Saturday, November 8, 2014

Intergalactic Planetary

Christopher Nolan's movies have tended to be plotty puzzle boxes that delight in staying one step ahead of the audience right up until the end. This worked, just barely, in 2009's mind-heist Inception but became too ungainly for its own good with The Dark Knight Rises a mere two years ago. Interstellar represents a turn away from that towards a more straightforward style making nakedly emotional appeals to its audience. This would be refreshing except that Nolan doesn't really know how to do that.

The Setup: In the near future, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was a NASA pilot once, but now spends his days tending a farm, raising what crops he can with his two children Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet, later Casey Affleck) with his father in-law Donald (John Lithgow). The earth is subject to frequent dust storms and blight that is steadily wiping out entire crop species, and the Coopers seem to be at the center of some strange magnetic forces that lead them to a secret NASA base led by Cooper's old mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine) that's planning to evacuate humanity from the Earth, which requires finding a habitable planet to colonize, which in turn requires making contact with members of the exploratory team, including one whose identity I won't spoil, that was already sent out. Cooper arrives just in time to pilot this expedition, with a team that includes Brand's daughter Amelia (Ann Hathaway) and a personable robot assistant, TARS (Bill Irwin), who is so much less annoying than it could have been. To everyone's surprise things do not go as expected.

Simple, no? No elaborate mechanics of dream extraction nor unwieldy conspiracies to unravel, just a straightforward tale of setting out to do a big thing or two to save the world. There are complications along the way, and a few Big Questions that the plot is going to eventually solve, but the answers (in the broad sense if not their weird details) are kind of obvious, and once it gets going the film becomes mostly concerned with wowing the audience visually, when it's not lecturing them about love (and sometimes even when it is!).

That's once it gets going: the first act is an odd beast, with character-building exercises that function to set up later plot developments for both this movie, and one that doesn't exist (I have no idea what to do with the knowledge of Cooper's cancer-killed wife, and neither does the film). On the plus side, its world-building is refreshingly unfussy. The blight crisis is spelled out in no uncertain terms, but the implications that it's had for society--which has apparently shrunk so drastically that the crowd size for a New York Yankees game is appropriate for a Little League match--is understated. The film doesn't know how to transition out of this into space exploration mode, though, at all, so it more or less cuts to liftoff rather gracelessly. It feels like a whole act has been sliced out of the movie, but I cannot imagine anything of importance being included in it and am grateful that the movie is not longer than its epic two hours and forty-five minutes.

Once we're off to the (space) races, the movie Interstellar most brings to mind is Danny Boyle's Sunshine, both in its 'last-ditch mission to save humanity' setup, and also its abrupt third-act shift out of an unhurried storytelling mode into tension and white-hot action. The difference, though, is galactic: for where Sunshine has an unimpeachably brilliant build-up that is thrown away for hectic film-breaking bullshit, Interstellar's extended dual climaxes save it from the insubstantial naval-gazing that has come before. There so much talk, about love as a force like gravity, and there is so, so much crying. It is not without reason, certainly, but it is an emotional cheat. Even with Nolan's usual plot knottiness stripped back the characters still feel like devices rather than people with interior lives that we are privy to, and so the weepiness has little impact.

Nolan is on much surer footing when he's trying to knock our socks off, which he does spectacularly and often. The images (which I saw in glorious IMAX 70mm film projection) are rich and frequently mind-bending, and they're paired with some choice sound design. There's a moment where a shot of a shuttle orbiting Saturn is juxtaposed with the sound of rainfall and thunder that approaches sublimity, and the success of the movie's third act that I mentioned is largely owed to the sturm und drang of Hans Zimmer's hulking score, which over a sustained half hour mutates from strings into pipe organ into electronics, building and releasing tension masterfully.

With much of this approach, it seems Nolan wants more than anything to recall the heady sci-fi of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. He comes close in parts, especially the climax of the climax, but he is hamstrung by his (and his brother Jonathan Nolan, with whom he wrote the script) insistence that everything make narrative and logical sense in the end. 2001's success rests entirely on matching its unforgettable visuals with elliptical storytelling that leaves much unexplained and invites the viewer to provide meaning. Nolan's got the visuals down pat, but he tells us everything (including when to cry) to considerably diminished effect.

It didn't have to be this way; Inception's dream logic was undermined by a similar heavy-handedness, but The Dark Knight used its very messy structure--which would normally be a liability--to formalize the story it was telling: it made the audience feel the Joker was an agent of chaos, rather than just telling them. Interstellar falls short of its lofty ambitions, much as Inception did, but it's still very entertaining and awe-inspiring on its own terms. It shows Nolan loosening up, perhaps too much in the waterworks department, but it's a welcome development all the same, and the craftsmanship is as impeccable as ever.