Friday, November 28, 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar

Normally this film would fall into the category of "movies I'm interested in but not enough to pay DC theater prices so I'll wait for the DVD" but, much like Princess Kaguya, this is a film where the experience of seeing it on a big screen is part of the draw. Or in this case, seeing it on a 70mm film playing IMAX theater at work with the sound so loud it was literally rattling some of the building (not an exaggeration, I had to deal with the rattling first hand when I was covering for a coworker). Even with an employee discount the ticket price still made me wince, was it worth it in the end?


Sometime in the near future, the Earth is dying and humanity is dying with it. But there are those such as Dr. Brand and his daughter Dr. Amelia Brand who don't think that humanity is meant to die on Earth and have for years been working on a secret, exploratory mission to send man through a wormhole to an area of space with many more inhabitable planets. Cooper once had ties with NASA but now lives on a family farm with his father-in-law, son, and brilliant daughter Murphy and while going on this journey means he may never see them again he wants to make sure they have a future and sets off as part of the second step in this attempt.

To start this review bluntly, I walked out of this film thinking that no, I didn't really enjoy it. As I've explained to a few people, I had no problem with the science in the movie (I was already vaguely familiar with relativity and black holes but this video explains it quickly for anyone whose not) but the logic that connected the movie together completely fell apart for me. It feels odd to say this about a 3 hour movie but I think that Nolan just had too many ideas for one film, I'm very curious if he had to cut a number of scenes either after filming or while writing since there were some parts of the movie where it felt like a full scene was missing. 

I did miss the first few minutes of this movie but as it turns out I had already seen the scene online, it's where Cooper is meeting with his daughter's teacher and she mentions that the moon landings are now widely believed to be a hoax which was, odd. I understand that it's supposed to be a precursor to one of the big themes of the movie which is about humans trusting each other etc, and that it's also a sign of how inward looking society has become, but instead it made me wonder "Wait, why are people calling this a sci-fi movie about how great and hopeful space exploration is? The characters don't think so!" In this future Earth humanity, or at least USians, believe no only that we've never gone to the moon but also that NASA has disbanded after they failed to drop "hunger bombs" in areas where people were starving*, this isn't the case but NASA is only looking towards the stars again because humanity is still literally starving. I fail to see how a "we have no choice but to leave this world" story is supposed to be an optimistic space movie, unlike say the first Star Trek reboot film a few years back (and the classic series as a whole) where people have chosen to explore space because they can, this is no celebration of science but rather a story where people are using science as just one of the many tools to survive.

One of those bits of setting I mentioned above brings me to another point, I've seen other people criticize this movie for explaining too many things but I felt like the movie did a terrible job at connecting it's various ideas and scenes. "Show don't tell" is a very important part of storytelling, especially in a visual medium, but when you expect the audience to fill in the gaps in a story you also expect that they will come to the same conclusion. After Murphy has been picked up from school following the Apollo landing debacle, we see fields and fields of corn growing around the family farm. Is this merely a part of America's breadbasket where they are growing a native crop? Just another monoculture farm which is probably terrible for the environment in the long run? Oh god are the corn lobbyists still pushing ethanol as a viable fuel source even though it's terrible? That last one was my actual assumption (given my background studying biofuels) but no, there is a blight that is killing off all of the world's crops one by one (plants in general if I recall correctly) and corn is just about the only crop left. Clearly I should've been able to work this out immediately instead of spending 40 minutes being very confused especially since there is currently enough food in the world to feed everyone roughly.

That explanation doesn't even come until 40 minutes into the film and it's delivered in such a ham-fisted way, the elder Dr Brand has to outright say that there is this mysterious blight killing off all plants on Earth and even corn doesn't have that many years left. The more graceful way to introduce this idea, by showing the characters eating nothing but corn, doesn't come until much later in the movie and several decades later. Considering that Dr Brand has prophesied that humans will suffocate in the next generation or two I also felt like the movie had trouble creating a timeline which both allowed for Cooper's journey to take years (especially given relativity and black holes) and yet create a dire enough situation to motivate him to leave in the first place. Maybe I was supposed to chalk up that statement to Dr Brand not being completely honest since he has other secrets in the movie but since we saw on-screen a case of corn blight beginning early on in the film that explanation doesn't work either.  I also questioned if simply moving to another planet with Earth plants (and no native species of it's own, judging by the worlds we did see) would even solve this problem. Without a quick answer (the it was something in the air, the dirt, or the water causing the blight, or that seeds in seed banks hadn't been affected so they could be used in colonization) it seemed as if humanity would still be doomed unless they did something crazy like start photosynthesizing a la Knights of SidoniaI am quite honestly not trying to be belligerent, I just haven't been given enough by this movie to willingly suspend that part of my disbelief and this is literally the driving force for the plot.

As for the characters, not only did I find their personal motivations to be the ones who went on this crazy journey lacking but their characterizations as a whole fell flat as well. Amelia has an entire, awkward speech about how science explains the universe but where science ends love must explain the rest. I think I understand what they were going for, the idea that even science can't explain everything and that sometimes you go with your gut since that makes more sense than anything else, but I did something between an awkward squirm and an eyeroll at hearing once again about this mystical, magical power of love that motivates people to do all of these things that I feel like I would already do, even though I am completely unromantically attracted to anyone. The power of love is supposed to be so important in this movie, that the only way a typical, selfish person will do anything for the greater good is by wanting to help/protect someone they love which I found a little bit insulting, that people will only do good when there's an outside influence. We see Murphy grow up without her father's love and become a bitter person and yet she was trying to solve the theory of gravity that would let the colony ships leave Earth, isn't that doing something for the greater good? And we have her brother who loves his family and yet seems to have turned into an abuser, refusing to let them leave a home that's killing them for some unexplained reason (which was probably supposed to be another of those "it's sentimental, you should be able to fill in this blank" reason but I refuse to acknowledge such cheap character motivation, montage of change to get to this point or not), so that also came out terrible. The Book Smugglers goes into more detail about how the character come off as just plain clunky and also addresses a few points I was too tired to even bring up (so assume any problem mentioned in that review but not here is also one I had).^

Did I get anything out of seeing this film on an IMAX screen at least? Eh, not particularly, there were a few shots where the huge screen certainly made an impact but the movie was so loud that I, much like one of the hosts on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, spent quite a bit of the movie covering my ears before pulling out my broken, noise canceling headphones which I had packed just in case this happened (I also agree a lot with their criticisms of the film so go listen to that as well). I also tend to describe the sound of the film by either saying "lots of 12th century organ music" and just making the Inception "braaaaauuughhhnnnngghhh" noises depending on who I'm talking to which also isn't a good thing.  So, with all of that in mind I can't really recommend this film to anyone since I clearly don't believe that the themes and messages it attempted to convey surmounted the very many other issues I have with it. 

*this film really makes me wonder if Nolan just hates people with how it's constantly reinforced that people are bad unless they have personal motivation to be good, as if you have to be greedy in a way to be selfless (which makes it sound much more interesting than it came off as). Also what happened to the US military since part of their job description is "deploy weaponry".
^I also found the idea that love=gravity or such was also a bit boring in addition to being illogical. I think it's much more interesting to think of gravity as being the same as light, some sort of wave or particle, and making that into the fifth dimension just sounds cool enough that it wouldn't break my suspension of disbelief. It should also say something that what stuck with me the most about this film was the setting and not the characters, I really have nothing more to say on them without repeating myself.