Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ reaches for the stars but never achieves orbit.

"We are explorers, not caretakers. We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down at our place in the dirt." - Cooper

This is a beautiful idea that resonates in a time filled with turmoil, war, and corruption. It speaks to a NASA that is tracking global warming as its main mission and not space exploration. It suggests that humans have greatness, hope, potential, and Interstellar strives to reach this level of aspiration. Unfortunately, Christopher Nolan's 168 minute film is cold, full of plot holes, decent-to-poor special effects, and lacks a human heartbeat.

Interstellar begins on a farm somewhere in Middle America, where a pilot-turned-farmer named Cooper lives with his daughter Murph, his son Tom and his father-in-law Donald. The world's food crop has all been all but destroyed from a disease called "The Blight" and now only corn can be grown. As a result, Earth faces giant dust storms that have rendered Earth all but uninhabitable. Cooper is a family man, and is a man born in the wrong era. A pilot, an explorer, a dreamer has now become a farmer, and uses his engineering background to make machines work the fields. Schools are teaching children that the Apollo missions were elaborate fakes, in order to ensure the children will only want to be farmers and not dream of attempting anything bigger.

 Murph believes that their house is haunted by a ghost, which constantly pushes books off of her bookshelf, but Cooper challenges her to study the situation as a scientist and learn what is really happening to her books. During a massive dust storm, Murph accidentally leaves her window open, and the dust begins to accumulate on her floor in a pattern that resembles morse code. Cooper decides that what’s happening inside of Murph’s room isn’t supernatural; it’s just a curious gravitational anomaly. An anomaly which gives them coordinates to an unknown location through morse code.

So, Cooper and his daughter hop in the family truck, drive towards then unknown, and leave no note or communication for his son or father-in-law. They drive for an entire day, and reach an super secret NASA headquarters where Michael Caine's Professor Brand is building a rocket to take astronauts into space to find a new planet for the human race to live on. It just so happens that Cooper is a former student of Brand's, and everyone at NASA believes that aliens have sent Cooper the morse code coordinates through dust particles; so they entrust the last rocket and the hope of the human race to Cooper. With no training, and with little thought or regret, except with his daughter, Cooper agrees to take on the mission, even though that means possibly never seeing his family again. Cooper's father-in-law and son just seem to accept this news, and only Murph is genuinely upset at his leaving. After promising her he'll return, he boards the rocket and we are blasting off to Saturn where a wormhole has been discovered that can lead to three potential planets humans can use as a new home. The sound of Cooper's truck racing away merges into the sound of a space shuttle lifting off, and Nolan wants us to believe that leaving Earth is almost an afterthought to leaving his real home, his family. Unfortunately, it feels rushed and almost cruel as we quickly transition to the second act of the film.

Fear of never again seeing a parent or a child should be explored much more than it does here.. 

The second half of the film consists of that journey, and the inherent dangers, mistakes and conflicts. Coop is joined by Brand's daughter Amelia, two other astronauts, and a robot named TARS.  The journey to Saturn and through the wormhole was already going to take years, but time spent on one specific planet near a black hole means that each hour there equals seven years of earth time. This allows the magnificent Jessica Chastain to play Coop's daughter as an resentful adult.

The film is obviously inspired by Stanley Kubrick's science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that gave the science fiction genre a sense of weight, especially compared to the silly B-Movies of the 1950's and 1960's. Nolan appears to be trying to take the same approach to a film industry full of reboots, remakes, and consumed more with bottom lines and less about art and spectacle. Nolan has often been criticized as a cold and distant filmmaker, and his films often lack a human core. He's like a scientist exploring what makes us human: His films study fear, anarchy, memory, dreams, storytelling, but he never gets to the human heart. Nolan is torn between a film filled with hard science of time, space, dimension and a tear-jerking father-daughter melodrama. Nolan focuses heavily on Cooper and his daughter, a relationship where each mirrors the other, obsessed with science and the thrill of discovery. It's a great concept, but like the crops being planted on Nolan's future Earth, it never takes root and blooms.

Once Cooper enters the wormhole, he can no longer send messages back to his family, so Nolan give's Hathaway's Brand monologues about the power and transcendence of love that culminate at the dream-turned-nightmare of reliving the moment he left Murph, and not being able to change a thing. When he finally catches up to his long-lost daughter, a scene that should be heartbreaking and touching lasts mere moments before she sends him away to chase after Amelia who is on the one hospitable planet.

There are a lot of issues with Interstellar, and it begins at the script level. There is a lot of I-am-now-going-to-explan-what-is-going-on-at-this-moment dialogue, and the script often reduces complex scientific theories into way too simplistic explanations like "gravity problems." Early on we’re shown talking head interviews with elderly eyewitnesses who are evidently survivors of the earth’s death, including the first lines spoken by a woman saying "My father was a farmer..." and immediately makes the audience assume she is Murph, speaking of the present in which the film opens about a distant past, and as a result removes any suspense as to the question of humanity’s chances of enduring.

The film uses Dylan Thomas's famous poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" constantly through the film, and as a result, it loses its meaning and power. Michael Caine's character reveals on his deathbed that he was lying the entire film, and there is no way for humans to launch a space station that will carry all of mankind to the wormhole, and the only hope is for the frozen embryos stored on Cooper's ship. Why would a man so concerned with the survival of the human race, waste precious time and resources building a space station that will never take off instead of creating multiple smaller ships like Cooper's and stock each one with people and embryos? Why put literally all of man's eggs in one basket?

When they visit the water planet that is close to the black hole, they realize that each hour spent on the surface results in seven years of time passing back on the shuttle and earth. Time is of the essence, and each moment is a precious as a drop of fuel, or a molecule of oxygen. To make matters worse, the gravity on the surface is much stronger than on Earth, slowing them down even further. Instead of landing the ship right next to the wreckage of the explorer vessel that crashed both moments before and decades ago, Cooper lands at least a few hundred yards away.

Amelia travels out to collect the hard drive of the wreckage of the ship to learn what happened as a giant wave grows behind her. She has no chance on making it back to the shuttle before the wave hits her due to the gravity, but suddenly this point, the  previously slow moving, monolythic TARS suddenly turns into a fast moving wheel that rushes out of the shuttle, scoops up Hathaway, and runs her back to the ship just as the wave crashes around them. Why didn't they send TARS in the first place instead of Amelia? The robot is MUCH faster, saving them that precious time, and wouldn't have risked a precious human life. But Amelia has to leave, because the wave has to hit and carry the shuttle like the Andrea Gail from "The Perfect Storm" and that will leave the engines flooded, forcing Cooper and Amelia to spend more time on this planet, and allows Murph to age into adulthood back on Earth.

Once they arrive back at the main ship, Cooper catches up on the video messages that he can receive but can't reply to.  Decades have passed and his children, now adults, believe him to be long dead. McConaughey breaks down, and it's at this moment where Nolan connects the cosmic and the intimate. The survival of the family of man relies solely in the hands on one man's family. An astronaut searching for a planet, and a daughter searching for an answer as to the mysteries of her haunted room, and a way to get humans to the planet her father might be able to find.

That moment is unfortunately too brief as the crew realizes they have to choose between two other planets, as they won't have enough resources to visit both and still make it back through the wormhole. Amelia whose character has consistently told Cooper "You might have to decide between seeing your children again and the future of the human race." suddenly pivots, not out of a natural progression, but because the script requires it. She chooses the planet to visit, not because it has the best chance to support human life, but because her old boyfriend Edmunds was the astronaut sent to explore it, and there is a chance he is still alive. Suddenly the scientist that pushed for putting personal emotions aside to face hard scientific facts is saying "Maybe we've spent too long trying to figure all this out with theory." and "Love is the one thing that transcends time and space." The survival of the whole human race hinges on a gut feeling and a hope. Moments before, we had that connection of the intimate and the grand, and here it falls flat because the sudden shift in the character and motivation betraying all that came before. She cares less about the human race, and more about healing a broken heart.

The crew then visits the other planet against Amelia's wishes and soon lean that the planet thought most hospitable is instead a series of frozen clouds, and is not what they were told. Matt Damon plays the stranded astronaut, named "Dr. Mann" (groan) who was supposed to represent the best among us, is revealed to be petty, cruel, and somewhat evil. He landed on the planet, realized it wasn't fit, but corrupts the data sent back to Earth to suggest it is suitable in the hopes that a landing party would land and rescue him. Once Cooper and Amelia arrive, and realize the truth, Mann could have confessed and chances are they forgive him, or at least take him with them to the other plane Edmunds landed on. There is no way they would leave a fellow human stranded, especially when there are so few left, and he could be an asset to the mission. With all the high tech equipment available, they can't tell from orbit that it's not going to support life? Once they land, how would one frozen glacier cloud tell you anything about the rest of the planet?  Like the videos that can only be transported one way, the answer seems to be: Technology in Interstellar only works as much as the plot needs it to work.

 Instead the script has Mann turn to his base desires, and after a laughable fight with Cooper which results in headbutting until a helmet cracks, he steals one of the ships and attempts to dock with the mother ship Endurance (another groan worthy name) and will leave Cooper and Amelia stranded like he was. Mann does not know how to dock with Endurance, and Cooper has conveniently changed the computer to allow automatic locking procedures. He continues to tell Mann not to open the hatch, but the warnings are ignored, and Mann's ship explodes causing Endurance to spin out of control. Even though there is a huge debris field after the incident, Cooper conveniently flies straight through with little to no evasive maneuvers, and after matching the rapid rotations of Endurance, he docks safely.

Nearly out of fuel, Cooper and Amelia plan to slingshot Endurance around Gargantua on a course toward Edmunds. TARS and Cooper detach into the black hole, hoping to collect data on the singularity and propel Amelia by dropping mass from the ship. They emerge in an extra-dimensional "tesseract" where time appears as a spatial dimension and portals lead to Murphy's childhood bedroom at various times. Cooper realizes the extra-dimensional beings are future humans who have created this space so he can communicate with Murphy as the "ghost" and save humanity. Using gravitational waves, he transmits TARS's data on the singularity to the adult Murphy through Morse code, allowing her to solve Brand's equation and evacuate Earth. Question: If Murphy never leaves her window open during the dust storm, would Cooper have been able to send him the coordinates to the NASA base?Also, if Cooper is the one sending the Morse code, that means he sent himself the coordinates of NASA, but without the coordinates, he would never have made it to the Tesseract to give them to himself. If Murphy had never left her window open during the dust storm, Cooper would never have been able to manipulate gravity to give the corrdinates For a film praised for it's hard science, it sure overlooks major timeline issues.

Also, we are supposed to believe that Murphy is now a world-class scientist, and she decides that the answer to humanity's fate resides in her childhood's haunted bedroom bookshelf?

Years later, Cooper awakes aboard a NASA space station and reunites with the now elderly Murphy, who has led humanity's exodus. Murphy convinces Cooper to search for Amelia, who has begun work on Plan B on Edmunds' planet. The entire film has centered around Cooper searching for Murphy and she yearns to learn his fate, and maybe be reunited with him. The love of a father for his daughter has been a central theme, and Nolan gives maybe two minutes to them being reunited. She basically says that her "family" is already with her, and he should go find Ameila. Cooper once again leaves Murphy with little remorse, debate, or emotion. Since the script established that you can't communicate from the planets on the other side of the wormhole, Cooper has no idea if Brand and Edmunds are happily raising embryonic humans, or if she is all alone and lonely for Cooper, or if she's even dead. Better yet, how did his 95-year-old daughter who just barely woke up from two years of being unconciousness, know all about Brand?

Nolan's seems to suggest throughout the film that humanity is wasteful, exploitive, cruel, full of liars and even the best among us is corrupt and can't be trusted. From Mann to Brand - the best of humanity lies to achieve selfish ends. Humans have destroyed one planet and now must find another to take control of.

Nolan has said in interviews that he hopes the movie will encourage more public interest in space travel, and I support this entirely. I remember watching Challenger explode as a child in school, and the teacher telling us that it was a tragedy, but the great thing about the human race is we will remember those lost, but it won't stop us from continuing to push forward and explore. I hate the idea that the United States has to hitch a ride on Russian rockets to the International Space Station, and that regimes like Russia and China will be the only countries actively supporting space exploration. Europeans recently landed on a comet, and we watch weather patterns.

Nolan is reaching for the stars with this film, but it never manages to take flight. The sound mix in the IMAX format was brutal, with heavy bass that blotted out dialogue, and the Hans Zimmer score broadcasts every moment with sonic punches about your eardrums, instead of hinting and suggesting and moving.  It's all bombast, and non-stop, much like the film it's scoring.

While it's hard to compare Interstellar to Gravity on a narrative level, I believe you can on a cinematic one. I saw both films on IMAX and there were scenes in the Alfonso Cuaron that took your breath away. The scene where Kowalski floats away from Stone, you are gut punched on how small humans are, how dangerous the universe is, how fragile life is. The camera spins around planets and ships, darting and flying and revealing. Nolan keeps going back to the fixed angle on the back of the ship as it moves through space. The ship flying past Saturn looks like a small model against a painted backdrop, and while the wormhole and blackhole may be scientifically correct, it didn't inspire awe or grandeur. The planets we visit are bland and boring. A planet covered in water only a few inches deep except for giant waves, a frozen ice planet, a black/sooty rock covered planet. We've seen all this before in better movies. Give me something ALIEN, something terrifying, something awe inspiring. The ice planet has less gravity, and we see some arm-based thrusters the astronauts use, but that is the one moment of technology we see. I'm not asking for laser pistols, but give me something on the cutting edge of science, something unique, but plausible.

I am or rather was a Nolan fanboy. There was a time I told my students he was this generations genius auteur, and at the time I thought he could do no wrong. I wonder if the success of the Batman franchise has given him so much creative freedom and clout, that there is no one to tell him no anymore. He can have unlimited budgets and make any story he wants. His wife is the producer, his brother is the co-screenwriter and he is the director. He casts the same actors, composer, and until this film, cinematographer. He seems to be insulating himself, and much like George Lucas, is becoming convinced of his own genius. He no longer has to think outside the box, and create unique and interesting stories that challenge the audience like Momento, or The Prestige. He can do whatever he wants, however he wants, whenever he wants, and there is no one to say "This isn't good." I was severely let down by the Dark Knight Rises, and now Interstellar. I hope this is a rough patch, and he maybe next does a small, intimate, and intricate film. Forget the bombast. Forget the grandeur. Tell me a good story. At the end of the day, that's all I want from a film. Nolan seems to have forgotten that a movie lives and dies with its script, and all the blaring music from Hans Zimmer, all the doe eyed closeups of Anne Hathaway, and all the greatness of Sir Michael Caine, don't matter if the story is flawed.

Just tell me a good story. That's what a lot of Hollywood and sadly Christopher Nolan have forgotten.

No comments: