Monday, November 10, 2014


Failed NASA testpilot turned failing farmer stumbles into an active role in a plan to save humanity from its self destructive urge through a mission to the stars. The good part is that this calls upon a dizzying array of ideas that render this epic into genuine science fiction and not just a sicence fiction setting. The bad part is that these are frequently undercut by great lunking cliches and dimmer sparks. Once again, Christopher Nolan has given us a great popcorn movie but held us down until we slap the playground dirt and call it an epic.


This is a real cinematic feast. Nolan knows his movies and trusts you to follow him without the need to wink at this reference to Kubrick or that subversion of convention. He creates a layer that is constantly plain and compelling. Motivation, location, information are all administered at the optimum doses. This frees him up to do some fancy footwork with his concepts and serve all that with some muscular imagery. When we arrive at Saturn in full IMAX we feel the heft of how we got there as we marvel at the scale and majesty without the faintest whiff of cheese. When we sit in the middle of a discussion of the drastic time shift involved in being on a planet with strong gravity we are rivetted. When we drive through the whipping chaos of a cornfield or leave the Earth's atmosphere we feel privileged to be in a cinema. Christopher Nolan, champion of celluloid shooting and projection and the IMAX format, adds that pleasurable solemnity to the thrill as much as a Kubrick or John Ford did.

The central tale of a parent and child reconciling their separation over time and distance, an arc older than Noah's, weaves so beautifully into the outer layer of breathtaking concept that its delivery almost masks the fact that you pretty much got it half way through. This is not just a sci-fi setting, it's real sci-fi. The substance of this film contains real awe and joy.

It's godless. Apart from the curlywurly preponderances 'pon love which could (but don't) plummet into the porridge of the concept of spirituality, this story does not suggest a sentient cosmic force. What we do get is something you'll work for yourself about halfway through but something so beautifully delivered that it will leave you smiling. That's one less globe of Gouda to deal with in an epic so stuffed with them. Unlike in Prometheus there is none of the "choose to believe" nonsense.

The casting is sensational (for an exception see below). Matthew McConaughey again shows us why he's been appearing in such gift roles for the past few years as he stands as tall as a Gary Cooper, comments as wryly as a Roland Coleman and is as chiseled and present as a Gregory Peck. His performance actually transcends the cheese he is frequently asked to munch on. The scene of parting between him and his young daughter is genuinely heartrending. This is is large part due to her casting by the young un Mackenzie Foy who if she can stick with it and get into a YA lit adaptation around nineteen will wow us all again.


Why is Michael Caine in this film? He loiters near the teleprompter, his old man slacks stapled to his ribcage, delivering trailer soundbites and pages of exposition with a kind of wall-eyed somnambulism. He exhibits no affinity with his lines at all except for the Dylan Thomas quote about raging against the dying of the light which, on reflection might have been appropriated by Nolan as Caine was caught on mic murmuring something that did mean something to him. Chris, next time cast someone who cares.

There's a moment in James Cameron's hokey but fun The Abyss where Ed Harris is getting kitted up for a possible suicide mission and is asked by a character "why him?" It's a good question: he's the captain of the sub and has so far done a bang up job at the helm, fending off the openly loony military maven and taken the crew through some very nasty straits. So, why should he be the one to deprive his vessel and crew of his highly capable leadership? "Someone's got to do it," he says. And we are meant to think," oh, ok, it's just a movie, let's go with that."

In Interstellar these big goofy cheese sandwiches are down to Matthew McConaughey and feel so clumsy that they bring all the fast thinking to the big grinding halt that happens when the picnic whinger finds out the wrong kind of tomato sauce was packed. During a pretty fascinating dialogue about the strategy to approach a planet with a big time shift issue (an hour spent there is seven years everywhere else) Cooper (M Mc) flips a digital display of the planet to find a white board which he draws a stick figure version of exactly the same picture and suggests a viable plan to minimise the time damage. The hard core sci-bods around him light up with recognition and approval. One smiles: "that could work." Really? It could work? Even I understood the plan. They knew everything else about the problem on earth and yet not one of these family-sized brains thought of it back on Earth. Really? Really?

Later Cooper rattles off a perfectly serviceable list of the biological reasons for the existence of love and a scientist overrides them with obfuscation so bullshitty it might have been written by M. Night Shamylan. It's like the "that's what I choose to believe" line that undermined the entirety of Prometheus (well, there were other things but that's the one that killed it for me).

I am usually happy allowing the credibility stretches of a piece of fiction to slide along and let the story take wing but Interstellar contains so many of the "if you knew that thing could do that minutes ago why the hell did it take you so long ....?" moments that it might as well have been as dire as Prometheus. It is saved, to its credit, by being less abjectly idiotic as that one, though, despite these winces.

This really should have been around ninety minutes long. It's not a blockbuster with brains so much as a brainy film with bloat. If you can track it down there's a Spanish film called Time Crimes which deals with time anomalies in a dizzying but complete fashion and contains none of the baggage in the hold of Interstellar to make it feel as big as its ideas. I also think of the bonus disc in David Lynch's Lime Green Set. That disc included a feature length collection of scenes left out of the final cut of Wild At Heart and it's instructive viewing. Each of the scenes not only makes perfect sense but could have come from any conventional film, despite sharing the look and setting of the released version. What Lynch excised from his film was everything ordinary and created something that, while not my favourite of his, is in its every frame and sound signed by him. Nolan has heavy talent as a filmmaker but is too given to quite needless playing to the gallery. Could I suggest the gallery would be better pleased if he eviscerated his films of everything but that core whose intellect invites us in so that we thrill at our own discovery as the gifts meet us from the screen? I'm not asking for Tarkovsky; Nolan, the Nolan of Memento and The Prestige, will do just fine.

So, how do I deal with a movie I have to keep apologising for if I am to publicly admire it? I remember the pleasures of the ride to keep from feeling dirty.


  1. A feast it is! The sci-fi elements were near perfection but it really lost steam for me around the three-quarter mark when it started really overstuffing the plot with American sentimentality. Right when I should have been gripping my seat with anticipation I felt like I was being spoon-fed implausibly convenient teary wrap-ups. Also, why does it take a Saturn-V style rocket to escape Earth's gravity but any other planet, including one with 130% of Earth's gravity, could be cruised in and out on a lander? I'll let the facts slip but the over sentimentality definitely let things down too gently at the end.

  2. Good points all, Daniel, but we could just keep making them. I'll just point back to my final sentence and recall all that yummy IMAX fun ;)

  3. says, 'She has also gone along for this quantum ride, but not returned a ghost, or as the phantom of the library - lol.'