This post is the updated and unedited copy of the review published in Mag the Weekly, January 10, 2015.
Heavy-Handed Emotions, Puzzled Science Fact/Fiction and the Quest for Global Salvation
By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid
There is a sense of disappointment at the end of Interstellar, the much hullaballooed humanistic space drama centered on familial ties and the desperate struggle for the survival of our species.
While it would be unfair for me to flesh out the details here, especially for those have yet to see the film spoiler-free, and who may likely be misperceived by the faux-intelligence of its climax – which, by the way, ejects rock-hard scientific laws for a workable-fantasy ending – I can point out that most of the movie, although governed by the sense of urgency and desperation, harbors a defeatist attitude. Whereas the characters in Interstellar, Cooper (Matthiew McCoughney), Brand (Anne Hathaway) and Murph (played first by Mackenzie Foy and then by Jessica Chastain), are determined to survive against grave odds, it is director/co-writer Christopher Nolan’s lack of warmth that ultimately denies the film’s resolution a wider sense of subliminal appeal.
Unlike, say, David Fincher – who has worked up his craft in terms of placing (and brilliantly filming) anxious characters, especially during one-on-one interactions – Nolan’s hand still feels emotionally impoverished. The characters simply state facts, rebut and move on – almost always to more eager or dramatic, or thematic story revelations. Of course, there is no harm in doing so – and in fact, it is a fine way to move from one plot point to another.
The plot, by the way, concerns the fate of humanity after an environmental calamity devastates the planet’s own survival, let alone its native species. Schools prefer farmers to engineers or doctors, and countries have stopped fighting. For a good portion of the first act, it looks as if everyone on Earth has adapted to, and accepted, their impending demise. To accentuate his point, Nolan puts forward large dust-covered vistas, predominantly of corn-fields, which Cooper – a former pilot, with NASA engineer training – farms, because it is one of the last sustainable source of food in the world (corn, of course, gives way to Soda pop’s and beverages, which of course helps ground the reality of the imminent famine).
Cooper, a widower, has a scientifically-keen daughter, Murph, a far less adventurous son Tom (Timothée Chalamet, who later matures into Casey Affleck), and a father in law Donald (John Lithgow, now relegated to playing grand-fathers in blockbusters) who sternly advices him to not make promises he can’t keep – an allusion that may be hard to keep, given the story’s direction.
Soon, Cooper, along with Murph, stumble onto coordinates of a hidden NASA base. In these agrarian times of depopulated Earth, we’re told that there is no time or resource for scientific development, disqualifying the need for space travel. However, at the base, Cooper finds an ex-colleague Professor Brand (Michael Caine), and his daughter Amelia Brand (Hathaway) who are spearheading a mission through a wormhole in space that may lead to a habitable planet.
Wormholes, are theoretical space objects that compress space and create a bridge from one end of space and time to the other minimizing light years of travel to days; time, relative to Earth would stay the same, so while Cooper and his company age little, decades would pass here. Previous one-way missions prove three habitable worlds, from where Cooper and co., need to excavate data before finalizing the mission to repopulate the new world with one of two plans.
Like most heroes, Cooper’s choice is a difficult one: his journey, decades into space, would, and does, create a distance between him and Murph (Nolans plays preference to one child over the other); this initiates a double narrative stream that hangs on the strength of a family’s bond, but given the director’s preference to underplay, fails to generate enough emotional push to tear-up the eyes. There are small instances between Chastain and McCoughney, and later with her and Caine, that try to heavy-hand emotion into the narrative and succeed only because of the actors’ – and not the director’s – skill.
Unlike Pacific Rim, or Battleship, or Transformers, there are no evil aliens or horrible plans of humanity’s destruction waiting to pop at the end of the wormhole. “They”, as these beings are called, are never shown, nor are their intentions proven; their origins, and in fact like so many other aspects and characters in the screenplay, feel like a storyteller’s convenience and not a necessity.
In contrast to Interstellar, Contact, again based on scientific facts and fiction, presents a deeper, more accurate means of melding science, religion (of which there are tones) and humanities own failings into an emotion-driven motion picture package.
Coming back to Interstellar: for the first hour or so Nolan build up the premise, with daring simplicity, letting bare minimalism of his production design and cinematography (by Hoyte van Hoytema of Her), play-up the collapse of the society’s mindset. In the latter hours, when Cooper and crew are space-borne, his arguments and cinematic flair feel hampered. Several plot elements end up being protracted or overly dramatic, implausible or infantile – for example the need for America to put its flag on foreign worlds, when survival is of far more importance than who-landed-first argument.
The science fueling Interstellar is robust; it’s the humanity, or the lack of it, that’s distressing.
The published copy of the review is this: