' ' Cinema Romantico: Interstellar

Monday, November 24, 2014


Discussing a Christopher Nolan film is impossible without discussing Christopher Nolan himself, and this is because the noted cinematic gigantist is a full-fledged auteur. His films, proudly, loudly (really, really loudly) bear his hallmarks – the ear-grating exposition, the sound design that may as well double as a pharmacy prescription for extra-strength aspirin and female characters as simplistic as his plots are labyrinthine. More than anything, though, they are spectacles – gargantuan populist spectacles, which is precisely why he is such a gladiator at the box office. He knows what movies audiences are. Movie audiences are the mob. Conjure magic for them and they will come to the theater in droves. “Interstellar” may be significantly flawed, but it may be Nolan’s grandest spectacle yet.

Even as “Interstellar” purports to explore the possibility of our future it seems to inhabit a specific place in the past, imagining the end of Earth as looking an awful lot like The Great Depression, a 1930's Dust Bowl as a plague on all our continents. Natural resources have become virtually non-existent, save for corn, which Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), our hero, grows while raising a stalwart son and precocious daughter with whom he has a close, combustive relationship that becomes the film’s main through line. Offering an ample dose of his traditional drawling charisma, McConaughey in this environment distinctly evokes the Chuck Yeager of "The Right Stuff", which is appropriate given Cooper's lament that the film's earth has traded looking to the stars for digging in the dirt.

Directly implying the planet’s demise is tied to its failure to shoot the moon, it consequently argues that it's only chance for survival is putting a little faith in science. And so once Cooper convolutedly (or is merely...miraculously?) happens upon a literally underground NASA run by his mentor, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), he and Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway) and assorted others will climb into a rocket ship to boldly go where several other men and one woman have already gone. That is, through a wormhole and to another galaxy where a trinity of planets might just offer hope for a new hospitable world to transport humans, so long as Dr. Brand can solve a riddle pertaining to gravity that flew over my head but which I'm sure Neil deGrasse Tyson and his legion of plot-hole-picking-out disciples would be happy to castigate for you.

For all its scientific gobbledygook, the overriding narrative theme of this epic odyssey to the far reaches of the cosmos is explicitly old-fashioned, summarized in the simple language of thousands of pop songs. “Do you believe in love?” Sir Huey Lewis asked rhetorically. “Oh, you can bet I believe it too.” To Nolan, however, themes are more like concepts, and even if love is an emotion, Nolan approaches it with all the thrill of a lab-coated pragmatist arguing his concept with an erudite term paper. He’s a maestro with effects but can’t convey actual human feeling with the camera. The relationship of a spurned daughter and a guilty father separated by galaxies is nothing much more than a game of emotional charades between ciphers.

The true ruin of Nolan, however, has long been exposition, and once again it crops up, threatening to be “Interstellar’s” waterloo. It’s not merely "disguising" theme as discourse - like having Hathaway annunciate the Love Theme in an extended monologue - but outfitting so many otherwise riveting in-space sequence with an out-loud explanation as to exactly what’s happening. It’s like the guy at the concert who won’t stop talking during your favorite song. And Nolan’s obsession with theoretical cogency routinely threatens to counteract the electricity of the sequences themselves. (No doubt the science itself would fail to appease him, but if you ever wondered how Mr. deGrasse Tyson would write dialogue...)

Still, for the endless chatter and weightlessness of the relationships, “Interstellar”, over and over, achieves transcendent flight, providing sequences of such raw movie-ness that the moviemaking itself is enough to lift you up and spackle over any flaws. Nolan’s real collaborator here is not his brother Jonathan, co-screenwriter, as much as it is his composer, Hans Zimmer, noted musical purveyor of bombast, who has concocted a score as colossal as the IMAX 70mm photography. Not content to just comment on the action, it becomes integral to it, and the sound design often overpowers the dialogue – further evidence the film not only would have benefited from its absence at many a moment but subconsciously intended for its characters to, more often than not, just zip it.

Early in the film, still back on the farm, Coop is ferrying his kids to school when an apparent drone swoops in and, suddenly, he swerves his broken old pickup off the dirt road and plows through his stalks of corn to give chase. The music soars and the camera assumes wings and even if you have no idea what is happening, it doesn’t matter, because the majesty of the moment tethers you to the screen, and all you are left with is sheer heartrending awe.

“Rage against the dying of the light.” That’s Dr. Brand borrowing the words of Dylan Thomas as a means to grant the mission a motto, but it might as well be the motto of Nolan, ambitious to the point of lunacy, raging against Lean Cuisine™ superhero epics and low budget handheld affairs of authenticity. If its astrophysics fail to check out, well, of course they do. This is not nuts and bolts but magic conjured.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you were able to put into words what so many people had a hard time conjuring up after seeing this film.