Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Nov 24, 2014

Interstellar (2014)

by Will Ross

For the first forty minutes or so of Interstellar, it looks sure to be Christopher Nolan’s worst film yet. Hans Zimmer’s score piles on an intense drone over the otherwise peaceful scene-setting, running long cues through multiple scenes and emotional beats with absolutely no nuance or variation. The sci-fi exposition is both unnecessarily guarded (would it be so bad to even allude to why all of Earth became a giant dust bowl? Or give some substantial sense that this dystopia affected the world outside America?) and schizophrenically over-specified (the reveal that textbooks have been modified to say ‘We faked the moon landing!’ raises a lot of questions and ideas that the film never shows interest in exploring). And for all the time we spend with the family at the heart of the story, their characters and relationships are one-note: the paternal Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ace pilot who never got to make anything of his skills and dreams of exploration (“you should have been born 40 years earlier, or 40 years later,” a character says, probably barely suppressing a wink at the camera), his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain), who is into science and super attached to her dad, his son Tom (Timothee Chalamet, later Casey Affleck), who is a little dim but a pretty chill guy, and the grand-paternal Donald (John Lithgow), who is, uh, a grandfather. The script, co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, hammers away at these traits endlessly as it opens up a myriad of go-nowhere plot strands.

And there’s no technical saving grace to fall back on. Nolan’s visual direction is never incompetent, but it’s resolutely bland. The substitution of Nolan’s regular cinematographer Wally Pfister for Hoyte van Hoytema — whose work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ranks among my very favourite film visuals of the 21st century — seems to prove that the director’s pedestrian visuals were never Pfister’s fault: Hoytema does well enough with his lighting set-ups, especially given that he seems to have had, like, a million billion angles to light for, but he’s clearly hamstrung by Nolan’s resolute need to cover almost everything with medium close-ups.

All of that is apparent before what might be the worst thing in the movie, a small decision that is nonetheless so self-evidently wrong that it demands a full paragraph: inexplicable cutaways to 16mm documentary footage of grizzled seniors talking about what life was like on this post-apocalyptic, dust-ridden Earth. The extent to which this footage makes no sense in its narrative or aesthetic context cannot be overstated; it doesn’t provide significant exposition, it clashes drastically with the rest of the film, and its obvious diegetic source is such overt foreshadowing that it obliterates much of the tension before the plot even gets going. And the use of 16mm is self-parodic. I know that Nolan is a staunch defender of film over digital, but does he really find a dust-bowl apocalypse easier to imagine than digital cameras becoming — check that — remaining the default format for filmmaking, and especially documentaries, in the distant, resource-barren future? That the footage is spliced in from an actual Ken Burns documentary about the Dirty Thirties only makes it stranger, and it’s the only major gaff in Lee Smith’s ordinarily heroic cutting.

Well, the only gaff besides not jettisoning the vast majority of the first act on Earth and moving us into space as soon as possible, because that’s when Interstellar gets focused and turns from a half-assed expository mishmash into a big, idea-loaded sci-fi fantasy. Cooper and a team of astronauts are joined by the lovable robot TARS (whose variable emotion settings are the single most interesting trait of any character, and also completely at odds with the film’s themes) to fly into a wormhole that has opened, through which initial probes have revealed potentially habitable planets to replace Earth. The mission: confirm at least one planet’s habitability and deliver the info back to NASA on Earth, where Murphy and one astronaut’s father (Michael Caine) hope to learn how to control gravity.

Which, yes, is as silly as it sounds. The key word up there is “fantasy”, and I cannot stress enough the extent to which you should not take to heart the first two acts’ hard sci-fi posturing. Yes, there are lots of great sciencey ideas in the space exploration sections, especially those exploring the relative time between Cooper’s crew and the Earth they leave behind. But at the story’s heart are unexplained, even fantastical premises that you kind of have to just go with. A lot of plot points seem to be contrived only to allow another sci-fi idea to click into place later, and the Nolan brothers’ script is a lot dopier than it thinks it is, but, contrary to all the science-physics hoo-ha that gets thrown around, it’s a very simple plot, and it’s free of the mind-knots of the infuriatingly labyrinthine structure of The Dark Knight Rises. That makes it accessibly dopey. Even lovably dopey.

The characters are still all one-note, but Interstellar stops harping on that so much (save some groaningly bad lines from Anne Hathaway’s astronaut about love and evil), and finally gets to where Nolan’s passion clearly lies: big conceptual set pieces. They’re actually pretty exciting, though the visual blandness stays locked into cruise control, communicating concepts and actions with little-to-no compositional or aesthetic expressiveness. There is one visual motif, a camera mounted on the side of the spaceships as they fly around (like those videos with GoPros lashed onto the side of a bicycle, or the car-mounted cameras in Bullitt), whose constant repetition I simply don’t understand, and in general the highly positive reception to the space visuals is confusing to me. Yes, they’re technically impressive, but come on; we’re only a year out from Gravity reminding us that technical feats are nothing compared to technical feats in service of master visualists. I can only think of one truly memorable composition from the whole movie, an extreme-wide shot of two astronauts wrestling that perfectly emphasizes their remoteness and desolation in both a literal and figurative sense. But this is a big, ambitious sci-fi epic; one truly great shot is not an impressive count.

The fact that those effects-heavy scenes have any kind of affect or physicality is largely down to Lee Smith, whose editing takes the unimaginative camera coverage and uses it to precisely lay out complex, rapid beats, stacking Nolan’s customarily complex (and customarily problematic) intercutting sequences and building momentum seemingly effortlessly. A few qualms aside (I assume “Hey Chris, let’s cut the whole first act” wasn’t on the table), Smith mostly nails the quieter sequences too; not easy, considering Nolan seems to have less and less idea of how to shoot dialogue in a more-than-functional way. He even throws in a couple of elliptical fades that emphasize the ever-looming threat of relative time. Ah, fades! Remember when those were allowed in blockbusters? Lee Smith. Love that guy.

But as much as Smith remains the unsung saviour of Nolan’s aesthetic coherence, a little credit for that success must also be given — I can’t believe I’m saying this — to Hans Zimmer.

In recent years each of Zimmer’s scores takes on new production angles, from the throbbing dubstep of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the overpowering drums of Man of Steel, to his umpteenth self-plagiarism of “Journey to the Line” set to under-arranged strings in 12 Years a Slave (a score whose positive critical reception is utterly mystifying to me). These conceits usually seem less suited to their subjects than to Zimmer’s own flights of fancy, so it’s either a more thoughtful approach or dumb luck that brought Zimmer to a schema that actually works here: a Phillip Glass-inspired use of repetitive piano and organ, with flourishes of brass or strings here and there, and percussion laid down with an intensity appropriate for the given scene.

None of that is anything to write home about, but for Zimmer, who in the past few years has written some of the most putrid scores I have ever heard in mainstream Hollywood films, “nothing to write home about” is practically a revelation of restraint and precision. There are still major issues: it often gets caught in a ridiculous arms race with sound and dialogue (the sound mix, as usual, is one of the worst things about a Nolan film); it reveals too many of its themes and motifs on Earth to really musically develop in space; and at times Zimmer’s trademark underdeveloped melodies step in to wander around distractingly. Still, “generally effective window-dressing” is a far cry from “Zimmer’s score crippled the film,” and hopefully that marks a turnaround for a once-impressive composer whose ideas these days rarely run beyond huge dynamic shifts and production gimmicks. There’s even one cue for the film’s action climax (titled “Coward” on the soundtrack album) that I would say is his best in years, building a gradual crescendo from dread-laden percussive clicks into organ arpeggios that climax in a pretty sophisticated key change. It’s a good cue, and a reminder of the strengths that used to make  Zimmer’s scores worth a damn before they were overwhelmed by his melodic weakness and production fetishism.

That action climax, incidentally, is a major turning point for the film for reasons I daren’t hint at, except to say that it’s when the movie goes from fairly dopey to off-the-chart aw-ya-big-dope levels. It partially undermines the movie’s own themes and rules, but after the disastrous opening there was never a chance of this thing being a cohesive, so it’s not that hard to swallow and enjoy the sudden change of pace (even if it does keep you at emotional arm’s length).

That’s actually Interstellar’s saving grace in general: it’s hard not to enjoy a film that is pouring so much energy and creativity into a completely sincere, uncynical goal. For as much as Nolan’s post-Memento work has only suffered by its greater resources and bigger canvases, Interstellar is a good reminder of why I’d rather give blockbuster carte blanche to a messy, inconsistent, but completely heartfelt artist like Nolan than the studio-molded cynics who usually get that privilege.


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