Summary: As a break from the FM website’s usual fare of geopolitical realism, today film critic Locke Peterseim reviews “Interstellar”, an example of what passes for a science fiction film in our time. He explores its shallow but exquisitely rendered plot, so deftly revealing the themes that excite us. Perhaps another day he’ll explain why Hollywood ignores the hundreds of awesome sci-fi tales written during the past 50 years in favor of this kind of hackwork. Post your thoughts about the movie in the comments.
By Locke Peterseim
Reposted here with his generous permission.
Christopher Nolan loves his daughter very much. He would like you to know that his parental love for his daughter is super large. Larger than your love for anything you might love in your lesser, non-blockbuster-making ways.
Once a cold, calculating director, Christopher Nolan now believes in love, and his love for his daughter is so big that it transcends time and space. His love is so big that he had to make a film about it. But not just any film.
You see, Christopher Nolan’s love for his child is so immeasurably powerful and life-changingly epic that he had to make a really huge film. No mamby-pamby quiet meditation on life and parenthood. No naturalistic, small-scale capturing of the reality of human interaction. Leave that stuff to the independent whiners and pikers with their out-of-focus grainy navel-gazing.
Chris Nolan don’t play that game no more. Chris Nolan made The Dark Knight. Chris Nolan made Inception. So when he makes a movie that explores the power of the human heart by exploring the boundaries of human imagination, he does it on a grand scale.
The kind of awesome box-office-exploding film making that puts fat asses in extra-wide theater seats by the billions. The kind that cost $165 million dollars and is full of mind-blowing imagery and fist-pounding excitement and adventure. A film full of love. And exploration. And danger. And hope. And science stuff. That runs almost three hours and must be seen on the biggest screen possible.
To show us all how much he loves his daughter, Christopher Nolan had to make Interstellar. We will now take a moment of silence to thank Christopher Nolan for letting us pay for the privilege of experiencing (preferably on IMAX) his cinematic vision and its nearly-ungraspable humanistic scope and philosophical depth.
That done, we should probably also take a moment to point out that Christopher Nolan’s ode to the power of both familial and romantic love; his visually stunning paean to the American pioneer spirit of exploration and adventure; his plea for a renewed belief in the importance of scientific invention and understanding; his mind-blowing journey to the unseen space-time shores beyond our comprehension and imagination; is, per production dollar spent and running time endured, one of the most insultingly stupid affronts to your sense and sensibilities you’ll see this year. Cinematically, Interstellar is an impressive film. In every other respect — character, story, theme, ideas — it’s dumb as a bag of zero-gee space hammers.
But hey, Nolan loves his daughter. Love! So shut up.
Interstellar is set in a near future where apparently bad stuff has happened that has returned America to its rural Eisenhower-era ways. Everything’s dusty. Crops have failed, so farmers are the future, or something like that, but the future is dying. The federal government seems to have been rolled back to the local level.
Energy is apparently in short supply for everything except reading lamps and pick-up trucks. For reasons unclear — other than the folksy charm of baseball being returned to its idealized halcyon roots of Mom, Apple Pie and, Chevrolet — the New York Yankees are now a traveling exhibition team that plays in small-town sandlots. In other words, it’s the sort of big-movie, pandering, easy-feel notion of America the way many social conservatives imagine it should be: rural, folksy, down-home, family-centric, and science-free.
Though he’ll eventually take us literally across the galaxy, Nolan isn’t interested in showing much of Earth other than a single small town, specifically the farm of an astronaut-turned-dirt-farmer-turned-back-to-astronaut with the very Right Stuffed name of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, giving this great-looking cosmic cheese-platter payday exactly the amount of his attention and talent he knows it deserves).
Much to the chagrin of his loving, science-minded daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), Coop is enlisted by NASA (which operates in secret out of a hidden underground science bunker on a budget it apparently procured by taking back cans) to answer a mysterious call from presumably some higher alien intelligence, blast off with astronauts Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi) and fly through a wormhole that’s been set up near Saturn (again presumably by the aliens).
Their mission is to find out what happened to previous NASA expeditions sent through the wormhole and hopefully find a new suitable future home to which they can migrate the human race and save it from extinction on the dying Earth. (Apparently, despite the global economic and environmental collapse, NASA had a whole bunch of interstellar rockets just laying around, like that box of old cellphones you keep under your desk.)
Meanwhile, left back on Earth, Murph grows up into Jessica Chastain, Space Scientist, while resenting Cooper for having left her. (He literally runs out the door, jumps in his truck, and drives off to Secret Underground NASA, as if he suddenly decided to go to Vegas for a weekend rather than across the galaxy for decades. Secret NASA seems to only be an hour or two’s drive from the Cooper Farm, but once he runs off, Coop can’t be bothered to go back and visit his family before blasting off into space.)
(Also, Coop’s wife died years earlier, as wives and moms so often do in these kinds of Spielbergian cinematic vision quests. Dead mom-wives make family members left behind seem so much more poignant and strong, so much deeper. And their absence also lets widowed Dad have a noble stirring in his spacesuit for a pretty, younger scientist-astronaut.)
Coop also has an older son, but Coop, the Nolans, and the film have very little use for him, other than as an embittered, narrow-minded, paranoid thematic prop to be deployed later for narrative effect. No wonder he grows up to be sullen, creepy Casey Affleck.
That’s no knock on the younger Affleck, who is a fine actor, but the Cooper son is not unique in his shallow utilitarian nature. There are no real, human characters in Interstellar — everyone is there to act as an avatar of a larger idea or ideal.
Cooper is the loving, protective father with the can-do American spirit of exploration and adventure (multiple times his yee-haw pilot skills save the day when pre-programmed flight science falls short); Murph is the future hope of scientific curiosity and imagination; John Lithgow is on hand as Coop’s baby-sitting father in law, so Coop’s children aren’t entirely abandoned; Michael Caine’s Professor Brand, the head of Secret NASA, is The Wise Elder who recites the same Dylan Thomas poem over and over. Bill Irwin voices a cool robot that is on hand to represent cool robots.
And Hathaway’s younger Brand is… well, her character is Love. That’s it. That’s her entire purpose in the film. Hathaway is Hollywood’s current embodiment of romantic, sometimes tragic love, with those big sad eyes full of hope and pain, and so her character is included in Interstellar just so she can give a big speech in the middle about the Power of Love. About how love is not simply a chemically-created genetic survival instinct, but literally a scientifically measurable, quantum force that can transcend time and space.
No, really, she says that. For pure movie-magic stupidity, this is right up there with George Lucas trying to convince us that the Force really runs on Midicholrians in the blood stream. Nolan has always approached human behavior as something that, while complex, can still be categorized and explained, and Interstellar feels as if the director, flummoxed by his own love for real people in his life, sets out to find a cosmic spreadsheet he can fit the powerful emotion into, to make it part of the greater formula of life.
All of Interstellar’s characters are laid out in that same spreadsheet, each of them carefully assigned traits and motivations that neatly fit into the film’s larger panorama. Nolan is so in love with his concepts and constructions that his characters almost always feel like just another collection of components. They don’t act, speak, or behave like real, people, but as simulacra; their feelings quantified, their arcs classified and cataloged.
There are only three types of characters in Interstellar: farmers, scientists, and astronauts (four if you count the highly symbolic baseball players in the background), and each type is painted with broad, easy, thin strokes. There’s hardly a line of dialogue in the film that sounds like it was uttered by a human being in natural conversation with another. Instead, everyone converses in platitudes and pronouncements and fierce declarations of intent. And Dylan Thomas poetry. Lots of Dylan Thomas poetry.
Interstellar is also a film that purports to celebrate science, the quest for discovery, the curiosity of exploration, and the triumph of rational thought and knowledge over superstition and fear. At one point the film pointedly trots out a near-future school teacher who insists the Apollo moon landings were staged. The message is clear: See what happens to us as a society when we abandon scientific thought? We get giant crop-destroying dust storms that make everything really dusty and reduce the mighty New York Yankees to playing ball in Little League lots.
But as things progress and the plot manipulations demand it, the Nolan brothers start tossing around increasingly ridiculous science (much of it having to do with the poor, abused Theory of Relativity) purely for the sake of keeping the short-attention-span audience goosed with regular doses of oooh-aaaah action scenes and awwww tear-duct sucker-punches.
(Between the black holes, worm holes, tessaracts, and gravity boogeying across the fifth dimension, it’s as if they let McConaughey re-color the Laws of Physics during a smoky lunch break.)
Worst of all, after having Cooper give science and rational thought plenty of that sweet, sweet McConaughey drawling lip service in the first half, in the film’s second half one of the characters who represents “pure science and rational thought” turns out to be a bad guy. Not just a bad guy, but a full-blown mustache-twirling bwahahahaha movie villain — in part because he supports a scientific, rational solution. So yeah, suck it, science. The heart wins! Love wins! The head loses. Science loses. Again.
When pressed on fact that even the “science” they fudged for the sake of narrative expediency and entertainment value, the Brothers Nolan would probably fall back on that hoariest of Hollywood excuses: “Well, it’s more of a fable than reality, and the most important thing is engaging the audience in the story.”
Except that even as an edifying, heart-felt fable, Interstellar is still full of space poop. The Nolans love them a good puzzle-box as Inception proves, but they get way too much respect as “storytellers” when in fact their idea of story is just that cool (cold) puzzle box that, no matter how artificially complex, fits neatly together, with all questions answered, all endings plausibility-stretching happy and hopeful.
Interstellar’s larger narrative is suitably impressive only for its size, reach, and scope as it roams across space, time, and other dimensions. It’s a massive, stunning achievement in epic geek movie making — it’s totally cosmic, man — but it still feels utterly contrived and, despite all the tears, soulless.
Once you’ve stumbled out of the theater and back into the harsh light of reality, none of it makes a bit of sense, nor is it really supposed to — Nolan’s plot points and exposition exists simply to support the tale he wants to tell (about a father’s love for his daughter, in case you hadn’t hipped to that yet) and to cheat out the film’s cheap, shallow emotional beats. Ooh, farmers are important! Oh, space exploration is good! Ooh, loving your children (at least one of them) is nice!
In practice, the film itself is plenty entertaining and gripping, and when critics and audiences flail over themselves to praise Interstellar, that’s what they’re praising: its strange planets (one all gray water and giant tidal waves, the other layers of gray frozen clouds) look amazing and mostly holds your attention for a long two hours and 45 minutes. We are a generation raised by Spielberg and now roaming through non-stop media entertainment 24/7, not just susceptible to this sort of wide-screen string-pulling, but craving it. We live to be constantly seduced by spectacle, steadfast in our collective cultural belief that the cinema must be a constant dream factory, pumping out illusion to keep our restless consciousness from tumbling into existential despair.
Like Inception, Interstellar is loudly jacked up on contrived threats and races against time, perpetuated by increasingly silly imaginary “rules.” (Interstellar ends up being as accurate and believable in its notions of space-time as Inception is on the science of dreams.)
Of course it’s a mainstream film and thus requires a certain amount of goosed-up drama, danger, and conflict, but Nolan is so clinical about it, so brazen and sterile, even when injecting into it his seemingly newfound appreciation for “selfless” love. (Fueled with the overwhelming arrogance of a true explorer — or film maker, Cooper’s idea of love is purely selfish. He’s willing to sacrifice the future of humanity to see his daughter one more time.)
Nolan’s ideas are comic-book shallow, which would be fine if Interstellar just wanted to be a comic-book movie, but it wants to be so much more, mean so much more. There’s lots of talk about exploration and the pioneer spirit, about the stars and wonder, but by the end you understand that Nolan’s enthusiasm isn’t really for real science, it’s for that mythical American West idea of just going out and doing something big somewhere new. The only reason Nolan wants to build a bridge to the future is so people can bungee jump off it.
Despite the sledgehammer repetition of Thomas’ verse, Interstellar has no internal grace or vision of its own — it’s all borrowed pomp and parade, no poetry. For all its pretensions of being “about something important,” Interstellar is yet another dazzling fun ride tricked out to feel like both a science lesson and a life sermon.
Those seeking even the pop-lite existential melancholy and inward yearning of “Rocket Man” or “Space Oddity” are instead treated to very expensive, very epic and exciting rollercoaster and log flume rides. It’s EPCOT Center in space. In love.
(2) About the author
Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.
These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves–and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.
Some of his other reviews:
- “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution.
- Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America.
- 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War.
- Ender’s Game: Playing at Shock and Awe.
- “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again.
- Shut the Robo-whining: The Robocop Remake Has Something on its Mind.
- A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman.
- Elysium Shouts Big, Loud Messages About Health Care & Immigration Reform. Gun Control, Not so Much.
- “The Lone Ranger” shows Hollywood’s new paradigm, since films were too deep for us.
- Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien.
- Fury: the big screen display of America’s love of war, & inability to understand it.
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