A bothersome trend I’ve noticed in contemporary moviemaking is a tendency to reduce entire past movements, trends, techniques and figures within itself to generalizations, so that people can then aim for what they believe (key word) said movements, trends, techniques and figures achieved, pat themselves on the back, and call it a day. Granted, this is a point I have banged on about many times, but at this moment I want to do so while adding that sometimes there are genuine good things one can learn and do from plumbing the past. In the case of, “Interstellar”, when Christopher Nolan and company do their own approximation of what they believe must make Stanley Kubrick’s directorial efforts so influential and powerful, they do so in some strong ways. Sequences play out with a sense of tactility with a commitment to practical effects, sometimes mixed with CGI, that gives visceral weight to its litany of big moments, visualized by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. The movie’s visualization of worm holes, alien environments, space travel and time-bending? Interesting stuff thanks to the movie’s dedication to hard science (for the most part). The movie even reaches for moments that would (key word) fill one’s tear ducts and make them look towards the future with rugged optimism, with characters like Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper pontificating on how humanity is meant to explore. Hell, at one point the movie gives a giant, “Fuck you” to people pooh-poohing the idea of space travel due to it not being as, “important” as Earth-bound matters, by giving extended moments of Cooper and co-pilots Anne Hathaway as Brand, David Gyasi as Romilly, and Wes Bentley as Doyle relishing their trip through the cosmos and being affected by the journey in different ways (accompanied by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart as the voice of robots TARS and CASE, respectively). And it’s a trip that takes lives and has the characters go through some heavy shit. Too bad that the end result is contrived, schmaltzy, oddly sterile in spite of the moviemakers telling a story about the literal power of love across space and time…and very, very, very dull.
Somewhere, there is a list of things moviemakers should not do. And if that list is worth whatever medium it is printed on, somewhere near the top should read, “Do NOT copy Stanley Kubrick.” In the case of, “Interstellar”, I don’t mean pedantic bullshit like, “Oh, what, they’re travelling in space to find some secret to humankind’s possible salvation? RIP OFF OF 2001! BOOO! CINEMA IS DEAD!”. I mean in terms of craft, or at least an impression of the craft the most famous Stanley Kubrick-directed movies have. Having a keen sense of image composition and an obsession with detail is one thing, but the movie outright blares a soundtrack by Hans Zimmer full of synth notes and a sense of awe. And I mean, “blares” because the movie is loud. It’s sound design and music are up to 11 at all times, with wide shots of textured sets and exposition meant to communicate to the viewer one thing, “THIS IS IMPORTANT”.
So much so, that when the time comes to connect the dots and let said importance actually speak for itself in relation to the rest of the movie, all we are left with are bits of dialogue and speeches tailor-made for marketing and trailers. The characters tell you what they are about, but we rarely see glimpses of their inner lives or even their proximities besides the most rudimentary glimpses needed to establish plot points. Even with an entire portion of the movie set on a depressed, dust-covered Earth, it doesn’t feel like one has lived with these characters. Instead we have them announced and displayed, and hear them announcing and displaying themselves for the rest of the movie. That’s not life-affirming, that’s life-sanitizing. That’s life itself wrapped into a bullhorn, blowing into your face but not saying much of anything. This movie is so wrapped up in telling the viewer why exploration is so important, on insisting that it is important, that it is like the moviemakers forgot about what makes a movie actually important: standing at the level of the viewer and then taking them from there, letting them get some breathing room in between the spectacle and preachy. So, really, that list I talked about earlier should have one of its bullet points read, “Do NOT copy Stanley Kubrick. Yes, we’re talking about that scene you made where triumphant music plays when something majestic happens on screen, telling your audience how Intellectually Heavy your movie is supposed to be. Do something else or back up your posturing with actual goddamn substance.”
Not that the movie neglects to at least start on a literal ground level. The story begins in a desolate future on planet Earth where blight has overrun the Earth, causing many crops to fail and human health to falter. Former NASA pilot Cooper, with his family consisting of Mackenzie Foy as Murph, Timothee Chalamet as Tom, and John Lithgow, spend their days subsisting on their labor. A series of events leads the family to a secret NASA facility where engineers, scientists and astronauts work together on a space colonization mission. Leaving his family behind (with Murph and Tom eventually growing older and being played by Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck, respectively), Cooper goes on a trip with a small crew on the words and theory of scientist Dr. Brand (played by Michael Caine) in a search for humanity’s new home spanning time and space.
What’s interesting, and what proves to be the movie’s downfall, is how this simple setup is loaded with attempts to inject meaning into the mix. This isn’t just a trip for the possible survival of the human species, it’s an exercise of what humanity is meant to do, as opposed to just sitting around and staying in one’s place. This isn’t just a separation of a family for a mission that may fail, this is a severing of a bond between a daughter and a father who has nourished their curiosity and ingenuity on what could very well be a false hope. The problem is that it tells us these things over and over, it doesn’t demonstrate them. While you’re told by the characters how Important this all is, poet Dylan Thomas gets quoted multiple times just to tell that Survival is Good, which is an obvious but simplistic point. Even people who struggle with suicidal idealation or depression have had moments where they go forward just to get a next meal, get shit done or meet a loved one, but the the existence of dead doesn’t make surviving inherently good. It’s just an opposing force affected by variables like many traits of the human condition, and it’s telling that the movie opts for this duality to propel itself forward and spread itself thin over 2 goddamn hours, while pretending to be more complex than it actually is. Anyway, all of this preaching is done at different moments throughout, even the movie’s eventual villain gets a turn…wait, is it ok to spoil this? Eh, fuck it, it’s Matt Damon as a marooned pilot (and Brand’s love interest) who is woke from Cryosleep and starts trying to kill members of the crew and stop the mission Because Reasons. Then he fucks up and has the remaining crew perform a feat of risky ship docking, one of the movie’s sole moving moments due it being propelled by a sense of material, visceral purpose freed from the movie’s muddled and esoteric theming.
The movie’s intermingling of big acting moments by a game cast, and the movie’s yearning for epic vision crash against each other, leaving human characters with little dimension as a result. For the movie’s length, the characters are only given two modes: for or against the mission (implicitly: for or against humankind’s advancement), which would be fine except said characterization is undone by a huge plot twist that literalizes the movie’s themes of love as a force that can travel through space and time, bringing people together and saving the entire human species. This flies in the face of the movie’s proselytizing about the power of rugged human ingenuity through science. Now, there is no rule that says that hard science fiction can’t have emotional themes or payoffs. Some of my favorite Science Fiction movies like, “Timecrimes”, “12 Monkeys”, “Akira”, “Looper”, “Total Recall” (1990) and, “Blade Runner” are able to mix emotional arcs and cool concepts into the stuff of legends. But here is a movie that juggles a lot of heavy elements, puffing its chest up with proclamations and big ideas, while giving no room for the humanity it purports to be propping up. Here is a dull, numbing and muddled lesson for any moviemaker thinking they have the Secret Formula of what great movies of the past, present and future are made of.
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