Friday, November 07, 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar

Let's get the bad news out of the way for those of you who don't have the patience to read an entire review: I really wanted to like Interstellar, but it just didn't move, entrance, or excite me like I thought it would. I give it three stars. Those of you with short attention spans may now move along to other parts of the internet. If you'd like to know why I gave the film this rating, feel free to keep reading.

Obviously I wanted to like Interstellar because I'm a space geek and because it's been quite a while since I saw an upbeat vision of space exploration depicted on film. And let me be fair here: that is what Interstellar provides. And the stakes are high: astronauts heading off to the far reaches of space--via a black hole, no less--to save the Earth. So you've got the broad tapestry we expect from space operas, as depicted by SF Grand Master Brian Aldiss:

Ideally, the Earth must be in peril, there must be a quest and a man to match the mighty hour. That man must confront aliens and exotic creatures. Space must flow past the ports like wine from a pitcher. Blood must run down the palace steps, and Ships launch out into the louring dark. There must be a woman fairer than the skies and a villain darker than the Black Hole. And all must come right in the end.

Without giving too much away, I would say, again, that Interstellar includes most of these ingredients. Plus, as an extra bonus, the director got scientific input from an actual astrophysicist. Also on the positive side, the visuals of entering the black hole are amazing and worth seeing on the big screen. The space hardware, too, is believable. In fact, the spacecraft look very much like NASA hardware (which, in fact, they're depicted to be). Though truth be told, my favorite bits of screen eye candy are the closeups of the planet Saturn. And on the human interest side of things, we have people who are stock characters to serious SF fans: we have our plucky astronauts doing what they can for their own disparate reasons--the hot pilot (Matthew McConnaughey) flying off to live his dream and save his family; the scientist's daughter, out for reasons of her own and following in her father's footsteps; the robot with a sense of humor; and a range of characters who are either worth knowing or easily disposable.

So why does this film disappoint?

Let's start with the exposition--the "world building," as SF writers call it. We've got a future Earth that is dying from some sort of blight that is killing crops, eroding the oxygen in the atmosphere, and shrinking the world's population. The most obvious signs of this negative future are massive dust storms, which call to mind the nuclear winter parts of The Day After. In fact, a few aspects of Interstellar reminded me of The Day After, including the corn-country setting, the blowing dust, the air of despair, and the presence of John Lithgow, who in this film portrays a crusty grandfather instead of the scientific genius (that role is played by Michael Caine, who does much less crying in this film than the last Christopher Nolan Batman film). But the last thing that reminded me of that "epic" made-for-TV movie was the bad acting. Honestly, I can't recall the last movie I saw where I felt the actors just phoned it in, but this film had an abundance of it, including bad acting by a couple of famous actors whom I figured would know better. The best explanation I have for this bad acting is an unfamiliarity with science fiction and its unavoidable technobabble.

Next thing? The buildup. Interstellar suffers from pacing problems and is therefore too long, by about 40 minutes. There would be no shame in curtailing the exposition to get McConnaughey's pilot into space, but Christopher Nolan felt otherwise.

I was going to say nice things about the soundtrack, which has touches of classical Earth themes that will definitely remind audiences of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That is good and bad. 2001 definitely has grandeur, and the Interstellar soundtrack manages to evoke that grandeur in some cases. However, there are a couple places in the film where the soundtrack overwhelms the actors' voices. At the time, I was frustrated because I couldn't understand what the actors were saying. Only later, like this morning, did I realize that the sound problems had been on purpose, which somehow made it worse. A little reminder to Hollywood directors: don't make your game-playing so obvious. As with good written material, you don't want to disrupt the audience's willing suspension of disbelief. If the reader or movie-going audience is made aware of the artifice of what's going on, they are no longer paying attention to the story but are instead paying attention to the storytelling.

Lastly, there is the plot, which is convoluted in places, messy in others, and in some places outright unbelievable. It takes too many steps to get from Earth to the heart of the plot (the "MacGuffin," which was also the name of the bar where I bought a bourbon before entering the theater). And when I got to the MacGuffin, I found that...well, I just didn't buy it. It was like a "high concept" for a science fiction film written by someone who doesn't read a lot of SF but thinks, "Hey, if we do this, it'll be really cool and deep," but it's not.

Which brings me back to my original three-star rating. I applaud Christopher Nolan for making a space opera with a positive view of science, technology, and the human future. And he delivers that...BUT: I didn't care about the characters. The story is too long. The central "high concepts" that resolve the plot make no sense or are muddled. So Interstellar gets three stars from me. Your mileage could vary.

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