Sunday 16 November 2014
Before The Paradox Passes By
Directed by Christopher Nolan
UK cinema release print.
Hmmm... yeah, okay. I’ll say up front, for any readers who might not make it to the end of this one, that I actually quite liked this movie... but I also have issues with it too.
The thing about the director, Christopher Nolan, is that I don’t usually like his movies, even though I somehow seem to have seen most of them at the cinema. The two I really liked were his second and third Batman films, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises and, though I really hated Batman Begins when it first came out, I’ve learned to have a grudging respect for that one too... mostly only as a “set up” movie, though, because I find it tonally wrong for Batman.
The main problem I always have with Nolan is in his role as a story teller. To me it seems he either dresses up a really simplistic plot and tries to pretend it’s in some way “more” than it actually is (Inception anyone?) or, he’ll make the plot line and ending of his pieces really, very obvious and telegraph it all ahead, more or less, within the very early parts of a particular movie so you’re sitting there wondering why all the characters are left playing catch up for the rest of the, often considerably long, running times (The Prestige, for example). Quite often this annoys the pants off me and I really have a hard time dealing with the way in which everything is so decodable right from the outset and can’t seem to see why people like this, obviously very popular, director so much.
Now, it has to be said, that Interstellar is guilty, to a large degree, of both of these major problems I just identified in Nolan’s work. The difference here though, is that he somehow made me not mind about it so much because he’s also managed to make the obvious seem much more entertaining in this movie. Corny, perhaps, but definitely entertaining.
So let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first, preferably without any spoilerage.
The film does, indeed, telegraph itself way too much. Right from the start we have trouble with a poltergeist in Murph’s room. Murph is the daughter of lead protagonist Cooper, played by the always watchable Matthew McConaughey. The first thing I suspect most of the audience are going to do is draw a very specific conclusion as to Murph’s “ghost” and, by the time you get to the end of the film, the audience may find themselves a bit disappointed that they were right all along.
It doesn’t help when a specific “gravitational message” is kinda “skipped over” and discarded during the opening narrative set ups, once the thing has served its purpose and got Cooper in touch with the people he needs to be in touch with to ignite the plot. The writing and misdirection during these sequences is almost, it has to be said, like watching the film crew realising they’ve painted themselves into a corner and about to reveal the ending of the movie, so they quickly run through the wet paint and hope nobody in the audience notices. However, I’m willing to bet maybe at least half the audience notice this sloppy sleight of hand so... there’s that.
A third ingredient you’ll get which allows you to quickly solve the “riddle” element of the movie is probably something you’ll get just from the marketing for the movie, to be honest. As soon as anyone starts talking about wormholes or black holes, there's a specific phenomenon associated with those that most people will probably think about. Which is, also, kind of a shame. But there’s no escaping that... just like there’s no way of escaping a black hole, right?
One last negative, before I get onto the good stuff... the movie starts off with cross cutting talking heads that speak about a time in Earth’s past when the dust started. Anybody will be able to gauge, right away, the success, or lack of success, of the central mission of this movie from these little clips. You need to contextualise them and, as soon as you do that, you realise just what’s going on there.
Okay... sorry about all that. There’s one more big negative but I’ll get to it in time. Now for all the good stuff, okay?
Interstellar is a pretty good movie. It deals with big issues of a doomed planet Earth and a mission launched to go through a wormhole which has been suddenly “left” by us by “others” and the search for a planet which the population of Earth can either be moved to or colonised with. There’s actually a little twist to that which you’ll probably half guess but which turns out to be false anyway, so that’s quite nice and, without mentioning what it is, serves to increase the dramatic tension and turn a scene of grief into a scene of almost conflict... so there’s that. The film concentrates on Cooper’s mission with his companions and the disaster that’s hitting his home world while he goes about his business trying to save mankind. It has a whole host of really good actors on board for this film in addition to McConaughey, including John Lithgow, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon and they’re all, as you would expect from such a top notch bunch, absolutely believable and convincing in their performances.
There’s also a nice structure to the first third of the movie in that, during the end of a message transmission from Earth to Cooper’s spaceship, we finish with the Earth part of it and we are left to pick up the story back on Earth. We only get back into Cooper’s mission when a similar message is sent and we end back up on the Cooper side of the message as it closes. So that’s a really nice structural thing and, when the director later discards this technique in favour of dramatic and metaphorical cross-cutting between the Earth and the mission, I couldn’t help but think that he was using the nature of the final solution of the movie to move away from that neat style of presentaiton to match this more, seemingly chaotic presentation of the footage. Possibly not but I’d love it if they actually thought about that while they were editing this movie... hopefully that will be addressed some day in future retrospective interviews about this movie.
The film has been compared to Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey by a lot of people at the time I’m writing this but, I have to say, Nolan’s no Kubrick. I say this not to diminish all his good work on this movie but to point out that the use of camera (there’s a surprising amount of hand held work in this) and editing style (often quite jarring) seem to me to be less close to Kubrick than most people have been saying. So, yeah, not actually a good comparison to make, people. In terms of the epic feel and the subject matter, however, then I can see why people are all jumping on and making that comparison, in some way. Certainly, the absence of sound in space is something to be celebrated as making a return to the art of cinema, in my book, anyway.
Actually, the film reminded me more, in one of it’s early sequences, of the great director Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Solaris... in that it jettisons the bits which can be best used in indirect metaphor and discards them in such a way that it gets you to your narrative destinations quicker. For instance, in Solaris, you have a view of a road from a car windscreen as a car goes on a journey and it lasts for many, many minutes without doing much else than look at a moving road. The first time you see the movie, in fact, it seems like maybe a half an hour of nothing happening although, I can assure you, it’s a lot less time than that. After this, we see the main protagonist of Tarkovsky’s film already arriving at his destination at a space station and it’s as though the feel of the previous scene of a car journey was a metaphor for the journey across space. In Interstellar we have a much quicker scene of Matthew McConaughey leaving his daughter on bad terms and then, as we cut from that scene, he is already in space. This works because of the emotional weight of the previous scene and its effect on the lead protagonist as a sense of going on a journey. It’s enough and it also gets us quickly to where we want to be with no unnecessary build up of pencil pushing theories and spaceship construction, training etc. So this approach really works well for Nolan.
Another great thing about the movie is the robots used by NASA that accompany Cooper and co on their mission. When you first see them they are very much presented as a sinister, threatening creation and, I suspect, this is Nolan’s way of trying to deal with the inevitable 2001: A Space Odyssey comparisons he knows would be a pre-conception in the audience and use the plot of that movie as misdirection here. All the way through you’re wondering when one of the robots is going to get all “psychotic HAL 9000” on everybody’s collective ass and Nolan fans these flames by letting you know the robots in question are programmed for 90% honesty. All I will say about that preconception is that there’s certainly an element of an antagonist in the movie but, it doesn’t necessarily come from where you think it will... well, until you actually come in to contact with a specific character and Nolan starts telegraphing it like crazy on first contact with that character but, hey, that’s maybe one of the least successful but strangely entertaining bits of the movie so... not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing to be honest.
In terms of these robots, though, all I will say is that I suspect they’ll be remembered for a long time in the future history of science fiction cinema... long after Nolan is dead, I’m sure. They are very simply designed and as easily iconic as Huey, Duey and Lewey in Silent Running, Brigitte Helm in Metropolis, Robby The Robot in Forbidden Planet (and many other appearances over the years) and the droids in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga. You are certainly not going to forget these robots in a hurry... that’s for sure.
Interstellar works best, for me at any rate, because it delivers a hugely optimistic message about the final fate of humanity. Admittedly, it’s one a lot of people will figure out from the first ten minutes or so of the movie but, hey, it’s still a breath of fresh air in its broad strokes and, although obvious, the twists and turns of this movie are, at least, honed to a very fine and over-the-top level which you maybe won’t be expecting in terms of the details of the film’s final destination. So there’s that too.
Frankly, despite a whole spaceship cargo full of faults, I really quite liked this movie and even though I found Hans Zimmer’s score to be a little too reminiscent of certain sections of the Philip Glass score for Koyaanisqaatsi in a lot of places, even that was quite listenable (I love Philip Glass anyway) and I look forward to hearing the score CD sometime on Christmas day (I suspect)... although I’m apparently not allowed to buy the 2 disc super duper version of the score unless I happen to live in America, which I find to be hugely discriminating and insulting of the publishers, Watertower Music, in terms of omitting people who would love to import and hear this version for themselves. That’s inexcusable in my book.
There is one more big problem with the movie, for me, and I’ve been putting off writing about it because I wanted to make this review spoiler free and... it’s hard to talk about without being specific. As a result the next paragraph is going to seem extremely and unnecessarily cryptic to people who haven’t seen the film (possibly even to those who have) and, frankly, if you’ve not seen it you might want to skip this next paragraph anyway, in case there are inadvertent spoilers in my words. I’ll do my best to sum it up though.
The identity of the “helping hand” and the placement of the wormhole and the so called twist ending of the movie creates an awful paradox. The entire narrative could never have happened without the main events of that narrative already having taken place. Since the advanced and evolved nature of a certain collective identity can justify that paradox by actually bypassing the physics that such a paradox is created by, then there was no need to actually go back and do that stuff anyway. So if you look at the problem from one end of the equation you have a massive paradox which can’t happen or, from the other end, you have a completely irrational event taking place because, frankly, this stuff doesn’t need to have happened to create the series of events that gets us to that paradox in the first place. So it’s a bit rubbish in terms of the whole film really meaning nothing and is a completely pointless exercise, if you choose to look at it in those terms.
There you go... that paragraph will hopefully make a lot more sense once you’ve seen the movie and, that being said, the level of the art and craft of this particular movie outweighs, as far as I'm concerned, this same old mistake as it is made time and again by movie folk. So, yeah, it’s guilty of the same crimes a lot of science fiction movies in the last 20 years or so have been guilty of... and I won’t name them because the titles could constitute spoilerage of this movie for a lot of people... but I would normally condemn a movie hard for making just this kind of mistake (and have done so this past year with a very popular franchise movie) but I’m gong to let Interstellar off the hook because the message is one of hope and there’s always a justification for this kind of mistake somewhere along the line when the broad strokes are this big, I suspect.
And that's that, I think, for my review of Interstallar. A more or less spoiler free look at a movie which relies relatively heavily on relativity and uses it for both dramatic tension and resolution. It’s almost three hours with no interval, so that’s a problem in itself... but ultimately it’s worth the butt numbing trial to take a look at this one on a big screen. It definitely needs to be seen large, that’s for sure. Although I suspect I’m still going to find Nolan a bit hit and miss on future films because his modus operandi seems to be the same as it always was. Here’s to hoping he proves me wrong... I like to see good movies as much as the next person.