Film Micrœview #167: Interstellar (2014)

11.12.2014 § Leave a comment

Rating: Dr. Pepper.

I’m angry about some of the bad reviews I’ve been reading for Interstellar. And not because I feel a need to prove them wrong. They make my angry because some of these writers are depriving themselves of a great — and perhaps I might even go so far as to say important — experience. I have perhaps never felt more strongly the urge to urge others to accept films on their own terms, to let them be what they’re trying to be. The common term for it is “suspension of disbelief.” Now I’m about as jaded by theory as a guy can be, but the first time I watch a movie, I insist on stepping back the erudition and giving it a chance to succeed, unquestioningly embracing its internal logic (or lack thereof). The first viewing is really my only chance to experience a film that way.

Now I’m not going to say that Interstellar is flawless. What I am saying is that while it has non-trivial flaws, compared to the grandness of the vision this film has succeeded at realizing, they are passing gripes. And to be clear: when I speak of Interstellar’s grandness I am not referring to its special effects, its scientific veracity, nor its narrative coherence. I am referring to the profound emotional and spiritual wallop it packs, and the breathtakingly original strokes with which it was delivered. If it was Nolan’s intention to challenge me to soul-search the limits of my own empathy, he succeeded, and I have the tear stains to prove it.

The most frustrating criticisms I have read of the film are the ones which suggest Nolan’s heart is not really in the interpersonal dimension here — that not enough time is spent developing the key relationships in the story. This is frustrating for me because I think it’s clear enough that this is not a character film, but a plot one. I make no conjectures about whether one or the other is a superior approach. Personally I might say I prefer the latter; it feels closer to myth, to the foundations of drama and storytelling. There is a time and place for deeply exploring two arbitrary, detailed, complicated personalities, but Interstellar is not that place, so as an active viewer, I feel it is my responsibility to recognize that and allow it to work within the tropes and strengths of that style. Said another way, the characters of Interstellar are conceptual; this is not just a father-daughter relationship on trial here, but any and all deeply-felt relationships. The protagonists of Interstellar are symbolic, illustrating different facets of a theme (e.g. look at Cooper’s son; drastically underdeveloped, but meant only an incarnation of his bad side gone horribly superficially wrong: STAY, even when it hurts those you love). Now it is definitely possible to swing too far this way, too focused and crystalline, and a story starts to feel contrived. If an appropriate amount of naturalism is retained in the balance, though, the viewers are still able to identify with individuals that are part of a narrative device, in order to viscerally feel rather than merely understand its message. Maybe it just comes down the ability and willingness of the viewer to participate in and contribute to the experience; the more character-based material is better-suited for people who would rather have everything served to them, and the more symbolic stuff is better-suited to people like me who are willing to expend the effort to imbue images and situations with elements from my own personal experience and fears and desires.

At its core, this is a film about trust. The science part of this fictional experience affords it to explore some crazy depths of the emotions and spirituality around trust. If you want to find flaws in the science, you will find them. Kip Thorne’s participation in the production does not obligate it to scientific accuracy. Nor even does whatever marketing campaign there may have been around Interstellar’s stellar grades in science class. I managed to avoid exposure to any such marketing, but if it is the case that the authors of Interstellar themselves came out very publicly and insisted on certain kinds of scientific accuracy, I would say that would have been an extra-filmic mistake on their part. It would probably have been better for Nolan to simply acknowledge that his films get held to a much higher standard of intellectual honesty than other filmmakers get held to, and that he did his due diligence not to betray that (fitting, given that his STORY is about trust). And, in case you didn’t know, in working on Interstellar, Thorne made scientific discoveries, from which he will be publishing a couple papers soon — I will leave it up to the reader to decide how sad it is that entertainment seems to be funding the scientific frontier better than education. The key point here is that Interstellar is a story, not a science paper, and if imperfect science ruins the experience for you then I suggest you refocus on story. Science fiction here has allowed this story to deal with relative time as currency. That is fucking fascinating, first of all, and enables the story to test trust in a way it had never been tested before: will our protagonist honor his promise to return to his daughter, or complete his mission to save humanity. It allowed a character to watch his children’s lives flash before his eyes, and for him to not return to his daughter by the time she was his age, but not until she was on her deathbed. That is fucking fascinating. That is science fiction.

Other detractors I’ve heard complain that they can’t accept bullshit about love being the fifth dimension or whatever. To you folks I say: look, I don’t believe love transcends physics either. Love is obviously a biological instinct. The facts that Dr. Mann discusses with Cooper on their jaunt are all true. And I, like you, cringed when Amelia started spouting off nonsense, attempting to foist her own self-interest upon the mission, and compromising her objectivity. We were meant at that point in the story to be reminded of the standard dilemma: one must sometimes sacrifice oneself and ones loved ones for the sake of the herd. But then Interstellar went to an extremely deep, dark place. It subverted this trite call to bravery and honor. Prof. Brand’s lie is villainous in this context, but sympathetic in terms of this expectation. Interstellar’s epic scope presents a story in which even the survival of humanity as a species is not worth losing ones individual humanity over. Mann says that just before you die your children flash before your eyes, inspiring you to make a last-ditch effort to survive, and this gets delightfully inverted as Cooper plunges into the black hole, unbeknownst toward reunion. The circular story has been done a million times and risks getting super cheesy. But what makes it valid here is that it focuses on the emotion. Love is circular, both in terms of perpetuating reproduction, but also its humanistic inexplicability. The Gargantua sequence succeeds because it is used as a substrate to explore and render the process of regret through to acceptance in a way it has never been done before. It’s not just some bullshit trickery. Interstellar constructs a scenario in which trust and love are the forces which transcend the greatest obstacles we understand that our universe can physically throw at us, in order for dedication to those few who are closest to us to become one and the same with everyone else who we only intellectually understand to feel the same way. It was a convincing and moving telling of that moral.

I have been hearing Interstellar compared with a ton of other films. Here’s my list and thoughts:

  1. Sure, Gravity made more sense and was more of a technical achievement. But it not even on the same scale of scope. Gravity is a ride, nothing more.
  2. Contact, an earlier movie featuring McConaughey talking about wormholes and relative time, was about science vs faith.
  3. Donnie Darko was about a wormhole man.
  4. Sunshine (or should I say “Intrastellar”) was a huge load of bullshit.
  5. Interstellar’s “twist” might bear comparison with any number of Shyamalan films, but really? Come on. Different league.
  6. Holistic comparisons with Space Odyssey 2001 are misguided. The extent to which Interstellar pays homage to 2001 — from the robots, to the score, to the remote communication in packaged videos — is thorough but superficial. 2001 is one of the greatest films ever made. But it is about man vs. progress, i.e. the relation between man as an inflection point on the graph of progress to that progress itself along the continuum from what we call evolution through to what we call technology through to whatever is next. 2001 was deeply relevant when it was made. And 2001, for all its greatness, happens to be bloated, pretentious, and sterile. Interstellar is not about man, nor is it about progress. It confronts an issue as topical for us today as progress was for man then: the limitations of empathy. In our civilizations increasingly globalizing reach, the greatest terror we face today is that the mind on the other side of this sphere of dirt doesn’t truly care whether I live or die. And Interstellar, for all its greatness, is hokey, sappy, etc — it is simply another style altogether.
  7. Perhaps the closest comparison would be to Solaris, though Tarkovsky obviously has a much less bombastic approach.

Some stray thoughts about Interstellar’s successes:

  1. This particular dystopian Earth was roughly sketched but well done. We don’t need to know any more about the military disbandment or whatever, but it is an important choice that other than the climate change slow death of life on earth, everything else seems pretty idyllic considering. This maintains focus on the core of the story.
  2. Consistency of imagery and symbolism: parabolas of dust, water, spacetime, and curved spacestation grounds. So many Lazaruses, both true and false.
  3. The unbilled actors were a great move.
  4. Interstellar is not that complicated of a timeline. You can’t rewind time here. “They” don’t want us to change the past. There’s just one story here, and what you do it in matters as much as in any other type of story.
  5. Interstellar will age well. The design of TARS I feel is destined to be iconic. They needed an incarnate robot. No anthropomorph could have been not cheesy. This minimalist design is unforgettable, led to some great moments and images, and is not altogether implausible. Plus, TARS got some of the movies best lines, which were genuinely funny, and in an AI-specific way, i.e. TARS’s uncanny consciousness yet ever-so-slight off-ness was precisely the source of the humor. (Other funny moments were sparse, though I did get a kick out of Cooper’s “relaxing sounds of the rainforest” tape).
  6. Hans Zimmer’s score was overdone at times, maybe. But it triggered for me not only Also Sprauch Zarathustra but also Koyaanisqatsi.
  7. I’ve found a reason to like Transcendence: had Wally Pfister not chosen that time to try his hand at directing, we might have gotten just as sterile of images on Interstellar as on most of Nolan’s movies he’s done. Without Hoyte van Hoytema’s heartbreaking close-ups, this wouldn’t have been the same film.

Here are my passing gripes with Interstellar:

  1. Cooper learns about wormholes only once he’s right about to enter one — I have a hard time buying he’d be that clueless — and it makes his character seem too hapless, detracting from the intensity of his work/family conundrum.
  2. Did they have to use that “do not go gentle” bit at all, let alone a dozen times?
  3. Several characters are severely underdeveloped.
  4. The opening segment on Earth could have used another revision or two, I feel. We needed about that much time between Cooper and Murph, but I wonder if the parent-teacher conference and some random drone chase were the most efficient substrates for that (though the callback to the drive through the cornfield was poignant enough to be almost worth it, even if the original sequence was entirely pointless).
  5. This is the only plot hole I’m going to point out, and it’s because I haven’t actually seen anyone else raise it yet, so I’m a bit curious if anyone else has the answer: if Professor Brand had solved everything he could toward the TOE w/o information from inside a black hole, why couldn’t one of the dozen Lazarus missions have been into Gargantua? Woulda been worth a shot, amirite?

In conclusion, Interstellar is to Memento as Upstream Color is to Primer: it does not compromise on its cerebral narrative structure, and goes much further, filling it to bursting with spirituality and emotion. And let’s get this straight: I’m not just a Nolan fanboy. Memento is one of my all-time favorite movies, but I could take or leave his other work since then. Interstellar is “not possible, but necessary.”

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