Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Interstellar















INTERSTELLAR – 70 mm IMAX                   B                
USA  Great Britain  (169 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Christopher Nolan          Official site

This is William Benteen, who officiates on a disintegrating outpost in space.  The people are a remnant society who left the Earth looking for a Millennium, a place without war, without jeopardy, without fear, and what they found was a lonely, barren place whose only industry was survival.  And this is what they’ve done for three decades: survive; until the memory of the Earth they came from has become an indistinct and shadowed recollection of another time and another place.  One month ago a signal from Earth announced that a ship would be coming to pick them up and take them home.  In just a moment we’ll hear more of that ship, more of that home, and what it takes out of mind and body to reach it.  This is the Twilight Zone.

—Rod Serling’s opening narration for On Thursday We Leave for Home, an episode of The Twilight Zone that originally aired May 2, 1963

Not everybody can work with a $165 million dollar budget.  Christopher Nolan, however, who started with the low budget indie films FOLLOWING (1998), made for just $6000 dollars, and MEMENTO (2000), made for $9 million, quickly entered the Hollywood big leagues with blockbuster budgets for THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) for $185 million, INCEPTION (2010) for $160 million, and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) for $250 million, so really we’re talking about a guy whose films have grossed over $3.5 billion dollars.  If one looked at the word “excessive” in the dictionary, there is likely to be a photo of Christopher Nolan.  To his credit, however, is his commitment to shooting on film instead of digital, along with his refusal to join the 3D bandwagon, where those theaters equipped with either 35 mm or 70 mm projectors were the first to screen the film, in some cases weeks before the mainstream digital theaters, getting a jump on the paying customers.  IMAX supposedly did 30% of the opening weekend business though they comprise a much smaller number of theaters.  While his films always do well commercially, making him one of the more influential directors working today, he is perhaps best known as a skilled technician, where he often impresses with his technical inventiveness and visual flair, but is often lacking in his ability to generate memorable performances, where his characters often have a disconnect with the audience, failing to generate warmth or intimacy, often dwarfed by a more gloomy larger canvas, earning him a reputation as a “cold” and sterile director that likes to make philosophical puzzle pictures.  In mounting a sweeping outer space epic, one steeped in the minutia of scientific research, where one expects visual largesse on a grand scale, he certainly delivers a spectacular adventure, especially when seen on an IMAX screen, but what’s most surprising is his insistent focus on the human element, something altogether missing from his other pictures, reaching out, perhaps to an even wider audience, as if he’s attempting to respond to his critics.  Perhaps impressed by the overwhelming response to Gravity – 3D (2013), winner of 7 Academy Awards, including Best Direction and Cinematography, yet it’s mostly a smaller film at only 90-minutes that accentuates the interior thoughts of one of the characters, so Nolan tries to do much the same without sacrificing the grandiosity of the visual design, though both have mixed results with their efforts.     

Like Nolan’s other works, however, the film is highly uneven, reaching the upper realms of spectacle, but also the preposterous, where there are many scenes that are unintentionally amusing, where the viewer is literally laughing at the ridiculousness of the movie.  Part of the reason for this is how serious the film takes itself, wrapped in a jumble of scientific theory and explanation, with occasional extraordinary moments, but overall it comes across as cheesy as a high tech Star Trek adventure, where the captain of the mission displays a reckless cowboy mentality, where the journey to explore new worlds was the setting for taking giant risks, often jeopardizing the lives of the crew, but in the fiction of a television series or the movies the gamble always pays off.  This mentality represents a comic book military mindset of America as the master of the universe, an extremely macho approach where women are reduced to secondary characters when it comes to the action sequences, as the men had to fight out their differences on an interplanetary stage.  This couldn’t be better illustrated than an extended sequence on a remote frozen planet where the two men in charge, both in full-body space suits, actually grapple for control of the entire mission, fighting like kids a zillion miles from home, where the future of the earth depends upon the outcome.  It’s a laughable moment featuring two big-named Hollywood stars, where despite all the scientific mumbo jumbo, it comes down to the childish antics of children to decide the outcome of the human race.  Of course it’s not filmed for humor, but remains dead serious throughout, but it’s moments like this where the audience literally disassociates itself from what’s happening onscreen, attributable to the juvenile writing team of Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan.  Written by men, glorifying the heroic feats of men, these are like mini war movies where you can count on one side always winning, and that would be the side that represents “truth, justice, and the American way,” an extension of the typical American mindset that we’re the center of the universe and everything has to revolve around us, where the American flag is firmly planted in every planetary outpost.  It’s a very selfish and reckless point of view that we transport around the world through movies, as if that’s our foreign policy, and it doesn’t exactly play so well with others.  What this film also has in common with Gravity – 3D, besides both being written exclusively by men, is accentuating the emotionalism of scientifically trained women, where despite all their rigorous training, their character breaks down in a panic at the moment of truth, exactly the opposite of the behavior of the men, and while this may be more dramatically opportunistic, it’s also blatantly sexist. 

What we discover from the outset is we’re already living in an apocalyptic phase, where much of the earth has already been lost to blight and disease, where it’s become a wave of perennial dust storms leaving only a few survivors left in the American heartland that actually resembles the look of Kansas in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939).  What few farms are left seem to be dwindling, where the question of repopulating the earth is everpresent.  There is a generational gap between the old ones who remember the world as it was, and the new kids that only understand the present, where living under the current circumstances is all they know.  We see the world through the eyes of Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, a former NASA trained pilot who just lost his wife, and is living with her father (John Lithgow) while raising his two kids, 15-year old Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and his younger sister, 10-year old Murph (Mackenzie Foy).  Tom is acclimated to being a farmer, realizing its worth in this new world, while Murph is more like her father, where both are dreamers that wonder about what lies beyond, filled with curiosity about things they can’t understand.  Knowledge has taken a back seat to practicality in this tiny corner of the earth, where there’s some question whether or not they will survive, where Murph is amusingly reprimanded at school for still believing what her father taught her, as students are now taught the Apollo moon mission was a hoax designed to bankrupt the Soviet Union, an intriguing hint of a society that mistrusts science, where Cooper laments, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars, now we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt.”  Foy’s energy is terrific and one of the best aspects of the film, where she introduces a theory that her room is infiltrated by ghosts, as she believes they are trying to communicate with her.  Of course no one takes her seriously except her Dad who is well versed in science, suggesting she collect sufficient data to prove her case, so she jots down notes and keeps a notebook.  After one particularly potent storm, her room takes on a mysterious look where all the sand has landed in a recognizable pattern on the floor.  Dad’s expertise figures out this is a binary message of earth’s coordinates, listing a particular location not far away.  When he sets out on his own, Murph has stowed away in his truck, where they discover a secret facility surrounded by protective wire.  As he inquires further, he discovers an underground world completely separate from the rest of the earth.  Incredulously, this is the remnants of NASA, living undetected on what amounts to an underground science station.  Yes, it gets a but tricky if you try to understand how they build and finance rocket launches when the rest of the earth has retreated several hundred years into an agrarian society.  Like a moth led to a flame, NASA immediately introduces Cooper as their pilot on their next space launch.  Go figure.  

Michael Caine plays Professor Brand, the leading mind behind continued NASA space exploration, where the theory is earth is a dying planet, where they need to find a new planet that can sustain human life, eventually transporting the remaining people on earth to that planet where they can repopulate.  While it may seem impossible, they discover a wormhole near Saturn that allows them a glimpse into another solar system where several planets look “promising,” though they need exploration and hard corps scientific data to begin such a massive transport.  To Cooper’s surprise, they have already sent astronauts Miller, Edmunds, and Mann to explore the three most potentially habitable planets, where they remain stranded and need Cooper to pilot an experimental mission to investigate, retrieve the men and their data, and return to earth for the next phase.  Joining Cooper on the mission is Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), a trained biologist, Romilly (David Gyasi), a physicist, Doyle (Wes Bentley), a geographer, and two artificially intelligent robots, TARS and CASE.  Saying goodbye to his family is difficult, especially Murph, who feels he is abandoning them, leaving them to die on earth, though he promises to return, giving her a matching watch, informing her that when he does return, based on time differentials in space travel, they may be about the same age.  And with that, they blast off into a spectacular space adventure, filled with thrills and chills and unexpected turns in the road, much of which must be improvised on the spot, yet Cooper’s cool head prevails, guiding them into the unknown with the macho confidence of a fighter pilot.  After watching all the razzle dazzle of this film, and there is plenty, the key to understanding it all is not a prolific understanding of science, but to remember that Matthew McConaughey earlier in his career was “trained” as a skilled NASA pilot.  As he was engineering unheard of maneuvers on the fly, putting various space vessels through a complicated series of adrenaline-racing obstacle tests, each one more life threatening than the last, where it’s impossible to believe that any of this could really happen, it’s important to remember that he was “trained” for this mission.  This amusing thought will carry you all the way through, where he is William Shatner’s equal in the cojones department, where both are always called upon to perform miracles in saving their crew from almost certain death.  Unlike Shatner, however, McConaughey has a family to return to, where that solid connection is the life force of the movie.        

Perhaps the scene of the film happens relatively early, after visiting the first planet, which had to be quick, as each hour on the surface represents seven years on Earth, taking an exploratory team in a shuttle craft while Romilly remained on the space craft, turning into a disaster, not only losing precious time, but one of their crew members, all happening in an instant, yet they return to Romilly 23-years later, where they have to regroup, recalibrate what’s possible, and push ahead with their mission.  It’s here that the crew members have some sobering down time to view the messages sent from earth, where Cooper receives heartfelt messages from his son, who has grown into a man, and hears about the life he left behind, where Murph is still too angry to speak to him, a painful reminder of the true cost of this mission, and a tearful moment that connects a lone man to the family he’s trying to save.  Because it’s been so long without any word from him, they’ve all abandoned hope that he’s still alive or even capable of receiving these messages, which come to a sudden stop.  It’s in the somber reflections of this moment that we realize what Nolan is really trying to do, where all the visual grandeur and elaborate special effects hides the film’s true intent, which is to tell a simple love story about a man and the family he left behind, filled with all his regrets and painful reminders of what he’s missing as he’s gallivanting through unknown intergalactic realms, yet his mission is not over until he returns safely back home.  Jessica Chastain becomes the adult version of Murph, eventually taking over after the death of Professor Brand, where it seems like she’s the only person left on earth that still believes in Cooper’s unlikely return.  Of course, on the other side of it, Cooper is faced with insurmountable obstacles and continual disappointments through unforeseen technical difficulties and inhospitable planets, becoming a sci-fi, mind-altering version of No Exit for awhile where he thinks he’s reached the 5th dimension while still stuck in the 3rd dimension, recalling the intricate visual architecture of INCEPTION (2010), floundering in a fractured, in-between existence where he has to solve the scientific riddle of how to make the missing connection, where there is plenty from this film that will remind viewers of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), also shot in 70 mm, or Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).  If there’s a stark image that comes from this film it’s the thought of individuals marooned on a lonely planet, awaiting the near hopeless dream that someone will come to rescue them, a reference to an early 1963 Twilight Zone episode, On Thursday We Leave for Home, The Twilight Zone S04E16 On Thursday We ... - YouTube (52:12).  This existential void of loneliness is countered by the strength of family connections, where it feels altogether improbable and downright sappy to introduce love into the middle of a giant sci-fi epic, as if that is the magical connecting piece that binds us all together, as otherwise we’re left adrift, stranded in utter isolation, imprisoned by our own futile limitations.  

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