Out of this World

Last night went to see Interstellar with some friends and here are my impressions…

The Great Day of His Wrath - John Martin, c 1853

The Great Day of His Wrath – John Martin, c 1853

Interstellar is a refreshingly high-concept SF movie, which stands out in a multiplexverse of superhero fan-boy franchises, glorified pester power merchandising adverts, and teen-screen-tested twaddle. The Nolan brothers pay homage to (or plagiarize) Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with their evolutionary space epic: the shuttle docking with the spinning space station, the monolith-like droids, the classical/neo-classical music, the blowing of the air-lock, the psychedelic star-gate sequences, the paradigm clash of ultra-high tech and low-tech (though in Interstellar its red-neck farmers struggling to survive on a dying Earth, rather than apes at the dawn of time, but whether its in a Dustbowl America, or on a savagely elemental world the aesthetic contrast is the same). The pulsating, hypnotic soundtrack by Hans Zimmer re-enforces this register, driving our emotions – like some massive sonic booster rocket. In the auditorium we cannot escape its event horizon, but are swept along. Even if we don’t know what it all means, it’s one helluva ride. You leave the cinema blown away – and this lingering effect (the immersive experience Kubrick sought to create in 2001) compensates for the potential plot-holes and ambiguous message. The film is visually stunning and the spectre of late Romantic painter John Martin and the Apocalyptic Sublime looms large. Many of the vistas – of vertiginous wave-worlds, ice-worlds, light-eating worm-holes, and even Steinbeckian dust-storms of the Mid-West – echo his oeuvre. As in Martin’s paintings, Nolan loves to bend space back upon itself. The Moebius-Loop like plot is visually represented by the Escher-esque visuals, especially the Fifth Dimensional Bookcase sequence. Nobody does this better than Nolan – from the fragmented nightmare of Memento, to the prestidigitation of The Prestige, and the multi-layered dreamscape of Inception, his films are like Chinese puzzles. Exquisitely-crafted and stylishly accomplished like a neat conjuring trick, they draw the eye and bend the mind. The effect is often puzzling, but I wonder if this is what Nolan intends – wanting the effect of a Buddhist koan. His films often present paradoxes – the causality loops back upon itself and we’re left wondering if it all adds up, or if there are chinks in the logic. Interstellar seems to present mixed messages – one saying how the Earth is dying due to man’s hubris and greed (an ecological message), but then this Green agenda seems to be critiqued – with the unlikely underdog of NASA forced to go ‘underground’, and mankind’s trek to the stars hamstrung by lack of funding and vision. The film tells us the Earth is banjaxed, and we need to go out there and find another one (‘The end of the Earth will not be the end of us’ is one tagline). The film, a tribute to the intrepid early astronauts (and the pioneering spirit of Americy), seeks to reboot the space race. It could be an advert for Virgin Galactic – their first inflight movie perhaps, though I doubt they’d be time to watch it, as it’s long – unless the Virgin spacecraft falls down a time-distorting wormhole. McConnaughey’s Cooper plays an Oisin-like character, voyaging to a special world and then returning out of synch with his loved ones. I wonder if he’s been replaced by a Fifth-Dimensional being who can act, because since his last couple of films he’s turned from ‘Mr-Annoyingly-Handsome-and-Smug’ to someone who can turn in a decent performance, as he does here – the emotional anchor of the film, our Odysseus-like Everyman, trying to get back to his Ithaca – supported by a stellar cast of fellow Oscar winners, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and the compulsory Nolan stalwart Michael Caine. Apart from an affecting speech about love being a transdimensional force, most of the script is larded with pseudo-scientific exposition, with gnomic utterances about ‘gentle singularities’ and the like – the kind of thing you wouldn’t get in a deadpan Kubrick film which hasn’t had to kowtow to baffled test audiences. It feels like stuff has been shoe-horned in to stop us getting completely lost – but results in corny scenes where scientists explain quantum theory to each other. And yet there are moments of pure emotion, as when Cooper watches 23 years of video messages from his rapidly ageing children; or his initial departure from the family home, which provides the emotional thrust for the film’s ‘lift-off’. The gritty beginning gives way to a chilly, silent space-faring section, before things heat-up again in the planet-hopping section. Matt Damon’s Dr Mann plays an unconvincing antagonist – a rather bland General Kurtz at the heart of this darkness. For someone who is meant to be the ‘best of them’, he ends up making some pretty dumb moves, resulting in a gripping Gravity-like sequence – stunning, but pretty pointless. It felt like Mann was merely serving the plot, not being true to his character. Similarly, Caine’s noble professor of physics ends up being a bit of a Wizard of Oz, without much rationale. Ultimately, the film’s vaulting ambition perhaps is scuppered by these character black-holes and the need to provide crowd-pleasing pay-offs. So, as with a black hole, one might not be able to glimpse the point of it all – but the trip down its gravity well is still enthralling.

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