Sunday, 9 November 2014

Interstellar (2014) - Movie Review

As a critic, I’m always fascinated to see a film that has other critics divided, and as of right now, there is no better safe bet on getting a film like that than one that has Christopher Nolan involved. While a lot of my contemporaries were slamming The Dark Knight Rises, I personally loved the hell out of it; when Man Of Steel had the world either loving it or hating it, I was safely in the latter even without putting my general disinterest in Superman into the equation. This is yet another movie that really could go either way in terms of my reaction to it.

The plot: With the world being ravaged by dust storms that threaten to wipe out the human race, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is assigned to a manned space flight to find a new habitable planet for humanity to move to, leaving behind his children and father-in-law.

The definitive stand-out with this film is the effects work, which is absolutely gorgeous. Special effects studio Double Negative has developed a very healthy relationship with Nolan, having previously done SFX for several of his films including Inception, and it’s here that we see more of that tree bear fruit. A great showcase of this is the initial wormhole Cooper and his crew use to travel to the galaxy where several potential new home planets reside, which they show as a three-dimensional object in space as they travel through it. The result is a very trippy, but amazing, effect that shows a lot of care and effort. I will say this, though: I didn’t see this film at IMAX, and given how disorienting the effect is at first, I think I wouldn’t have liked it nearly as much on that larger screen. We also get to see an alteration of the effect used in Inception where the landscape folded back onto itself, only used here to form a cylindrical structure that looks really impressive.

We’re dealing with a typical all-star cast, given this director’s pedigree, and for the most part they do a great job. McConaughey, who is experiencing one of the best career revivals possible given his track record over the last few years (Magic Mike, Dallas Buyers Club, Killer Joe, The Wolf Of Wall Street), maintains his pace here with his usual Southern wiseass with a heart of gold routine, which he pulls off flawlessly. In the scenes where he comes face to face with how much his daughter has aged back on Earth, he shows real heart-crushing intensity that will surely bring a tear or two to the eye.

The actresses who play Cooper’s daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Fay, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn) all do great jobs of portraying the character at different stages of her life, with Mackenzie (AKA Reneesme from the Sparklepire series) being one of the few child actors who’s actually able to act alongside the adults; Jessica bringing her usual skill to the role, only in a film that deserves it unlike The Tree Of Life or Zero Dark Thirty; and Ellen, while having a very small role, doing well also. We also get a great performance from a certain surprise actor (Won’t say who because *SPOILERS*) that definitely helps elevate this film even higher during the second act. The only bad spot that comes to mind on the acting front is Cooper’s son Tom, whom as a teenager is initially portrayed as a major asshole, but that would be more a fault of the writing than the acting, since Timothée Chalamet does fine with the role he’s given.

Now to talk about my favourite part of the movie, since we’re talking about actors/characters: The robots TARS and CASE. Their design is very Jenga-blocky and their movement is both complex and yet rudimentary, given the multiple purposes they fulfil as part of Cooper’s crew. Their in-story programming, on the other hand, is seriously something I wish other SF stories would touch upon; these robots have not only been built with the ideas of honesty and humour (among other things), but with degrees of each: They’re mostly honest but not entirely, because we as irrational beings aren’t 100% honest with each other either for various reasons; and they have senses of humour, but not to the point where everything they say is jocular. This, as far as I’m concerned, is genius; Having artificial intelligence interacting with humans requires them to be more human in order for the interactions to succeed, so giving them these kind of human personalities and traits makes perfect sense. Having them tweaked in such a way so that they are more in line with how we show them in regular conversation makes it even better. That and their quick and funny jabs are greatly welcomed given how bleak this film can get. Also, for those of you who read the works of Asimov, it looks like the Nolan brothers did as well.

Now for the script side of things, which means *SPOILERS* though I will try to keep them to a minimum. Having one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists as a consultant on the film, as well as one of the people who originally conceived of the idea behind the film, lends a lot of credibility to the scientific aspect of the plot, and for the most part it works. This isn’t absolute hard science, but it is a lot harder than we usually get in films, save for maybe Gravity. Actually, Gravity is a good place to go with this since this movie takes a good first step and also refrains from sound effects in space much like that film did. The writing, when dealing with the time dilation involved in their journey and its effect on the relationships of the characters, feels very reminiscent of the anime Voices Of A Distant Star, a 20-minute OVA that I highly recommend readers check out, even if they didn’t like this film.

However, unlike a similar situation I ran into with Transcendence where the plot of the film felt similar to a TV show episode I remembered watching, this isn’t a simple matter of the show did it better; this is more the show did it differently, which is acceptable. Not to say that this film is derivative, as both go about the concept in differing ways; this is just something that caught my attention, plus it gives me a chance to flex that otaku muscle. We also gets some nice development of the world in the wake of the unknown disaster that is inches away from wiping humanity out: There’s a rather cute scene where Murphy’s teacher explains to Cooper about the Moon landing being faked in order to bankrupt the Soviets, which shows some real depth in terms of this film’s world-building. With their survival at the forefront of their concerns, they need as many people farming crops for food as possible (Considering how most types of crops have completely failed by the time the story begins, they need all the help they can get), so they change some things around in order to keep people focused on surviving on Earth, rather than ‘wasting their time’ fleeing to another planet; nice seeing the Ministry of Truth still doing what they do best. The rest of the dialogue and plot is well done, although I really did sick and tired of Michael Caine’s character repeating the ‘Do not go quietly into that good night’ poem before too long.

Then, we get to the final act, where the science takes a very sudden turn. Whereas the rest of the film stayed relatively realistic, we then enter into Star Trek territory in terms of scientific plausibility, specifically Star Trek Voyager given that show’s fascination with spatial anomalies. The explanations they give for it, and in turn some of the main elements of the plot, is a little too hard to swallow, although I will give the film credit for one thing: Trying to portray fifth-dimensional space, on a two-dimensional plane, is easily one of the biggest challenges for a filmmaker, but through an incredible bit of effects work, this film managed to pull it off. The science of the thing isn’t the issue, but more the plot that it’s wrapped around; the rest of it is perfectly serviceable and very engaging, and again what exactly happens isn’t the issue but more the reasons why it’s happening, which I found myself calling bullshit on a bit. If you want to see the sort of story we get here in the finale, but more fleshed out and done a hell of a lot better, go see Predestination if you haven’t already.

All in all, this is a really good bit of speculative fiction, if flawed around its multi-dimensional edges. It won’t get you thinking too hard about its themes, but its visuals and acting, along with some solid writing behind it all, should keep you more than engaged for its seemingly cumbersome three hour running time.

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