Sunday, November 9, 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar (2014) co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan

As a filmmaker, Christopher Nolan has crafted some very pessimistic films. Sometimes the protagonists are hard to root for from the beginning (The Prestige), sometimes the final twist makes an otherwise sympathetic character unlikeable (Insomnia, Memento). The Dark Knight trilogy ended on a surprisingly happy note which some of Nolan's fans complained about. Why couldn't it be more ambiguous, like the end of Inception? I'm an unusual fan--I groaned at the very last bit of Inception and smiled wholeheartedly at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. I admire Nolan as a storyteller but find his bleak outlook on people unappealing.

His latest film is Interstellar, a movie about a near future Earth where things are bad. Every crop except corn has been eliminated by blight. Dust storms sweep across the landscape, forcing people to wear eye and mouth protection. Education is also being ravaged--grade schools teach that the Apollo missions were faked so that the Soviet Union would go bankrupt trying to keep up in the space race. Ex-NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer (like everyone else) who still believes in technology. He wants his son Tom to go to college but his grades aren't good enough so the son is forced to become a farmer like his dad; Cooper wants his daughter Murph to know the truth but saying the Apollo missions really did happen gets her a suspension.

Murph likes science but is open to more. She claims a ghost haunts her room. Books drop off shelves and strange patterns form in dust. Murph and Cooper discuss the phenomenon and he convinces her to look at it scientifically. They conclude that gravity is being distorted and discover a pattern in the events, specifically Morse code messages. One message is coordinates which lead to an underground NASA base. NASA has been discredited publicly. Even so they continue to work on projects that will save the humans on Earth. One project is to fly through a wormhole that has opened near Saturn and discover other possible inhabitable planets on the other side. But who opened the wormhole? Are there any good planets? Can they get to them before the Earth becomes uninhabitable?

The movie has a very complicated plot and deals with lots of big ideas like the nature of gravity, time, truth, and love, among others. So viewers' brains have a lot to chew on while their eyes and ears are amazed by the story unfolding. The relationship between Cooper and his daughter is central to the story and has interesting parallels and contrasts in the many other relationships in the movie between various characters. The need for a personal connection to someone who loves you and how to sustain that connection in hard circumstances are the most interesting elements in the movie. Nolan delivers a rather sentimental and positive conclusion about people, which pleasantly surprised for me. The science is interesting but not very convincing (it is fiction, after all, and any science portrayed needs to support the storytelling) and becomes a little too much deus ex machina at the end, a less pleasant surprise for me. I have some spoilerific comments on this below if you scroll further down past the links.

I enjoyed the movie but it is not Nolan's best by far. It is worth seeing on the big screen for the amazing visuals but I doubt it will improve or be more interesting with subsequent viewings.

As the film comes to a conclusion, the characters deduce that the gravity distortions are made possible by future humans who have benefited from the theoretical discoveries made by Murph (with help from her dad through one of the deus ex machina contrivances). These future humans not only enable Cooper to communicate with his daughter in the past, they also deliver him back to her part of the galaxy through another deus ex machina so they can have a tearful reunion before the end credits. All this strains credulity a bit too much, especially as it is really a humanus ex machina explanation. While I applaud Nolan for having a more upbeat view of humanity, I think he's gone too far in the other extreme. I don't think mankind is going to progress to the point where we can use gravity like it's magic. If Interstellar didn't take its science so seriously I don't think I'd be bothered as much or so disappointed.

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