Saturday, November 29, 2014
Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014) is wonderful in just about every respect and, as science fiction, a monumental achievement. The movie is a two-hour and forty minute spectacle in which the viewer's interest never lags, and that delivers one marvel after another. Science fiction is successful when it provokes thoughts, inspires awe and wonder, and depicts human beings as heroic explorers confronting vast expanses of space and time. With respect to these criteria, Interstellar, is wholly successful. Of course, certain deficiencies are also characteristic of science fiction and, even, afflict its greatest works -- for instance, Tarkovsky's Solaris and Kubrick's 2001 a Space Odyssey. (It is high praise to say that Interstellar closely resembles both of these films; indeed, Nolan's film is as gravely serious, humorless, and philosophical as its great precursors.) Interstellar's characters are dull, inadequately realized, and, mostly, mouthpieces for scientific and speculative discourse that never seems really plausible as anything that a real person might say. Matthew McConnaughy, haggard as always, gives a powerful, if monotonously single-minded performance -- it's as good as it needs to be given that the exploration of inner space, that is character development, is not the raison d'etre of film of this kind. The other actors are just serviceable, none of them really bad except, perhaps, the hapless Matt Damon, who plays a villain with motives that the movie doesn't really bother to articulate. There is a lot of lame exposition in the film and many ejaculations about "singularities" and "wormholes" that are, more or less, blatantly nonsensical. Nolan, despite the narrative complexity of his films, is not a strong director when it comes to providing clarity of action in his stories (his Batman films are unbelievably bad) -- frequently, he neglects important clues as to meaning or presents information too early for the audience to grasp it's narrative significance. The ghostly poltergeist phenomena that provides the focus of the film's first quarter hour is not visualized in a way sufficient for us to understand exactly what is happening and this turns out to be a defect since crucial plot points turn on that activity. Nolan's narrative approach to his material is frequently elliptical -- we never understand with any clarity exactly what calamity has befallen the world or why everyone has to become a farmer in what looks like Alberta, Canada. When Jessica Chastain ignites a cornfield in the movie's climactic sequence, we have no idea what motivates her. Certainly, the holocaust of the burning fields provides a visually effective counterpoint in the fugal construction of the movie's last half hour -- McConnaughy rocketing through a black hole in which space and time are warped crosscut with an immense prairie fire threatening the family home back on earth -- but I can't figure out why she lit the fire in the first place. (The images of the fire as well as the prairies of Alberta summon to mind another influence on Nolan's film, the works of Terrance Malick, in particular the blazing prairie in Days of Heaven.) But none of this really matters. The purpose of this film is to inspire awe and wonder at the majestic indifference of the universe and this the movie achieves magnificently. Hans Zimmer's score features the kind of rolling arpeggios and slowly amplified crescendos that Philip Glass orchestrated for Scorsese's Kundun and an important element of the film is the use of the music to create a rhythm emphasizing the grandeur of the action that we are shown. (Zimmer's work mimics the end of Kundun in which Glass' soundtrack rises to a thunderous repetitive roar as we see the Dalai Lama struggling to escape Tibet -- it's a fantastic effect that Zimmer replicates to create a sense of religious awe. Of course, I worry that the same musical score might create a sense of religious awe underlying images of cooking a tuna casserole or walking a poodle; there's a sense in which the spectacular soundtrack cheats a little both in Kundun and Interstellar inflecting the images with a power that they may not exactly have earned.) The plot of Interstellar is beside the point: some kind of plague has destroyed civilization and forced people to revert to farming that is becoming, more or less, unsustainable in the face of vast apocalyptic dust storms. Humanity must leave earth to survive. NASA, hiding inside mountains in Canada or Montana, has sent 12 probes through a worm-hole to distant galleries looking for habitable planets. McConnaughy and his team set forth through the wormhole to explore worlds that earthlings might colonize, planets from which promising signals have been received from the advance parties. It is a race against time since life on earth seems imminently threatened by malign climactic changes.. In this film, as in 2001 and Solaris, the immense distances of interstellar space are dramatized in terms of the time required to cross them. Relativistic effects are integral to Interstellar and the theme of the movie, in fact, is time -- the way we experience time and the fact that it can be atomized into a series of moments, a theme of profound significance apparently to Nolan, whose breakthrough film, Memento, dramatized this issue in terms of a man suffering from an inability to recall the immediate past, a hero lost in a maze of present-tense time. At the end of Interstellar, the themes of Memento are materialized in literal labyrinth of moments, an extraordinary image that I a triumph of Nolan's imagination and his design team. The movie is full of fantastic and moving sequences, many of them exploiting the sense that as humans we are trapped in the remorseless flow of time, like ants in amber. Indeed, some of these scenes are so powerful that people were openly weeping in the audience when I attended the film. There are waves on one planet as tall as Mount Everest; on another planet, the space ship knocks off pieces of floating and frozen clouds. Towering dust storms block out the sunlight on earth, a place that comes to look as desolate as the uninhabited worlds explored by the space adventurers. Nolan's trademarks from Inception are on display in even more elaborate and spectacular special effects -- a baseball hit up in a pop fly smashes through a window in a house overhanging the field, the interior of the space station is curved so that city streets are wrapped around the inside of the arch to form a sky to the playground. In the Black Hole, things elongate into bands of color and there are a million rooms each mirroring one another, a recursive brownish labyrinth expanding in all directions. On the ice-world, two men fight in their space suits and the camera shows them alone grappling in an enormous landscape -- it's like the brutal climax of Stroheim's Greed, when the two protagonists beat one another to a pulp while handcuffed together in Death Valley. This is an extraordinary movie, highly serious, an example of the pictorial sublime, and one that I highly recommend.