Monday, November 17, 2014


A truly effective outer-space sci-fi thriller could be said to function on two levels. First is the way it works to represent, visually, the vastness and terrifying beauty of all that is beyond earthly perimeters, an aspect wherein possibilities have expanded of late, thanks to evolving digital technology capable of painting ever more realistic cosmic canvases for our viewing pleasure. And second is the cultivation of the sort of allegorical pull that the concept of space abounds in, where the wonder and terror of hurtling into the unknowable wilderness, far from all things familiar, could express anything from collective social and political anxieties to existential questions about where humanity stands in the grand scheme of things. The astute filmmaker is able to blend these two sides—what film researchers Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska call ‘spectacle’ and ‘speculation’—with productions that are as intimate in emotional perspective as they are enormous in physical scale. Unfortunately, it’s this sort of balancing act that Christopher Nolan’s new film just isn’t able to get right. While “Interstellar”s gears might be all accounted for—the film doesn’t lack in visual and conceptual ambition, and boasts a cast littered with some of Hollywood’s brightest—how these click into place is a different story. Granted, we’re offered some impressive sights to fawn over, and a few heavy ideas to chew on, but both are steamrollered under the easy sentimentality that has been unwisely elected as the film’s cornerstone, dampening narrative impact. To be plain, “Interstellar” is just not as smart or as complex as it pretends to be, and the illusion is stretched perilously thin over the 167-minute running time. Like so many other sci-fi flicks, this one too opens in an unstated future date, where the Earth has been wrecked by pollution and disease, much of the population eliminated, and persistent dust storms tormenting those who remain. These are distinctly technophobic times—believing scientific innovation to have caused the ruin, the government has abolished its practice in favour of an emphasis on farm-work. And somewhere amid the cornfields of rural America lives the widowed Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) with daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow). Coop used to be a NASA engineer and test pilot until the agency was shut down, and though he has since been making a living off of farming, he can’t help but rue the loss of his former life. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” he says. “Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” It’s of some consolation to him that Murph shares his interest in science. Among the things they routinely discuss is the ‘ghost’ in her room she swears has been trying to talk to her. Coop is dismissive, until one day, he sees proof of this presence, and it’s soon giving him directions to a mysterious spot. This turns out to be the hidden NASA headquarters, where a team led by Dr Brand (Michael Caine) has been planning to resettle humans on other planets—the only way the species can survive. He explains to Coop about a ‘wormhole’ that’s opened up near Saturn, a portal to other galaxies. A dozen scientists have already passed through it, one-way, but only three have been in contact. NASA needs a crew to head out and verify the findings, and Coop is asked to lead the mission, accompanied by three others (Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi and Wes Bentley). Though it’s agonising to leave his children—Murph might never speak to him again—Coop knows it’s the only shot at giving them a better future. But this isn’t just any trip we’re talking about; he doesn’t know whether he’s ever coming back, or what state he’ll be in if he does, given that the further he moves out there, the lesser he’s bound to the rules of terra firma. It goes without saying that Nolan has a knack for staging dazzling, elaborate set pieces: just think back to that scene in “Inception” where the streets of Paris are collapsing on each other, or the action sequences threading the “Dark Knight” movies. “Interstellar” certainly showcases its share of awe-inspiring imagery; working with production designer Nathan Crowley, VFX supervisor Paul Franklin and, for the first time, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, the director invents a realm that is detailed and captivating. Whether it’s the intricate rendering of machinery or the various celestial landscapes we’re made to encounter—or just the silent nothingness in between—it all feels authentic, and is reportedly accurate to a large degree, thanks to astrophysicist Kip Thorne, brought on as consultant as well as being a producer. The beauty of the images, or even the heady intellectual themes that the film, on the surface, appears to grapple with, however, is not enough to forge a necessary engagement with the story or characters. This is because at the very core of “Interstellar”s script—written by Nolan with his brother Jonathan—is a protracted parent-child saga, which still would’ve been fine had it not been painted in such clichéd, simplistic colours as it is here, splotched in sappy melodrama. Everything else is mere decoration, and that fact becomes more and more apparent as we go on—ironic how a film that harps on big ideas like mankind’s connection with the wider universe and the resilience of hope and love, is actually quite narrow and unimaginative in focus. By the end, you’ll have been so hammered by pseudo-portentous dialogue, incomprehensibly dense talk about time-space paradoxes, extra-dimensions, and so on—set against a score by Hans Zimmer that tries to strangle the tears out of you—that any mention of the ‘relativity of time’ or Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is liable to make your head throb. Nolan is lucky to have secured actors who are able to give the film what little emotional heft it possesses. McConaughey, whose character is the only one that seems to have been drawn with any effort, has become one of those performers who can’t really do any wrong, and trademark southern drawn in place, he cruises by confidently. The rest of the cast, including the younger members, all man their corners well, though one wishes Hathaway and Jessica Chastain (who comes in later) were given more to do; both are terrific actresses, but confined by ill-written roles. “Interstellar” is, ultimately, inadequate: it goes all out when it comes to visuals, but there isn’t enough underlying substance to really drive it home. I’d recommend catching it on the big screen—if cinemas in Nepal do decide to carry it—but otherwise, you’re much better off revisiting Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Now that’s some stellar sci-fi.

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