November 05, 2014


Coming up on Season 10 of True Detective...

Grade: B +
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Ellen Burstyn, Mackenzie Foy, Topher Grace, John Lithgow and Matt Damon
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 49 min.

During the somewhat-distant-future in director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, mankind’s pioneering impulse has been purposefully supplanted by a socially engineered “generation of caretakers.” With food resources becoming scarce, all but the best and brightest grade school children are steered away from college and into agricultural careers. Militaries have been mostly disbanded. School textbooks have been revised to reflect the “truth” that the Apollo space program was a hoax designed to lure the Soviets into a financially ruinous space race. A skeletal NASA has been literally and figuratively forced underground.

In other words, Nolan redirects the conservative political leanings of his Dark Knight trilogy into a space saga centered around a dad, grandpa and two younguns living in corn-covered flyover country, decimated by blight into a neo-Dust Bowl. The film stops short in its explanation for the crop decay and increasingly contaminated air that will make Earth uninhabitable for humans in a matter of decades. A drive-by explanation from Dr. Tom Brand (Michael Caine), an aging scientist, references excessive nitrogen dioxide levels but sidesteps any mention of climate change or human causes. “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here,” Brand conspicuously declares.

“We’ve forgotten who we are,” bemoans former NASA pilot-turned-farmer Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), swigging on a beer and Nolan’s script. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

Recruited by Brand, Cooper faces a Sophie’s choice whether to remain on Earth with his daughter Murph (played as a 10-year-old by Mackenkie Foy) and son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and betray his altruistic principles, or rocket into space on a mission to save the human race but leave his children behind to possibly perish on a dying planet.

Ultimately, Cooper follows the film’s refrain, Dylan Thomas’ villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” and completes a quartet of spacefarers who include the knowingly named Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Brand’s daughter, along with a sarcastic, interactive articulated machine named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin). Their destination is a wormhole near Saturn, opened by an unknown someone/thing, that leads to another galaxy and a trio of possible habitable worlds, each named for three astronauts sent into the breach years earlier as part of the also knowingly titled Lazarus scouting expedition.

Interstellar is densely plotted, even confounding at times, and canopied by a constellation of plot holes and contrivances. And that’s before it arrives at an inscrutable, pretentious final act that’s part M. Night Shyamalan, part sappy Steven Spielberg. There was an actual Plan B available to Cooper and Amelia—and the filmmakers—that would have stamped this saga with poignancy coupled with the bittersweet hope of Eden. Instead, a script grounded on the virtues of courage and sacrifice ultimately shirks from both.

That said, the same critiques of being plodding, pretentious, illogical and capped by a head-scratching climax (or shaggy God story) were hurled at 2001: A Space Odyssey nearly a half-century ago, one of the many films Nolan admits influenced Interstellar’s captivating visuals and structure. [And in truth, being riddled with plot holes is a regular occurrence with Christopher Nolan scripts.]

Like Stanley Kubrick’s space-set magnum opus, Interstellar is epic filmmaking that’s operatic in its grandeur, ambitions and sheer scope—seeing the IMAX rendering is a must, despite some muddled sound mixing that’s increasingly endemic to Nolan’s films. Set to Hans Zimmer’s engrossing, relentless and pipe organ-laden soundtrack, the film envelopes the audience for its nearly three-hour running time and transports them on a journey to the far reaches of the cosmos.

But unlike 2001, the film also traverses a labyrinth of human traits and frailties: love, friendship, betrayal, pragmatism, idealism and family. Particularly, the parent-child relationship is reflected by the funhouse mirror of relativity, so that while Amelia watches her father die from across the stars, Cooper sees Murph and Tom (played as adults by Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck) age past him and grow their own families and lives.

Indeed, Nolan’s “caretakers” rejoinder may also be directed at the current generation of big-budget moviemakers, cogs in an assembly line of sequels-of-the-week and shoot ‘em ups. Interstellar is a big movie about big ideas—the intertwining of society, technology, the planet and humankind—that most studio bean counters would rather eschew since they don’t fit neatly inside a Happy Meal or video game.

The lineage of Interstellar is as old as D.W. Griffith and as recent as Spielberg. And while Thomas’ challenge to “rage against the dying of the light” refers to our resistance to extinction in the film, it’s also a clarion call to push the boundaries of an art form. The voyage might be bumpy and include some unfortunate detours, but it’s a helluva ride worth taking.

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