Saturday, 29 November 2014

Interstellar: A Bullet Point Review

I’ve finally had a chance to watch Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. I say finally because I had plans to go see it earlier but due to negligence and poor planning on my part, I completely missed out on it. I’m not an expert on Nolan and his films. Heck, I haven’t even seen all his films, but I’ve been blown away by those I have seen so consistently that I pay attention and make sure to watch all of his new projects. Interstellar is his first movie to come out since I’ve started blogging and I’m happy to have a place online where I can dump my thoughts about the film. SPOILERS FOR THE WHOLE MOVIE after the image below.

-The movie is long and it’s very bleak. Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) described the movie rather well when describing the planet on which he stayed for several years in complete isolation from the rest of humanity: “It’s stark but undeniably beautiful.” (Or words to that effect).

-Nolan cuts down on some of the movie’s darker tone by inserting testimonials of senior-aged survivors of the events of the movie. You know that someone, at some point in time, succeeds in saving the human species. At that point in the movie it’s unclear how or if they’re still on Earth but having those snippets of the movie’s outcome helps the viewer better appreciate the movie they’re just starting to watch because you know it will end well for humanity, if not for the main characters specifically.

-I’m not sure how accurate the science is. I know that it’s based on the work of real-world theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and that he played an advisory role in the film’s production. I can’t say much more beyond that because I don’t understand it in great detail but what I needed to understand is clearly discussed and presented in the movie. I also get the sense that there is more there waiting for me to learn and understand if I feel like being more attentive and rewatching the movie a few times. Certainly some of the science is inaccurate because it serves the story too perfectly. It’s fiction, after all, not an academic paper or a non-fiction novel about black holes.

-Indeed, some of this is pure speculation as part of the movie’s climax takes place inside the black hole (also called a singularity) where a three dimensional space is created inside the fifth dimensional space of the black hole in order to allow Cooper’s three dimensional brain from understanding how gravity can bend time back onto itself and enable him to communicate with himself and his daughter in the past. You’d have to spend many hundreds of hours to convince that you could find this in the heart of a black hole.

-What I’ve just described in the previous paragraph is actually one of the weaker points of the movie. There is a definitive sense that the narrative is building from the first minute of the movie but it doesn’t amount to anything entirely satisfying. Time loops on itself, basically, is the big reveal but there is no time travel movie paradox as where used to seeing them. I can’t make sense of it all because it appears as though Cooper had to physically be in two different places at the same time for a few key scenes of the movie. I tried thinking about the movie and labelling the characters as “old Cooper” and “future Cooper” but it still doesn’t seem to work. It’s very likely I simply don’t understand it but it’s also likely that it doesn’t make sense, even from a narrative point of view. That, ultimately, is why it’s disappointing.

-It could have been so much worse though. The first half of the movie had me fearing the worst: it’s all because of aliens! In the end we get a much messier reveal but the messy ending is actually kind of a refreshing for a movie by Nolan. He’s known for creating movies that act as a story and as a puzzle. Unsurprisingly, his high technical skills and his focus on narrative structure have garnered him a reputation for making cold and emotionless movies. This movie is, from those that I’ve seen so far, his most emotional movie and there is a nice irony to the idea that this movie doesn’t work very well as a puzzle because there is no definitive answer. I’m under the impression that there is room for interpretation, especially consider what the movie has to say about love and how it can govern our actions and lead to negative results even when we’re trying to do something positive.

-One thing that bothers me is that the movie mentions that stable wormholes cannot occur in nature. Why make mention of it and suggest it must have been created if no answer was to be given as to who created it? Surely it wasn’t Cooper.

-The emotional storyline is one of the movie’s strongest attributes but it’s resolved so early on in the movie despite remaining in focus for the duration of the movie.

-Cooper makes the decision to leave his children behind in order to save mankind. Murphy, his daughter, also chooses to let him leave while they’re still on bad terms. It’s her decision because he tries to make up while she refuses to listen to him or concede that he’s actually making a very difficult decision for all the right reasons. Later in life she admits to herself and to him that she was prepared to live with the consequences of letting him leave while they were still on bad terms. The consequences of that action are that she wasn’t able to make peace with her feelings of abandonment and she’s dedicated her life to understand the mission her father undertook. A mission she comes to share with him and eventually takes over due to the severity of the time distortions caused by the black hole and Cooper’s proximity to them for an extended period of time. Cooper chose to sacrifice his daughter and she chose to sacrifice her father by abandoning him and working on her own work which eventually lead to the survival of the human species.

-Their reunion at the end of the movie which takes place after a few years for him and a lifetime for her is so incredibly brief. They delight in the success of their mission only to realize that they have nothing to share anymore. She’s lived her life without him. As for Cooper, the daughter he knew has been gone for several years as Murphy is unrecognizable, physically, mentally and emotionally. She’s a different person. She dismisses him (kindly) in order to spend her last moments with her family and he moves on to reconnect with the one person he knows and understands, Amelia Brand. He’s a man out of time. The world he’s returned to isn’t the same world he worked so hard to save. He’s much closer to TARS, a robot, than any other human alive except for Brand. Everybody thinks they understand the sacrifice they made while saving humanity but nobody knows the details of the suffering they went through.

-The robot designs remind me of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, there are many similarities to be found between both movies and I’m certain that it’s intentional. Interstellar is a 2001 for modern audiences and it manages to top it off by adding heart to the story and minimizing the self-indulgence of the movie’s mend-bending climax.

-One of the great things about this movie is the musical score. It’s by one Hans Zimmer, one of Nolan’s frequent collaborators, and it’s so different from what we’re using to seeing in Nolan’s previous movies. The now infamous use of bass to make various “BRAAAAAAMS” appear in every important seen are replaced, for the most part, by wonderfully classic and sometime even elegiac pieces of music. He also uses a lot of short, quick sounds – the tick tick tick tick of watches that heighten the emotional moments and the tense scenes in the movie. The music really tied the whole thing together. It served the plot and the story while also elevating the entire movie. I doubt that Interstellar would have achieved as much emotion in it without Zimmer’s involvement. It’s a captivating score and it moved me on more than one occasion.
-The movie also looks damn good. It’s simply superb to look at. The minimal use (by today’s standard) of computer generated effects is appreciated because everything looks so realistic. It didn’t surprise me to learn that a lot of the scenes with the Ranger, the Lander and the Endurance were done with miniatures.  They certainly didn’t look like it when flying in the vastness of space, looking tiny in comparison to the black hole. There is also a prevalent sense of danger which I think the visuals played a big part in conveying on the screen. The movie’s designs are also wonderful. I really like the look of the spatial anomalies, the space shuttle, the Endurance, the rectangular robots. Everything looks futuristic but also practical and believable. The look of the movie didn’t stress disbelief. Instead, it helped to lure you even deeper into the movie’s story.

-The movie succeeds for me because it doesn’t shy away from using big ideas to tell two stories. The first being very personal; a small scale story told on a huge storytelling canvas. The second is a much larger story, one set against the backdrop of an environmental disaster and dealing with the survival of a species (I’m please the movie didn’t try to make it about the planet, it’ll be quite fine without us causing havoc on it). It also uses big scientific ideas to ask large, even intimidating, questions to the viewer. Questions about what it means to be human, what we’re willing to risk and for whom we’re willing to risk it for. One of the ideas I really liked was how mankind tends to be skilled at making good decisions when thinking about the future of a few individuals that are close to you (family, mostly) but that we suck at making decisions that concern the entire species. It rings true when viewed against the backdrop of today’s reality. Anyone who reads the news regularly sees this failure in judgement in action on a weekly basis. It’s easier to digest or at least be receptive of these questions because the overall tone of the movie is hopeful but it doesn’t shy away from showing us an example of the kind of hardships we might have to face when choosing to do the right thing in difficult situations.

-Overall, the movie gets really messy and unravels quite a bit in the final forty minutes but it’s a beautiful mess to watch. It’s an exquisite mess that gives the viewer quite a few answer and explanations while also posing a ton of new questions. Best of all though, the movie has consequences. It’s not happily ever after but it also avoids ending on a depressive note or with the end of mankind. It’s actually a hopeful ending because our own humanity, love, dedication and hard work is what saved us and that’s also what will help us survive and rebuild in the future. You get the sense that the worst has passed but it’s also suggested that there is still quite a bit of work to be done. Strangely enough the task of rebuilding isn’t exclusively passed on to the next generation. Cooper and Brand are on Edmund’s planet where they will likely incubate the fertilized embryos and establish a colony on a planet’s surface instead of in space. Murphy saved humanity from the brink of extinction with the help of her father’s communication through the singularity of the dark hole but it’s Cooper and Brand that are have been and are still working on creating a sustainable future for humanity on a new planet.

-It’s clear to me that I haven’t fully digested this movie yet and that’s a great thing. I know it won’t all make sense. That’s also clear to me but there are still a great many things left for me to decipher and understand. It’s a great story which, very surprisingly, has a father-daughter relationship at the heart of it. That’s the biggest surprise of this movie. That and the fact that Interstellar asks big questions and doesn’t stoop to giving simple answers or dumbing down the science for the sake of marketability. Even when it doesn’t make sense this movie is never dumb. It remains intelligent while keeping a respectable level of accessibility. It extends its hand to the viewer, inviting it to think big thoughts and have big ideas instead of dumbing it all down without giving us a chance to rise to its level. Some people feel Nolan is pretentious in his filmmaking but until cinemas are filled with movies that could be qualified as pretentious with nary a fun, brainless movie around, then I’ll consider an intelligent movie to be a negative thing. For now, I’ll simply be thankful that a director like Nolan has the audacity to make such sprawling and original movies as this one. 

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