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Interstellar

Interstellar

I often look up at the night sky and wonder if Matthew
McConaugey is looking down upon me

dir: Christopher Nolan

2014

Last year’s big entry in the ‘serious’ science fiction genre was a lot more ambitious than Gravity. Don’t get me wrong, Gravity was plenty ambitious, but its ambitions were reserved towards putting the main character through an increasingly more technically complicated wringer with the desperate hope of getting back home always dangling just out of reach.

Interstellar is bigger. It’s not aiming for the atmosphere (or lack thereof) just above our planet. It’s aiming to become the next generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If that was truly the case, it should have aimed to be a hell of a lot more tedious.

I know 2001 is a classic. I know this because everyone keeps saying it’s a classic. The same consensus tells me that Forrest Gump and Titanic are classics. So if everyone says something is a classic, ipso facto it’s a classic.

With that established, as I repeat every time the topic of 2001 comes up, I cannot for the life of me stay awake during that goddamn film. The only time it didn’t put me to sleep it was showing at the Astor cinema, and I was a child seeing it for the first time, confused out of my mind, but wide-eyed.

Every time I’ve seen it subsequently it has put me to sleep so deep you could transport me in cryosleep to Saturn and I’d neither awaken nor age during the two year journey.

Interstellar is too new, and not filmed in exactly the same way, and has an even more complicated story that 2001 to be as sleep inducing as the earlier film. It yearns to be seen as ‘prestige’ cinema, as opposed to the thousands of flicks that ripped off 2001 for worthy or dubious ends over the decades.

It’s not without its problems, but for now I have to say I was equally confused and impressed by the endeavour.

The film opens with a pilot in some kind of craft having some difficulties. It looks like he’s going to crash. And then he wakes up sweating!

His daughter asks him if he had that dream again. Oh yeah, that old dream.

The daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) is really attached to the father, but she could also be mentally ill. I mean, she keeps thinking there are ghosts and poltergeists in her bedroom trying to communicate with her.

I mean, that’s just so unlikely, right?

The father, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer, but one who yearns for the skies again. He is in the mould of the astronaut heroes America used to produce like Yuri Gagarin or Laika, or all those monkeys who were shot into space, never to return.

I’m not sure entirely when this story is set, but it’s not now. It’s some time in the future, when things are slightly more desperate than they are now. Something completely out of the blue that could never have been predicted by anyone has happened, and crops are starting to fail across the world. A blight has blighted certain crops, and when those crops fail, like wheat, they burn what remains and produce one other monoculture crop, until the blight catches up to that one, then they burn that one etc.

The last crop remaining is corn. It’s not made explicit in the flick (the Earth being doomed, DOOMED is made explicit, and often), but I got the feeling from something that Cooper’s father-in-law (John Lithgow) says that much of the world’s population is already gone.

We find out from a parent-teacher interview at Cooper’s son’s school that virtually any child that isn’t a supergenius is pushed to work in agriculture, because the remaining masses need food above all else. We don’t see what life is like in cities anymore, or get a sense of what civilisation is like on most of the planet, just that it’s bad, and dust storms are starting to cover everything.

These old talking head interviews start the film, reoccur, and come in at the end as well for a special summary, and it’s never clear whether they’re talking about the (fictional, future) blighted era, or whether they’re talking about the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression. I mean I know Ellen Burstyn wasn’t actually there, but you never know.

At the school we also get an intellectual kick in the face when a teacher tells Cooper that textbooks have been changed to elide the fact that people ever went to the moon for reals. The official history has been changed to read that the space program was faked by the US in order to bankrupt the Soviet Union to win the Cold War.

Cooper is horrified, but the reason for this deception is so impressively mundane: the world’s resources have diminished, opportunity has all but disappeared, and they want people, as in young people, as in potential farm workers, not to reach for the skies or aspire towards anything greater than what’s directly in front of them and what their bellies need. Hence the changes in the textbooks.

It’s so breathtakingly shameful. It reminded me of the scene in The Truman Show where the guy named in the title sensitively portrayed by Jim Carrey, unaware that he lives in a constructed, constantly surveilled film set, journeys to a travel agent with the intention of going on a holiday. The producers don’t want him going anywhere, or even wanting to go anywhere, so the travel agent has posters on the wall warning of how planes crash, and holiday-goers die horribly.

Someone who loves the idea of exploration, of man exceeding his limitations and stretching out into the cosmos like Cooper is not going to be impressed by mealy mouthed self-interest and cowardice like that. He was born to slip the surly bonds of Earth, and urges anyone and everyone to do likewise!

To return to his strange daughter Murph, the ghosts or the whatevers that inhabit her room are starting to send more obvious messages. Cooper doesn’t explore any of this further, doesn’t necessarily understand what’s happening, but goes along with it.

Why? Because he has faith perhaps in something other than the known and the visible or at least explainable?

I don’t know how that plays out in a film that likes to think it’s ever so science based and reality friendly, but there it is. When he arrives at said coordinates, he finds a bunch of people working on some divine project. It’s the remnants of NASA working on one last, grand scheme to save humanity.

As I said, it’s ambitious, but it’s also precarious and not altogether coherent. I’m sure there’s plenty I missed through what they are all saying when they’re describing the unique circumstances under which they are labouring for this Lazarus project, not the first of many instances where the names of ‘things’ in the film are so very much on the nose and horribly obvious.

I may have a bit more understanding of some of these topics not because I know and comprehend the science behind them, but because of all the sci-fi crap I’ve watched over the years. And, like a lot of people I picked up Hawking’s Brief History of Time. Unlike most I actually finished it, but I wouldn’t claim to understand it to any useful degree.

What it means is that I’m usually comfortable hearing about many of these concepts in a story, especially where they’re simplistically treated and used solely as plot devices. I’ve seen/heard it happen thousands of times. Star Trek in its multiple incarnations has prided itself on taking impossibly complex concepts and reducing them to a bite-sized digestible concept that could easily be the solution to whatever problem people are facing, or some way of pressing a reset button so that everything can magically get back to normal.

Most flicks don’t want to risk boring their audiences by actually admitting how complicated some of the concepts they might mention are. Even a prestige flick like The Theory of Everything, which admittedly was more about Hawking’s first marriage than about black holes and singularities and such barely bothered even admitting any of the aforementioned, or even talking about physics for anything more than a few seconds at a time.

Nolan is not above boring audiences with exposition. Inception, for all its faults or virtues, spent 80% of its running time on exposition (explaining what was happening and how/why it was happening endlessly, deathlessly) and the rest on unlikely and unconvincing dialogue that was really just more exposition.

Interstellar doesn’t do as much to over-explain things, and maybe that’s to the film’s credit. For a lot of people the virtues of the flick are going to be solely in the aural and visual departments. It looks amazing, absolutely amazing. Stunningly, disturbingly, incredibly amazing. The sound design as well, especially in a long, pulverising middle section, is aimed at audience members who weren’t already sufficiently overwhelmed by the visuals, who need to be beaten into submission by the score.

From a storytelling perspective though, I have to admit that the lack of handholding does make a lot of what we watch fairly confusing. It’s not confusing in a deliberate, Big Statement kind of way. It’s more that there’s a certain amount of narrative coherence sacrificed in the interests of keeping it all moving along.

So you can come to understand that something, or that bunches of things happened, but not the hows and the whys of it. Everything does have an explanation, there’s no doubt about that, it’s all meticulously constructed. But I can’t really claim I always knew what was going on.

And, after the film has virtually exhausted all our patience, something even more inexplicable, less likely and pretty much incomprehensible happens. And yet it somehow works out in the end. If you acknowledge that it’s doing something akin to the end of 2001, which devolved into 14 hours of trippy visuals topped off with a floating star baby in space, then maybe, just to gently spoil some of the climax, falling into a black hole and ending up in a five dimensional representation of a room back home maybe makes even less sense.

It’s all meant to make an emotional level of sense, because emotion isn’t meant to be excised in the pursuit of what’s going on. If anything (whether you call bullshit on it or not), love is inexplicably kind of the solution to the tech-heavy plot. You can deride it or mock it, but I didn’t mind, truth be told, and even found it to be something of a relief. The universe as represented out there is impossibly hostile. Whatever almost mystical protections seem to exist are ineffable and never explained in a satisfactory way, so knowing that love still could mean something on the quantum level is oddly reassuring.

Although part of me felt like sarcastically yelling, “So, the Fifth Element is love?” at the screen.

The bond between father and daughter is used to good effect, to sterling effect, and leads to the film’s most touching scenes (though not the most compelling ones). Let’s face it, people went to see this for the spectacle, not the drama, but I enjoyed both, if ‘enjoyed’ is actually the word I’m looking for.

Nolan and his cohorts prided themselves on having the science in this flick be as accurate to what we currently know as possible, but that doesn’t really sit well with me. The ‘realities’ of what problems people would face out there in the cosmos are great from a certain perspective. However accurate it may be, and I have to say it only struck me as being ‘Hollywood’ accurate, rather than scientifically accurate, it sometimes isn’t clear or comprehensible, or the audience what’s going on, the audience being ‘me’, but even what does make sense sounds like bullshit anyway.

As an example, gravitational time dilation plays a big part in the story, whereby the risk at certain times at visiting potential new sites for humanity’s escape, time in comparison will move at a different rate as experienced by the astronauts. In other words, when they venture towards one of the worlds, alighting upon it means that if they spend a couple of hours on its surface, 28 years will pass on Earth.

There is a why for it (it comes under Einstein’s theory of special relativity), but I’m not sure the audience (ie. philistines like me) would really grasp the difference. I understand that two clocks experiencing two different ‘levels’ of gravity will show time passing at different rates, but I don’t understand why that means time itself will pass at different rates (a stopped clock doesn’t actually stop time, as an example of how I don't understand the concept).

It’s fundamental to the story, though, and it’s just another of the massive difficulties Cooper and the rest of the astronauts are facing in their near impossible task of finding a new home for humanity.

There was also, for me at least, a perplexing interlude with another astronaut who seemingly goes bonkers for no good reason that I could figure out, though it’s meant to be, what, a comment on humanity’s blind selfishness? Is it a coincidence that the chap is called Mann? Could it have been more on the nose? Couldn’t they have incorporated a scene where he is also taking pictures of himself with a selfie stick in order to show how selfish he is?

If it’s all wrapped up in too neat a package, well, it’s somewhat earned and somewhat not as well. There’s an element I like to call The Bill and Ted’s effect, which is the existence of several elements for which we’re not really ever given a satisfactory explanation of the who and the how, but we’re given to understand that ‘us’ in the future knew these elements would be necessary, and so we’ll eventually get around to inventing them.

Awfully convenient, if you ask me. For this, and other reasons, there’s an element at work, like we see in many of the high concept science fiction films (as opposed to the action based ‘fun’ ones), where there’s almost a quasi-mystical aspect to it, where advanced concepts and technology have a faith-based component to them, or at least an unknowable aspect to them, an element we’re not supposed to comprehend. It bugs me a little bit, but not enough to sour the experience for me.

Visually, it’s stunning. Aurally, it’s overwhelming. Story-wise, it’s enjoyably dense and complicated, yet fluid and almost silly at others. Performance-wise, well, this is not like the other high profile acting gigs that McConaughey has put in and won awards for recently. The role is too insignificant compared to the scale of the production, though conversely the performances put in by the actors playing his daughter across about a century are all uniformly excellent in abbreviated roles (Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn as adults).

And the robot! I forgot about TARS! He’s great, and he’s sarcastic, and he has this amazing Swiss Army knife-like design. And he doesn’t try to kill everyone like every other artificial intelligence in almost every other sci-fi flick!

Interstellar: there’s a lot to love, a fair amount to think about, and a bit to hate. Overall, it was a pretty amazing experience, and I only watched it on blu-ray. Had I seen it at IMAX as God or Satan intended, it probably would have made me have its babies(?)

9 times Matt Damon also pops up as a lunatic yelling “Matt Damon!!” in the middle of the movie, reprising his character from Team America: World Police out of 10

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“I'm not afraid of death. I'm an old physicist - I'm afraid of time.” – I can multitask, being afraid of both – Interstellar.

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