to the very best in SFX, is far too preoccupied with plot and action to at least take a moment to consider the wondrous fabric of the universe. What seems to fascinate Nolan more is the violence and raw power that might exist in worlds other than ours, whether it’s the aforementioned tidal wave, the undulating and muscular tundra landscape of another, or the unforgiving enormity of a blackhole. There is this, and there is the physical impact of interstellar travel on the human body. If memory is to be trusted, many a frame is focused on the faces of Cooper and his crewmates as they are assaulted by temperamental physical forces, whether breaking through earth’s gravitational hold or being swallowed by various space holes. The helmeted close-up shot of Keir Dullea’s character Bowman as he is transported through some kind of celestial kaleidoscope to his next stage of existence in “2001” seems to be a template for Christopher Nolan, who focuses as much on the fear, the thrill and the physical strain experienced and expressed by his spacefarers as he does on visualising the actual mechanics of interstellar travel or the wonders of nature.
z =depth = heart, mind and soul
Could it be that, with “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan is making a bid to rehabilitate his image as an emotionally disengaged director? From operatically earnest moments between a father and his young daughter to dusty deathbed scenes and unexpected kisses of joy and excitement replete with paper-throwing eureka-moments, this space epic seems intent on rebutting those who scoff at its director’s reputed lack of heart and sentiment, not that “Inception” or the Batman films were themselves resolutely ascetic.
It is a fairly commonly held view that Christopher Nolan is an unemotional filmmaker, a cold filmmaker, a distanced filmmaker…what have you. Perhaps it has to do with the sense of his films having a certain degree of technical exactitude what with the finicky parallel editing he frequently employs, or the plotlines he tends to dream up, akin to elephants riding trikes along highwires. Maybe it’s a result of his exposition-heavy storytelling, or the cool, crisp slickness of his images, or the fact that he is always in a suit, pouting like a prodigious ten-year-old. And while it may be accurate that, as a crafter of narratives, he seems to be driven more by a fascination with ideas, mechanics and metaphysics (at the risk of painting him in a particularly hifalutin light) than he is by an enduring commitment to exploring and documenting the emotional dimensions of the human makeup, he is not as rigorously intellectual as – say – late Godard, and shows no evidence of being in the least bit shy of staging big emotions and big moments between characters. So conflating some perceived what-ever-it-may-be with being cerebral is a bit of a misconception, because, despite the fact that Nolan’s films are frequently considered to be ‘mind-bending,’ intellectually slippery cinematic puzzles, his work has always had a foot planted firmly in the realm of psychology and emotion. From “Following” to “Interstellar,” the foundation of Nolan’s stories have been, almost unwaveringly, damaged men seeking to rectify something in hope that it might somehow rectify them. While they might adorn an outer shell of composed, dour professionalism, the force of their inner pain and their private obsessions eventually pierces through to the surface in scenes and moments that are oftentimes unwieldy. Perhaps the issue is not so much that Christopher Nolan eschews emotion, but that his films are so beholden to plot and theme that emotion and psychology simply become tools for the progression of plot and theme. Either this is the case, or he truly has zero interest in the emotional lives of his characters and awkwardly throws in obligatory moments of ‘feeling’ in order that they might seem three-dimensionally ‘human.’ Yet, anyone who views his films even glancingly cannot deny the importance of his characters’ inners states as a motivator of behaviour and a driver of plot. The reverse narrative of “Memento” would cease to exist if Leonard was not driven by apparent devotion to his dead wife, nor would Dom Cobb’s spiralling journey into the depths of consciousness in “Inception.” Even the gritty ‘realism’ for which the Dark Knight series is notable is more than partly dependent on the relative psychological richness of its cast of characters.
McConaughey’s Cooper proudly follows in the lineage of Nolan family men beaten down by loss (usually of a wife), and he is certainly up to the task from a performance point of view, though he is more serviceable than he is outstanding. Cooper’s two obsessions, indulging the inquisitive and pioneering human spirit and ensuring a secure future for his children, are what drive him to the peripheries of aberrant space-time. Yet, as with most Nolan protagonists, there is a strange disconnect, an odd disjuncture between Cooper’s devotion to his children and his devotion to exploring the great unknown in that the former does not necessarily explain or even justify the latter. In many ways, young Murphy is shrewd in refusing to give her old man the farewell that he is perhaps hoping for: tearful but agreeable. She most likely realises that his desire to spend several years wandering the cosmos is as much to satisfy his own radical instincts (if not more) as it is to find a new, safer haven for her and the rest of their species. As is the case with most of Nolan’s films, the broody, psychologically bared nature of this his most recent protagonist comes across as a somewhat convenient launching pad for a storyline that becomes increasingly more interested in tossing around the idea that reality is made of malleable fabric and in indulging whatever visual and narrative trickery this might allow. Perhaps this is the reason for Nolan coming across as ‘unemotional:’ his desire to create formalist spectacles outweighs his desire to ‘connect.’ This doesn’t necessarily negate him as a feeling being but rather speaks to his interest in cinema as an assaultive medium, hence his fondness for Hans Zimmer amongst other things.
There is a moment in “Interstellar” which perfectly illustrates the unfortunate offhanded convenience with which emotional ‘beats’ are employed in Nolan’s oeuvre. As Cooper and his remaining crewmates debate which previously scouted planet to spend their time – and more crucially, whole earth decades – exploring, it is abruptly made known, by Cooper, that Amelia Brand happens to be in love with one of their predecessors who never returned from his voyage and who still remains lost in space but is perhaps alive and stranded on some strange world, desperately trying to make contact; and boy is the moment clunky. Regardless of how sincere Amelia’s emotions may in fact be within the universe of the film, the sudden mention of this fact comes across as unashamedly expository and a very opportune way to introduce conflict and to reinforce the fact that these characters are motivated as much by selfishness as they are by selflessness and that the two can be blurred beyond distinction, at least in the minds of those in question. The surprise celebrity cameo, which had people whispering the actor’s name in the darkened theatres and whose entrance unwittingly recalls said actor’s recent comic trope, is another graceless attempt at moral complexity and ambiguity which ironically almost ends up creating the movie’s only true villain, if one had to be named; not that his thoughts and sentiments are villainous, only his methods. In ways that aren’t quite as manifestly transparent and ‘scripted,’ “Interstellar” and the cutting edge scientific precepts upon which the story is based continue to be undercut by misguided attempts at having a credible psycho-emotional core, something that Nolan would most certainly want any of his films to have. But maybe – in a move that would seem deeply counterintuitive for a filmmaker who may be battling the image that he is ‘cold’ and lacking a ‘human touch’ – Christopher Nolan would benefit from liberating himself from the burden of sentiment, emerging as a steadfastly conceptual writer-director. Not only would his films be even more efficient, they might become more thematically sound as its creators focus on the expression of ideas rather than on the consideration and replication of human emotion. However, as things currently stand, “Interstellar” is and will remain a slightly bloated oil-and-water mixture of ideas made stagnant, if not weakened, by an insistence on their being intertwined with a human story.
x = breadth = thematic and ideological scope
This word is pivotal to the story, coded into the paranormal Morse-code message that leads Cooper and Murphy to the secret NASA site. Due, however, to an absence of hindsight and a general disregard for the fact that this simple declaration may in fact be an earnest warning from someone somewhere beyond, Cooper does the very opposite and leaves, much to Murphy’s adolescent chagrin. But with this statement, is Cooper suggesting that his past self remain with his family instead of embarking on a fool-hardy expedition, or is he pleading with humanity as a whole to forget the ‘extra-‘ and focus on the terrestrial? Like Professor Brand and the pseudo-villainous pioneering astronaut Mann (Matt Damon doing his now famous comedic stuttering cry in the previously mentioned cameo, one whose casting is simultaneously silly and somewhat shrewd), is Cooper deciding to single-handedly damn humanity to a slow, hungry death on earth simply because of his guilt over choosing the stars over his children? Whatever the answer, it is thrown into the wastebasket when the older version of Murphy, rather than heeding her father’s warnings, proves to be her father’s daughter and somehow ignores it, propelling interstellar travel to the point that it becomes mankind’s salvation, however temporarily. Thus this word ‘stay’ becomes another example of the Nolan brothers’ tendency to craft untenable emotional underpinnings which are quickly shouldered aside by plot. Unless it is a very low-key critique of humanity’s propensity to ignore the obvious or semi-obvious at the risk of its own undoing.
But, for a movie that was expected – however unfairly – to be “Avatar”-like in its revolutionary use of cinema technology, or to at least be on par with “Inception” as the ultimate thinking jock’s blockbuster, the legacy of “Interstellar” will almost certainly hinge on its attempts at scientific accuracy, with both negative and positive implications. On the positive front, Nolan and his team of wizards have single-handedly supplanted all pre-existing visuals depictions of black holes as vortexes and gaping holes in an already abysmal blackness, surprising audiences with a brilliantly haloed sphere, one which is supported by current cosmological understanding. The same applies to the film’s depictions of wormholes as being spherical rather than circular. But is this scientific verisimilitude sufficient enough, though, to outweigh the negatives that pepper “Interstellar”? Especially considering that the filmmakers seem to be conflating fact with pure speculation, following-up the accuracy of a spherical black hole with a purely fantastical depiction of what might exist within said blackhole. Of course, a great degree of artistic license must be assumed by Nolan and his people in the making of such a picture, but might it not be still a touch disingenuous for “Interstellar” to present itself as scientifically correct while being wildly speculative within the same breath? By the same token, can it be reasonably expected that a film present clear, easily comprehensible 2D or 3D visual representations of concepts that involve far more than three dimensions, ones that still boggle some of our most powerful minds; ideas which up till now most likely only existed as densely jargoned paragraphs and unwieldy equations? Perhaps – as is the case with any artist that takes an interest in exploring and depicting those things that lie at the fringes of intellectual pursuit – misrepresentation, misunderstanding and general unwieldiness must be accepted as occupational hazards. So what with this particular depiction of the ultimate unknown? When Cooper is swallowed by the blackhole – (is he, though? Isn’t AI assistant TARS the one tasked with taking one for the team and propelling himself into the void?) – he finds himself floating around what looks like his old bookshelf on planet earth, only now repeating and folding in on itself in Escherian fashion, cascading into infinity. It’s curious that this particular space in which Cooper finds himself is based on something from his own memory: the bookshelf, the one thing which most likely remains for Murphy a souvenir of her father and his paternal legacy. In some ways this imagining of the inside of a blackhole could be considered lacking in imagination and almost obvious in its conception; obviously warped, disorienting and structurally ‘impossible’ in the way that most people would expect the bowels of this most enigmatic cosmological entity to look like, or at least as per Christopher Nolan’s mind. Most curious, though, is the way in which Cooper is able to interact with space-time fabric, represented here as bands of light and who knows what else, able to be ‘plucked’ like strings on a double bass. Is this intended to be a visual representation of String Theory? Because if it is, it is rather cute (not to be condescending) and may be the most effective distillation of unfathomably complicated theoretical physics pulled off by this team of filmmakers. This being said, it probably does relative detriment to the narrative of “Interstellar” to pick apart the manner in which science is folded into film dough. As previously said, is it reasonable to expect that a mainstream Hollywood (expected) blockbuster depict still unresolved scientific theories in a way that is both accurate and widely comprehensible to lay audiences? Most certainly not, and on this front, “Interstellar” likely does infinitesimally little to advance the efforts by throbbing brains around the globe to develop a theory which will hopefully unify the ever-growing number of often contradictory theories about the universe, its origins, its nature and it fate. On this note, “Interstellar” can rest easy on the fact that it contains the most accurate cinematic blackhole to date, which is something.
Even more complicated is the way in which the film deals with human self-preservation, wrestling – seemingly – with the tense relationship between individualism and communalism, selfishness and selflessness, and how these determine the Homo Sapien survivalist drive. Is Cooper’s decision to venture into deep space based primarily on a concern for the survival of mankind or is it simply spurred on by the love he has for his progeny (which is as much selfish as it is selfless considering that his genes will persist if his children do)? The murky morals of this are by far the most interesting intellectual aspect of “Interstellar,” far more than the half-baked physics. Interesting why? Well, consider the inciting incident of “Interstellar”: plague-like global famine, perhaps due to inhospitable soil and/or climates. It could be argued strongly that humanity’s overwhelming desire to survive paired with its ability to master (to some extent) its natural environment to the point of exploitation and eventual devastation is the very reason that planet earth becomes an increasingly hostile environment in which fewer and fewer crops are able to thrive. Just as a great deal of wonderful technology developed over the millennia have been tied directly to mankind’s desire to kill and dominate with efficiently i.e. military endeavours and such, the tragedy of this species might very well be that it’s ingenuity is its undoing. The tragedy thus extends into the narrative of ”Interstellar” in the sense that humanity, wherever it finds itself next in the universe, might be doomed by the very fact that it chooses to leave the mess it has created rather than learning to clean it up. In this way, the film could be viewed as an astute political comment, a clandestine criticism of those who deny humanity’s role in raping its own home. In fact, by taking place in a future when war is an abandoned human pursuit the film somehow posits that a dying planet (one being steadily killed by humanity) is a greater threat to the survival of our species than our own violent and hateful urges towards one another.
To regress directly back to the core theme at hand: what is the morality of survival, and does “Interstellar” have much if anything to say about it? Somewhere in the middle of the film, it is uncovered that Professor Brand’s true mission is to transport human embryos across the cosmos until a habitable world is found wherein they can be fertilised to kickstart a brand new human population. His villainy is not so much that he decides to abandon the present in hope for the future but that he sends Cooper and countless other astronauts into deep space on the premise that they will be saving the present throng of people. This is true; but in many ways, Prof. Brand’s actions display a degree of insight, however cynical, into the inherent selfishness of his own species, understanding that very few would willingly support a money guzzling project in the hope of maybe finding a new home for a bunch of eggs. So, putting Brand’s deceit aside, is it possible that he – and Damon’s character Mann – are the most selfless characters in the film, ultimately sacrificing themselves (along with everyone else) for the survival of mankind, or are they just coldly utilitarian, pursuing the most practical and achievable goal? Are they extreme examples of the domineering human spirit, more interested in intellectual pursuit, scientific achievement and personal legacy than they are in the species for whose benefit these endeavours should be undertaken. It’s murky territory indeed and it must be said that “Interstellar” doesn’t really seem intent on dipping its feet in this mire, but at least these issues are raised for those who are inclined to mull over them.
t = time = narrative and motion
“Interstellar” is nowhere near as temporally fiddly as “Inception,” which is clearly the benchmark by which the narrative audacity in Nolan’s most recent picture will be and is being judged. Even while that 2010 billion-dollar box-office smash is somewhat creatively bankrupt in the way that Nolan and friends choose to depict dream consciousness – that is, physically law-defying but nowhere near psychologically bizarre – the skilful agitation with which the various ‘dreams within dreams’ are arranged and narrated in parallel fashion demands to be noticed if not applauded. In comparison to “Inception” – in fact, in comparison to most movies – the parallel editing in “Interstellar” is frankly unremarkable, and even as it peaks towards the end of the film, little brain power at all is required to orient oneself to time and place. Unless a crucial oversight is being made here, there are only ever two (or maybe three) frames of reference running simultaneously alongside one another: earth time and McConaughey time (and perhaps spaceship time); this versus the five or six timelines that are juggled in “Inception.” In addition, the fact that many of the characters in that film exist within several of these timelines without much physical distinction makes for an increasingly complicated viewing experience, especially if one if the type of viewer who must be up to speed with the narrative as the film is unfolding. It truly is surprising to hear “Interstellar” being described as mind-bending, complicated or even difficult. Sure, the physics behind much of the story is fairly novel, if not radical, and well beyond the substantial comprehension of most who are not intimately versed in relativity and quantum theory. But the Nolan brothers are populists and so too their general approach to visualising the phenomenon of time relativity. The most that is done to create the sense that time crawls for one person while hurtling for another is for a subtle bit of makeup to be applied to actor David Gyasi who plays the physicist Romilly, one of Cooper’s astronaut buddies who ends up waiting twenty plus years in the spaceship ‘Endurance’ while Cooper and Brand screw around (not sexually) on the wave planet. In truth, there is probably little more that could imaginably be done to achieve this effect; unless perhaps a split screen technique is adopted in which one half depicts Cooper and company in real-time while the other shows earth in hyper fast-forward.
Only once Nolan’s filmography is considered as a whole does it become somewhat obvious how linear and modestly paced “Interstellar” actually is. This is not an unqualified criticism either. There are passages of runtime in this film which display the pinches of restraint and patience of which Nolan is capable, qualities which have subtly set him apart from most other purveyors of silver screen hubris and excess. Even as most of his movies move at a fairly urgent pace, replete with quick cuts, breathless exposition and scores that absolutely clobber the ears, part of the punch that a Nolan picture delivers lies is the realisation that someone has been pulling strings backstage, quietly, knowingly, in control. In the moment, his films can be almost sloppily frenetic; but underlying them is a degree of narrative fortitude and foresight, and a good grasp of how tension is built and released. Well, that patience has, to some extent, bled through into the editing and the rhythm of certain scenes in “Interstellar” and as a result the film breathes a great deal more than one might expect from something made by this director in this current phase of his career. “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises” must have been hopped up on some kind of low-grade stimulant that “Interstellar” thankfully refused (most of the time) or could not afford (as if). The only problem that arises is that a rushed pace can go some ways towards smoothing out or breezing over deficiencies in other departments which, when given time to be pored over, can be ruinous. But a picture that breathes, even just a little, will open itself – its plot, its performances, every tiny goof or inconsistency – to a heap of scrutiny, while it is being viewed, not just on further consideration. So while Nolan doesn’t seem intent on molesting as many senses as possible, the awkwardness of being an actor in one of his films becomes clear in that there seems to be a distinct paucity of spontaneity (as mentioned earlier), or even the illusion of it, in “Interstellar” amongst others. Characters are utilised as advancers of plot and any attempt at imbuing them with strokes of ‘nuance’ feels like an aside aimed at appeasing those who demand that their fictional people be ‘three dimensional’, whatever this term actually means with regards to psychological complexity. There are these, and then there are the numerous possible plot holes and inconsistencies that surface as the near three-hour runtime ticks along, including (a) why it is that astro-Cooper would send the word ‘stay’ along with the coordinates to the secret NASA site to his past self and young Murphy (unless he hopes that they would find and then somehow sabotage the place, and doesn’t count on the fact that earth-Cooper would be seduced and enticed by the idea of interstellar exploration); (b) why it is that Mann decides to prevent Cooper from returning back to earth to be with his daughter (unless his fear is that Cooper will expose Professor Brand’s true intentions and bring the wrath of the world’s population on the project); (c) why it is that a future society struggling to feed itself in an increasingly hostile physical factors opts for some sort of reflex reversion to hand-in-dirt , weather-dependent agricultural practice rather than succumbing to ‘evils’ like genetic modification and applying some space-age ambition and military gusto to large-scale crop production; (d) why it is that a director known for bringing grit and some semblance of ‘realism’ to a comic book universe finds it difficult to adhere to the simple scientific principle that a vacuum does not support loud explosions; (e) any number of other potential nit-picks that will most certainly ensure that “Interstellar” is not forgotten all too quickly.
love = the theory of everything human (?)
One of the final shots of “Interstellar” is of a teary-eyed Amelia Brand, standing on the planet which turns out to be the final resting place for the man she loved. At the recommendation of his daughter Murphy (who is old enough to be his grandmother and old enough to be played by the legendary Ellen Burstyn by the end of the film), Cooper jets off to find Amelia, as though she is and always was his destiny. This conclusion, it must be said, is poor in conception, execution aside. Having failed to provide any indication whatsoever that Cooper and Brand see each other as anything more than space colleagues, the movie seems to expect – out of the blue – that Cooper and Brand are meant for each other, for some reason unknown or unexplored other than that which relates to their both being young, fit and attractive astronauts. Call it nit-picking, but there is something unpalatably transactional about old Murphy’s romantic suggestion, almost as though Brand is being – for want of a better word – pimped out to Cooper, perhaps because she is the only woman who is compatible with him on some grand temporal scale,.
Moving on from the above, Amelia gives her now (in)famous brief impassioned speech somewhere near the middle of “Interstellar” during which she raises, somewhat cornily, the idea that love might be, like gravity, a force that is able to transcend dimensions whether there are three as per Euclides, or eleven as in M Theory. According to her, the main drive behind all of humanity’s grandest achievements is not so much survival per se, but love; love for one’s family, friends, peers, society and – if one chooses to be cynical – oneself. Assuming that the only thing particularly problematic about Brand’s sentiment is the sentimental manner in which she expresses it (and the fact that she indulges in this moment of oratory out of sudden lovesickness), it must be said that she might be absolutely spot on; not necessarily with regards to love being some physical entity that can be factored into all manner of calculations and models, but in the sense of it being a powerful phenomenon whose true durability is frankly quite humbling. In a move that is somewhat unprecedented for a filmmaker as ‘cold’ as Christopher Nolan, “Interstellar” is most consistently a film about – cheesy as it may sound – the notion that for all the intellectual potential and capacity that humans possess collectively, the most significant, most powerful driving force behind most of our endeavours is devotion to something whatever that something is, whether an individual or an idea. The film’s insistence on the affection and devotion that can exist and thrive between father and daughter or man and humanity or man and idea prevents it from being the cerebral spectacle that people seemed to expect it to be. For all its giant screen bombast, being rooted in the one emotion/state of mind that has preoccupied earthlings since time immemorial gives it a modesty that belies its form, thus making it weirdly unique in the Nolan canon. But there is a somewhat darker reading of Brand’s earnest words, one which extracts love from its place of positivity and warmth and positions it as being potentially constructive and destructive concurrently. If there is one truth which millennia of human civilisation have taught us, it’s that love is no simple matter. To be conveniently reductive, the love for oneself, one’s kin, one’s nation…all these can and have arguably been fuel for hate. And while it’s debatable whether love for one thing can in fact beget hate for another, the ambiguity inherent in this four letter word is interesting indeed. So while Amelia might wax elegiacally about the power of love, she might want to consider how much this crazy little thing has contributed to humankind’s feats versus its innumerable foibles. Perhaps the further reaches of the universe would be better off without mankind and its dangerous penchant for what it believes to be love.
Tagged: 2001, 70mm, amelia, anne hathaway, blackhole, caltech, christopher nolan, cinema, cooper, crops, david gyasi, dimensions, embryos, endurance, engineer, epic, exploration, farmer, farming, gravity, humanity, IMAX, inception, interstellar, jessican chastain, jonathan nolan, kip thorne, kubrick, lazarus mission, lie, love, mann, matt damon, matthew mcconaughey, message, michael caine, monolliths, morse code, murphy, NASA, new planet, physics, pilot, pioneering, relativity, space, space travel, starvation, string theory, survival, the dark knight, time, time travel, wave, wormhole