comment, directors, Movies, science fiction

Interstellar, sentimentality and spoiler paranoia

You’ve all seen Interstellar now right? If you haven’t, best to stop reading here. While I’m not planning to write one of those 100 bullet point articles analysing every fucking plot point in the movie, I will undoubtedly wander into spoiler territory. As with every Christopher Nolan movie, anticipation of Interstellar’s arrival was high, stoked by the first teaser trailer appearing a full year out (Whoa! Corn fields! Exciting).

In this heightened high oxygen environment the slightest suggestion of a spoiler could spark the flames of cineaste ire. For example reviews mentioning that Jessica Chastain played the adult daughter of hero cooper (Matthew McConaughey’s character) were pilloried for giving away too much by people who clearly hadn’t seen the movie yet.

This level of spoiler paranoia is somewhat understandable, but it does also beg the question ‘why are you reading reviews in the first place?’ The identity of Chastain’s character is plainly obvious from the first full trailer. It is also immediately obvious in the film’s opening scenes when Cooper’s daughter is introduced as a 10 year old (an excellent performance from young actress McKenzie Foy) and she has the same distinctive hail colour. Finally anyone how has ever read a hard SF novel and has noticed the film is called INTERSTELLAR, ought to realise the basic implications of the physics involved in space travel (if you don’t, I recommend the novel The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, it will blow your mind).

So, this isn’t a review as much as a rambling appreciation, and as such there will be spoilers (it is tedious to me that I now have to put SPOILER WARNING in front of every other thing, but hey ho). Oh, there will also be Dark Knight spoilers too.

So Interstellar… Nolan’s film has become one of the more divisive major releases of 2014. I rather like divisive films, its often a sign there is something interesting going on under the hood. There’s nothing wrong with a consensus, I’m not committed to being absolutely contrary about every-fucking-thing (stop sniggering at the back of the class). Some movies are just good right? But a film that a significant amount of people hate, and a notably similar amount of people absolutely love? There is always something going on there.

I won’t string out the suspense any longer, I’m firmly in the pro-Interstellar camp. While other opinions are available (and as valid as mine) there does seem to be a strange backlash against Christopher Nolan which I don’t really understand. I’m not a die hard fan, I admire Nolan’s ambitions to make large scale idea driven films but that does not translate into universal acclaim. I’m not a fan of The Prestige, and I found The Dark Knight Rises to be overblown, ponderous and frequently preposterous. There can be a certain humourlessness to Nolan’s films which is often confused with emotional coldness (something he appears to slyly acknowledge in Interstellar with a running gag involving a robot’s humour sub-program leading to regrettable attempts at levity such as threatening to ‘blow you all out the airlock’ during mission take-off).

Perhaps there is also a resentment of Nolan’s role as the saviour of celluloid following the digital revolution of the last decade (and a bit). This is a role in which he appears to take no small amount of pride. Young filmmakers often do not have the luxury of shooting on film, and resent being told they should do so. Except Nolan isn’t really saying that, and his arguments about the importance of film as an archival resource are demonstrably correct (and he is following Scorsese’s lead in that regard).

Nolan is in a privileged position sure, but one he has earned. If film could talk it would tell you it couldn’t wish for a better champion. Hollywood has foisted enough gimmicks upon us in its time, so if Nolan wants to use his power and box office success as leverage to persuade the studios to continue to support film as a shooting and exhibition medium more power to him.

I don’t buy the argument that Nolan’s films are ‘cold’, one of the greatest triumphs of his Batman films is the amount of warmth that the characters of Alfred and Jim Gordon bring to the films. The emotional pain that Bruce Wayne feels in response to the death of Rachel Dawes is palpably real in The Dark Knight. However, Interstellar is sentimental to an extent that the filmmaker has not explored before.

Sentimentality gets a bad rap, mawkishness and/or schmaltz (not the matzo balls kind) are supposed to mean ‘excessive sentimentality’ but now they have becomes synonyms. Sentimentality in art should mean the exploration of feelings and emotion to reveal truth. In the age of irony truth is as much the enemy as sentiment, but it is a little too on the nose to admit that.

Interstellar taps into some powerful and primal forces that have motivated and inspired art, religion and science throughout human history, especially the refusal to reconcile with the idea of death, of extinction, of oblivion. The film explores this idea on an apocalyptic scale, but also on a very personal and intimate level. At some time in the near future a blight causes mass starvation and a reduction in population. Rather than find an equilibrium, the process leads the human race towards a point of extinction.

Because of the scarcity of resources, human technological progress has gone into regression. This is shown in a terrific scene where Cooper, a former NASA engineer and test pilot, is called to a meeting at his daughters school. She has been fighting with other children over the now accepted version of history that holds that the moon landings were faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Cooper is of course outraged by this suggestion, but the teachers tell him the world does not need any more engineers, it needs farmers. Of course given the (suppressed) truth that the population are facing certain doom from starvation followed by suffocation as nitrogen replaces the oxygen in the atmosphere, engineers is precisely what the world needs.

Or more exactly, pilots. After their discovery of a gravitational anomaly leads Cooper and daughter Murph to stumble upon the operations of a now covert NASA, Professor Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine) explains the severity of the problems facing the human race and persuades him to pilot a desperate mission through a wormhole in the hope of finding a habitable world in a new galaxy. Of course this means leaving his family behind, with no guarantee of return. So slim are the chances of success, that Brand has devised a plan B, the continuation of the human race by seeding a new world with a ‘pre-fab’ population grown in-vitro from frozen eggs that the mission will also carry.

Interstellar has gathered predictable comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969). These are not entirely unwarranted, the sequences involving travel through the wormhole and later into a black hole do owe something the the impressionistic special effects of Kubrick’s ‘ultimate trip’. On the whole however the comparison is less than helpful. A film Interstellar resembles far more is Robert Zemekis’s under-appreciated Contact (1997). Adapted from a novel by Carl Sagan, Contact was about an alien intelligence making contact with earth through radio waves. The aliens choose to communicate with the film’s protagonist by appearing to her in the form of her dead father. The film is very much about the connection between a child and their lost parent, and how these very human emotions are universal and can transcend time and space.

In many ways, Interstellar is Contact from the point of view of the father. Cooper leaves his children in an attempt to save not only them but also the entire human race, being ten years old his beloved daughter Murph is unable to comprehend this sacrifice. The subsequent plot finds a villain in gravity and time, by visiting a planet in the orbit of a black hole, Cooper and his fellow astronauts find fall prey to a time distortion in which a hour for them represents years on earth. Nolan then cuts between Cooper and the mission in progress and the loved ones growing old on Earth in a world creeping closer and closer to Armageddon.

Incidentally McConaughey was also in Contact, playing on of the most three dimensional characters of faith to be found in a secular science fiction film)

The brilliant comic-book author Grant Morrison has described the super-hero narrative as an attempt to “fight against the idea that we are doomed”*, this is also very much the driving force behind Interstellar only rather than find its avatar in the last son of a dead world, it finds it in a very human character, a father trying to keep a promise to his daughter (it should be noted that the son does not really get a look in). A scene of McConaughey’s face collapsing in grief as he receives a burst of videotaped messages from his children spanning years whilst mere minutes of screen time have passed for him, is among the most affecting scenes I’ve come across in 2014, and also a superb showcase for McConaughey’s talents as an actor.

I don’t know what Grant Morrison thinks of Interstellar (I very much love to find out) but I suspect he’d love it, in particular the way that Nolan attempts to grapple with the notion of an intelligence of extraterrestrial origin that may even be divine. The fifth dimensionality of the later stages of Interstellar’s plot would surely appeal to Morrison.

All this discussion of sentiment and emotion, may lead you to believe that the film is primarily cerebral, in fact this is far from the truth. While it may more blatantly attempt to play the heart strings than any previous Nolan film, Interstellar is still filmmaking on a grand scale. There are several scenes where image, sound, performance, and score combine to produce pure alchemical gold. In the sequence intercutting Cooper tearfully leaving his farmhouse overlaid with the sound of the countdown and takeoff sequence as the mission leaves earth is John Ford level filmmaking (the camera move out of the farmhouse and into the light simply has to be a conscious reference to The Searchers). In the film’s second half there is a sustained sequence of action and suspense that must last at least thirty minutes and during which I nearly swallowed my fist.

Alongside the terrific performances, the luminous cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema, and great special effects, special mention has to be made to Hans Zimmer’s incredible score which is by turns both thunderous in its bombast, but also subtle and emotionally affecting. The music really comes into its own in the film’s second half after it leaves orbit.

And yet this is a flawed film joining a select group of movies good enough that they can survive a terrible ending (this includes Kathrine Bigelow’s Near Dark, and the original theatrical version of Blade Runner). The ultimate denouement of the film is unsatisfactory enough, but I have been toying with the idea that it may make more sense on a rematch. However Nolan then adds an unnecessary coda that makes explicit themes that would have been much better left ambiguous. In particular the nature of the intelligence that has created the worm-hole (a non natural phenomenon) is something that loses impact in explanation. It reminded me of the inferior director’s cut of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, in which everything that was mysterious and compelling about the original version of the film, evaporates in a morass of pseudoscientific explanation. Interstellar is not as hobbled as this, but I’m far from the only person to wish it had finished fifteen minutes earlier.

As for the much discussed wonky science and plot holes, I’m not a theoretical physicist, neither are most of the people complaining, and frankly I don’t give a shit when the film feels emotionally true.

Amongst the many cookie cutter blockbusters and franchise pictures (which have their place) a film like Interstellar dares to be something different, filmmakers like Nolan, and Robert Zemeckis before him, should be celebrated.

*the Morrison quote is from this brilliant interview, which is a recommended read

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