The Case for Interstellar

Posted: November 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

The following contains spoilers for the film Interstellar, so if you haven’t seen it and want to avoid those, continue on with caution and having been warned.

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I’ll begin by stating something that should be obvious to people who know me well, but maybe not to those who don’t: I am of the opinion that Christopher Nolan can do no wrong, cinematically speaking. And yes, this includes his debut, Following, a film that is essentially a film school thesis project, but manages to convey a creepy, voyeuristic quality that has, in many ways, become the hallmark for much of what Nolan has done since then. This also includes the much maligned ending to his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, and its semi-controversial and—I believe—elegantly telegraphed ending sequence. This includes all things that he’s personally directed, and so does not include the producing credits he received for McG’s bore of a Superman film with Man of Steel or the maddeningly poor directorial debut from Nolan’s longtime cinematographer Wall Pfister with this year’s Transcendence nor his “acting” debuts in both Kurt Norton and Paul Mariano’s documentary These Amazing Shadows or Keanu Reeve’s documentary about the merits of the continued use of actual film in films called Side by Side.

So to be clear, when I say that I love Nolan’s work, I mean it. I have a full-sized Inception poster on a wall in my apartment and I own each of his films—save for Following—in my rather sizable collection. When Inception was released, I saw it five times in theaters, mostly because whenever someone told me that they hadn’t seen it yet, I would offer to go to with them as soon as humanly possible. I went to midnight (or as close to it) of all the Batman films, paying extra money for the IMAX versions of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. I did the same for Interstellar.

I say all this to make it known that I did not go into Interstellar without expectations, giving you as my reader the opportunity to realize that I might just be a Nolan fanboy who won’t even admit when the writer/director has gone too far, when he’s actually done wrong. I won’t say that Nolan is a flawless director or that he’s ever made a truly flawless film (although I’d argue that the one-two punch of The Dark Knight and Inception are pretty darn close to it), I will argue that I believe you cannot walk away from a Christopher Nolan film unmoved or without at least reflecting on the awe-inspiring nature of what he is able to do with his camera. In terms of combining huge, IMAX-scale visuals and concepts with intimate, often moving stories, I don’t think anyone does it better.

A few days ago, a friend shared an article with me that was recently posted on Cinema Blend. The title of the article is “4 Big Reasons Why Interstellar is A Huge Disaster,” and the writer—one Sean O’Connell, who’s official title is Movie Content Director and who’s profile picture on the site is him yielding Thor’s hammer—then goes on to list those four reasons and why he believes they hold merit in terms of blasting the film. I, for one, read the article after seeing the movie, and immediately was confused as why what he was doing was considered journalism in this day and age. I’ll take his points one at a time.

But first, I should note that the opening sentence of his article is fundamentally incorrect. For one, the only “data” he uses are the ratings of readers of his own site’s review of the film, never once acknowledging the fact that while Interstellar is hardly the leader of the pack in terms of critical favor for Nolan (Rotten Tomatoes certified it fresh at 73%, Nolan’s lowest rating as a director while Metacritic gave it a 73 score as well, although it should be noted that RT’s Audience Score is a more Nolan-like 88%, and this doesn’t even include the 130,000+ members of IMDB who have, at the time of this writing given the film a consensus 9/10 rating), the film is certainly well above the vast majority of Hollywood releases.  So I seems unfair for O’Connell to begin his piece with what is basically a false relationship. It’s a slightly larger scale equivalent of me asking a bunch of my friends what they think of the film and then basing the critical consensus on that polling effort (for the record, according to my Facebook friends, Interstellar is a marvelous work of art and even, according to one friend, “Nolan’s best work”). It’s also a bit telling that Cinema Blend doesn’t allow the polls that O’Connell references to be seen on the open forum. I want numbers, people!

In any respect, having done that little bit of digging, I feel confident in bounding into O’Connell’s four supposed major mistakes. In general I’d say that his rationale are all matters of opinion and/or situations that might have been isolated to his particular screening of the film. Let’s start at the beginning.

Reason 1: “Cooper’s relationship with his kids is an emotional flatline.”

He begins with what be the most subjective of all his arguments. A friend of mine came out of the movie crying because of the weight of the emotion in the film.I myself felt that the relationship was the very thread that held the otherwise lofty affair together. It’s why we care about the movie and its characters at all, why we allow our brains to be overwhelmed by all of the film’s science and sit down and realize just how powerful the story really is. And it’s not like there is anything wrong with the acting in the film. Matthew McConaughey, fresh off his delightfully bizarre and Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club, is more in control here, as his Cooper is a man driven, at least externally, by science and reason; but it is never a question of whether or not he loves his children or wanted to be with them. In fact, that is the basis for his choice to leave in the first place—he believes he is saving them by leaving them. I’ll admit I was a little thrown by the speed with which he made the decision to be a part of the mission—and the speed with which he was offered the job—but I feel like that was a part of his characterization: he makes that decision because the world is dying around him and the only way he knows to save his children is to save the entire world. It’s actually a logical choice, even if it seems cruel from the outside. Him staying does nothing for his children other than offer them peace of mind for a few more years. This is the realization Murph (Jessica Chastain) comes to later in life, and it is the emotional force behind the film. To call it an “emotional flatline” says more about the viewer of the film than it does the characters in the film itself.

Reason 2: “The IMAX presentation is creating massive problems.”

By this logic, we can assume that Mr. Sean O’Connell has been to every IMAX screen in the country and even the world to come to this conclusion. Yes, I know, that’s a false relationship I’ve created, but the way he presents this reason can certainly be read that way. I, for one, thought the IMAX presentation was stunning, both visually (seriously, say goodbye to all the technical Oscar races every other film from 2014) and in the aural realm. Was it loud? Definitely, but I was expecting that. I felt the shake of the rocket taking off. It wasn’t just a visual experience or even an aural one—my seat was literally shaking. To his credit, O’Connell does mention that the visuals live up to the IMAX hype (which, ironically, makes his argument at least half wrong, since the visual elements are a significant part of the IMAX theater experience), but for my screening, I didn’t really have any major issues with the sound. It was loud, sure, but I caught all of the dialogue without an issue, the only exception being the first time that Michael Caine’s Dr. Brand was quoting Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” but I assumed that was on purpose, giving the viewer the experience of what being in that moment might have felt. On top of all this, O’Connell makes his anti-Interstellar vendetta quite clear when he ends this section by calling the dialogue “so inane, you really aren’t missing much,” an argument that is, frankly, unfocused and sounds more like a kid in fight than an adult attempting to make a sound argument.

Reason 3: “It’s silly. So very, very silly.”

I’m not kidding. This is an adult, so-called professional journalist writing this. Silly? Really, Sean? (This becomes even funnier in light of his fourth and final reason, by the way).

So the reason is funny sounding, but does his argument make sense? He begins by noting that he has no desire to tackle the science (although he does then attempt to do just that by passive-aggressively mentioning that NASA wasn’t involved in the making of the film, even though to my knowledge Nolan never said they were, only using theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as his science consultant), before launching into a diatribe about the way Nolan and his brother Jonathan insert the exposition of the film in “clumsy ways,” by having the physicist in the film, played by Caine, talk about the science to be used in the mission. I mean, that’s as unlikely as a dentist telling you about the benefits of brushing and flossing or going to a football coach to ask about the basics of the 3-4 defense! Why would a scientist, a man trained in the complex math and other such things that you are about to encounter while trillions of miles away from home, talk to a pilot about what he is about to encounter? Sure, Coop is clearly a smart guy, but he’s no theoretical physicist, so it stands to reason that Dr. Brand the Elder would need to tell him what he’s up against. Is it a little clunky? A little bit, but it’s also incredibly complicated material that needs to be brought down to the level that anyone in the theater can understand on a very basic level so they can comprehend the basis of the movie’s sci-fi plot.

And yes, O’Connell does acknowledge that this is science-fiction, but then dives deep into the waters of hyperbole by declaring that “Jason X had fewer sci-fi inconsistencies than Interstellar,” a notion I find difficult to believe. Why are the waves three stories tall when the water is only ankle-deep (although—and I’m not scientist—I think that the 130% of Earth’s gravity might solve this problem)? That would be the fiction part of science-fiction. At least this science part is actually based on real scientific research.

Reason 4: “It’s deathly serious, and the sporadic attempts at humor completely bomb.”

See what I was saying earlier? Is it silly or deathly serious? By definition, it literally cannot be both. This, even more so than the IMAX argument, is a case-by-case basis type of thing that O’Connell simply cannot present as a rationale argument because he absolutely cannot know this to be true in all cases. In my screening—8PM on Thursday November 6 at the Regal Cinemas Stonecrest—people laughed quite a bit. From what I recall, all of those moments of laughter were in places where it appeared that the filmmakers wanted the audience to breathe for a second and laugh. O’Connell again references some of the “self-serving,” as he calls it, dialogue here, as if those conversations are not all included in the film so that the audience can be clued in to what is going on, and as if these are not topics that astronauts under the circumstances would have. It seems reasonable enough that if the world were ending that we’d hear a great deal more talk about life and death and the importance of the decisions that need to be made in order to salvage as many people as possible.

On top of everything else, it seems like O’Connell wasn’t even paying attention to the details. There was never discussion of saving the Earth, in fact its demise is a foregone conclusion pretty much from the opening moment of the film. The movie is about the preservation of human life, and it uses the human relationships at its center to amplify the reasons why taking action to that end is so important. It isn’t for those who are living then, and especially not for the adults living then, at least not completely, but for those who are young, those who still have so much life to live; those whose children need a place to go once the Earth is no longer useful. So of course the fact that an hour on the first planet equals 7 years on Earth matters. That’s time wasted that could be used to help save the human race back on our home planet. To overlook that concept reeks of someone who wasn’t even ready to give the film a chance in the first place; of someone who wanted so badly to talk about how awful this film is that he was going to invent reasons based on his own bias.

And yes, I acknowledge my own bias in this area. That’s how I started this post, so I think it’s fair that I can call O’Connell out for his, especially since he tries to treat this perspective as if he’s coming in from a neutral perspective. As I said, this isn’t a perfect film. Some of the dialogue is clunky from time to time (that’s always been a bit of an issue for Nolan, though, to be fair), but in all honesty, isn’t that how people talk? Nobody talks like a character in a Quentin Tarantino film, where all the dialogue often feels like that’s exactly what it is: characters reciting a script. But to dismiss the entire film based on these four reasons—at least two of which might be based on the location and one of which, as I mentioned, says a lot more about the writer of this piece than the filmmakers—just seems like an oversimplification to me.

Interstellar is a film that needs to be processed over time. Like the rest of Nolan’s filmography, it is a difficult film to digest in one sitting, which is exactly why I intend to see it again, especially now that a few days have passed and I’ve had a chance to think it over. I fully believe that this is the vision Nolan had from the beginning, and to trash it over things so petty—and contradictory—as the reasons that O’Connell discusses here just feels like the argument of a man who had no intention of even beginning to give this film the credit it might deserve.

So in response to O’Connell’s final thought (“If I remember Interstellar a year from now, it will be for all of the poor decisions it made, cutting the legs out from underneath the few interesting ideas it had in its oversized head”), I offer this: I fully plan on remembering this film long past a year from now. I think by that time more people will have been able to see it for what it is: a fine work of cinema by one of our finest working directors.

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All quotations are taken from this article from Cinema Blend:

http://www.cinemablend.com/new/4-Big-Reasons-Why-Interstellar-Huge-Disaster-68087-p4.html

Photo from: 

http://www.wired.com/2014/09/interstellar-app/

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