Interstellar

Space magic solves everything

interstellarChristopher Nolan’s Interstellar starts as simply another Dead Mom narrative with a throwaway title, orbiting a part-time Boring Hero with a heart of gold who only wants the best for his children.  This character, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who apparently has no first name, reminisces about the days when he was a NASA test pilot, before humanity screwed up the Earth so badly that we were forced to become an entirely agrarian society.  He speaks most of this in overt exposition to Donald (John Lithgow), his father-in-law, who shares a rural homestead with Cooper and his kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and (more importantly) Murphy, also known as Murph (Mackenzie Foy, who will eventually grow up to be Jessica Chastain).  Murph is a borderline genius for her age, and her current project is an attempt to scientifically prove that a “ghost,” for lack of a better word, is sending her messages by altering the dust on her bedroom floor and knocking books off her shelf.  Cooper and Murph, bored with the farming life and convinced (whether through blind hope or something else) that the planet can be saved, follow coordinates provided by the “ghost,” which lead them to the HQ of an underground organization that turns out to be the thought-to-be-defunct NASA.

There’s some interesting background here.  In the gap since the golden age of space travel, the Apollo missions (including the first moon landing) have been discredited as clever propaganda, and Murph’s schoolteachers consider her insistence that humanity has traveled to the moon analogous to sharing porn with her classmates.  The idea is to encourage children to want to work on saving this planet, rather than fantasize about traveling away from it.  Very good point, actually.  But the film does not want us to side with the teachers, and makes quite clear to us that Earth is doomed.  At the new NASA HQ, Cooper is convinced at ridiculous speed (considering the pacing up to this point) by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his brilliant daughter, Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), to pilot an incredibly advanced spaceship, the Endurance (modeled after the International Space Station) to travel through a wormhole believed to have been placed near Saturn by another galactic civilization that wishes to save humanity, and through this wormhole, find a planet that can support human life.  A crew of other astronauts named Edmunds, Miller, and Mann (the latter’s picture is mysteriously the only one not shown) previously traveled through the wormhole to investigate three potential candidate planets, and the deal was this: if they landed on a planet that was not viable, they would remain there and perish so that no resources would be wasted rescuing them.  Cooper and Amelia, along with Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) and two robots called TARS and CASE, will visit these planets one at a time and confirm their viability.  The drama at home, however, trumps all of the sci-fi prep: Murph is devastated that Cooper is abandoning her, and it’s hard not to be on her side, even after all the dire hypothesizing by the roundtable of talking heads.  The scene in which Cooper accepts the mission is needed to begin the film’s main arc, but it’s a synthetic transition, as rushed and clumsy as an equal moment in a superhero origin story, complete with the audience realizing that this was a much better narrative before the hero gained his powers and everything went to sci-fi land.

Through one thing and another, the astronaut crew crosses the wormhole and visits Miller’s planet for only a few hours, though its proximity to a black hole causes time to pass much more quickly.  It’s close by and will not use much fuel to reach.  However, the classic “lost contact with operative” trope plays out predictably: long story short, Planet Miller is not viable.  It’s 100% ocean.  Nightmare fuel comes in the form of mountainesque tidal waves that seem to target whatever has just landed on the planet’s surface.  The whole scenario is not unlike similar planets seen in other sci-fi, including a Mass Effect mission (apparently, filmmaker after filmmaker underestimates how popular those games are).  Because of the time dilation, twenty-three years pass for Romilly, who is still onboard.  No word on what he ate and drank during that time.  It’s supposed to be a big moment, but the only difference in Romilly is that he’s grown a few gray beard hairs, plus he hasn’t figured out much of any use (not to mention that the film’s formula requires him to be the next bumped-off crew-member).

While all of this happens, Murph, now played by the prolific Jessica Chastain, remains on Earth, not knowing whether her father is alive, and still harboring a grudge for the way he left her.  One of the film’s strongest scenes involves Murph sending Cooper a message in which she reminds him of his promise to return home by the time the two of them are the same age – well, today, she’s the age he was when he left.  Outside of grieving over him, Murph has been working with NASA to figure out how humanity can collectively escape Earth’s gravitational pull if they indeed find another planet.  Brand, though, on his deathbed, admits that humanity can never escape without data from a singularity behind a black hole.  Murph reveals this to Amelia and Cooper, who argue about which planet to visit next, and ultimately decide on Mann, even though (or, on another level, specifically because) all narrative signs point to this being a terrible idea (see Principle of the Inept Adventurer).  Mann’s planet, of course, is a frozen wasteland, and Mann himself (played by Matt Damon) simply couldn’t go through with dying there per his mission, so he lied about the planet’s viability in order to be rescued.  Some truly terrific sequences, absent of the ridiculous CG most films would use, take place, and our characters are left with one choice: figure out some way to get behind the black hole and transmit the data back to Earth (did anyone think they wouldn’t have to do this?).

The film’s science, preposterous as its plot is, is relatively sound, especially considering that a cosmologist (Kip Thorne) birthed the idea for the film with producer Lynda Obst, and acted as consultant on it, often having to talk Nolan out of making the story any wackier.  While much of the space adventure is based upon hypotheticals (for example, an actual wormhole has never been observed, but given what we know about relativity and gravity, it is hypothetically possible).  The ultimate result, however, especially what’s behind the black hole’s event horizon, relies on molding the science around plot contrivance, so while watching Matthew McConaughey float around a five-dimensional space library wherein time is not linear is pretty satisfying in terms of achieving a profound conclusion to the “fi” questions of the film, it renders keeping track of the “sci” parts ineffectual.

The screenplay, penned by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, is much the same as any Dark Knight or Inception script.  No character speaks if it’s not either exposition or a seed planted for something later in the plot, and no one is ever wrong when they present some big idea (for example, Anne Hathaway’s character gives a lengthy and impassioned monologue about how “love” might be the key to solving everything in the universe because it’s an emotion/experience we don’t fully understand, before being dismissed by the predominately male crew).  Nolan’s oft-criticized female characters become more in Interstellar, but only marginally and not necessarily in the right way: it’s as if Nolan has responded to this criticism by having his female characters do more for the plot instead of actually characterizing them.  For example, Murph is continually emphasized as being the central character of the film, upon whom everything relies and whose intellect and accomplishments everyone reveres, but she actually doesn’t have many scenes by herself, and for being played by three exceptional actresses (the third being the magnificent Ellen Burstyn in a cameo), the only parts of her 80+ year life that are important enough to include in the film are the ones that revolve around her attachment to her father (read: Hollywood Daddy Issues).  We don’t see anything between Cooper leaving and Murph sending him a message for the first time (when she’s in her thirties).  We see nothing of her relationship with rando Getty (Topher Grace); just an impulsive kiss, and then it’s fifty years later and they have a gaggle of adult offspring.  Amelia, Hathaway’s character, the only female astronaut, operates entirely on emotion, in stark contrast to pragmatist Cooper, and she plays second fiddle to him throughout the journey (even if she ends up being right about which planet is best to visit, Cooper never acknowledges that he got someone killed and wasted valuable equipment and resources by heading to Mann’s planet when Amelia wanted to go to Edmunds’).  She’s also got that Ripley 2.0 hairdo going, similar to Sandra Bullock in last year’s Gravity (and it’s difficult not to compare that film to this one).  It’s as if the filmmakers are trying to placate those of us who consistently bemoan the absence of layered female characters in blockbuster films, but no amount of space stations named after Murph can stifle this question: why isn’t Murph the main character?  I.e. the astronaut who actually goes on the dangerous adventure to save humanity?  Jessica Chastain is one of the most adept and charismatic actors of any gender we have right now, and Anne Hathaway, juggernaut of nuance and onscreen honesty, is much more than a soapy foil to the brooding bro.  If we needed Murph on Earth, Amelia (or, say, Murph’s mother, if we needed Amelia in space) could easily have helmed the voyage.  Too often in Nolan’s films, the women are simply opposites of each other (e.g. Inception, wherein Marion Cotillard played a full-figured, exotic beauty against Ellen Page’s skinny teenage nerd/genius) who frame the male hero and affect him in the various ways he needs to be affected in order to keep, y’know, hero-ing.

Beyond that, while the film tries its hardest to dodge various genre trappings, it falls into twice as many and forgets about plenty of other ones.  It’s one thing to say your film is inspired by 2001 and Metropolis; it’s another to have the same basic thing happen at the end (think about the ways in which Dave transcends human existence, then watch Cooper’s tumble into the black hole again).  The film wants TARS and CASE to remind you of HAL, and thus fear that one of them will go rogue and try to murder the crew, while the dashing usual-lead Matt Damon is plotting carnage right there in front of you.  But none of this is surprising because virtually every sci-fi adventure since Event Horizon (and plenty before) has that character – the brilliant scientist, the “best of us,” who actually turns out to be a self-interested nut-job and tries to kill everyone – and from the moment Mann is mentioned, it’s pretty obvious that he’s the last person who’s going to be of any help (’cause this galaxy ain’t big enough for two rugged male leads).

Where Gravity’s most telling moments were silent shots of Sandra Bullock’s feet, Interstellar talks its themes at you.  All of the conversations are well-acted and nice to listen to, but they’re not actually conversational; rather, there is nothing said that you do not need to remember in order to “get it” later.  None of this is to say that the film is plodding, or trapped under mumble-science like Primer, or in any way difficult to understand, but it shelves itself next to a thousand family films with identical plots (and I understand why Nolan would want his film to be thought of amongst memories of Jurassic Park and Blade Runner, but one can do that without either remaking parts of them or defining the new film by what the old ones aren’t).

All said, I don’t have to do the usual roundup of unanswered/rhetorical/paradoxical questions I usually need to do with films like this (see Snowpiercer for perhaps the greatest litany so far) because Nolan takes every measure to ensure that the science (fictional or not) makes sense in-universe, and that the characters’ decisions (mostly) make sense in context, even if they’re not given much time to make them.  We’re invited to participate in the characters’ horror, guilt, and love, albeit only when convenient for what the filmmakers want us to care about, but it’s there on the table, whereas many genre filmmakers would withhold vital info for dramatic effect (a greenhorn’s flourish that accomplishes the exact opposite).  Furthermore, Chastain, McConaughey, and Hathaway believe their own characters, so as “stock” as they can be, it’s easy to believe in their existence – at least for a few hours.

Interstellar (2014); written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, and Anne Hathaway.

Les Misérables

Mix it in a mincer and pretend it’s beef

Jackman/HathawayHowever wonderful and entrancing Tom Hooper’s rendition of Les Misérables may be, let us remember that its source material is a 1980 musical that is itself a somewhat fast/loose adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.  In that sense, it remains remarkably true to the spirit of the original work (and most of the events and character relationships) for a third-hand script 150 years later.  For those not familiar with the musical based upon the novel, Les Misérables (loosely translated as The Wretched, The Victims, or The Poor Ones) is a sung-through musical in multiple acts, which in a way is similar to Hugo’s novel, which is split into five titled sections.

The five sections, mostly titled after characters’ names, may have helped the average filmgoer figure out who’s important in the movie if included.  For instance, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is the central figure who connects every character in the story, despite the fact that the character has less physical presence and longevity than most of the core cast.  Who would be able to guess her importance right off the bat?  Well, a reader would, seeing as Hugo titled the first section of the novel “Fantine.”  The pacing of the film, though, is expertly handled.  No time is wasted getting from event to event, even when several years pass, and as with a stage show, we are left to imagine what transpired in between.  Since the songs last longer than a simple conversation covering the same material, rendering the film 158 minutes, these quick transitions are especially appreciated, and do not subvert the idea that what happens later is earned.

The story begins in 1815 with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict who earns parole after a nineteen year sentence.  However, the prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), tells him he’ll never be free as long as Javert is watching him.  Eventually, the starving Valjean is taken in by the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson), but steals his silver and retreats in the night.  When Javert’s men capture him, the Bishop, in an incredible act of kindness and forgiveness, claims that the silver was a gift to Valjean, and that Valjean in fact forgot the most expensive pieces, and gives him two beautiful candlesticks, along with the warning that he had better use this gift to make himself an honest man.  Amazed by this generosity, Valjean breaks parole and assumes a new identity, and eight years later, he becomes a factory owner and Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.  Fantine, who works in the factory, is dismissed by an abusive foreman after he discovers that she’s been sending money to her illegitimate daughter and needs a raise.  Valjean, present in the room, ignores this because he spots Javert, now a police inspector, and worries that his old nemesis may be there to apprehend him.  Javert suspects, and his suspicions are confirmed when Valjean reveals his identity in order to save a man who has been wrongfully accused.  Before narrowly escaping the wrath of the obsessed Javert, who has been hunting him for almost a decade, Valjean brings Fantine (who has been forced into prostitution) to the hospital, asks her forgiveness, and promises to raise her daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen, and later Amanda Seyfried).  He buys Cosette from the perfidious Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), greedy innkeepers who have worked the little girl to the bone and treated her like an animal.  Nine years pass, Cosette grows up, and the Parisan June Rebellion of 1832 is about to begin, led by Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), the latter of whom falls in love with Cosette after passing her on the street, and she reciprocates.  Valjean, effectively Cosette’s father, feared this day, and now finds himself not only still in hiding from Javert, but involved in the revolution because of Cosette.

The beauty of Les Misérables, perhaps, is the fact that even after 150 years, I cannot say “You can guess where the story goes from there,” as I do about so many popcorn flicks made from unreadable modern scripts.  This is in part due to the fact that Hooper and company leave most of the story threads intact and do not attempt to water any of the action down for the ADD Generation – granted, these are threads that the stage musical also kept intact, and Hooper’s film only leaves out two of the original songs, while adding a brand new one (“Suddenly,” sung by Hugh Jackman).  Not since Aronofsky’s The Fountain has Jackman truly shown us that he can do something besides playing Wolverine, and if he wasn’t already slated to play Wolverine once again later this year,  I’d say that this is the role that will break him out of actiony brain-garbage for good.  Russell Crowe is convincingly narcissistic and troubled as Javert, though his singing chops are dubious at best, and his voice seems to mysteriously improve as the film goes on.  Redmayne, known to me only from last year’s My Week With Marilyn, may have a breakout role here, bringing an intimate sort of sympathy to Marius, the closest thing to a Boring Hero you’ll see in Les Misérables.  Samantha Barks, who has played Éponine in the stage show, reprises the role here, and successfully fuses the character of the novel with that of the musical.  Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter are perfect as the story’s most unscrupulous players, and while the innkeepers were not used for comic effect in Hugo’s novel, the musical version makes them seem like they were written for these two actors, especially Baron Cohen, who gets through “Master of the House” without channeling any of his “Ali G Show” characters even once.  The showstopper, however, is Anne Hathaway, who plays one of the younger Fantines we’ve seen, and sings the famous “I Dreamed a Dream” in a single 4-minute shot.  This move by the filmmakers is brave, risky, and a roaring success.

The film adeptly retains the deeper facets of Hugo’s characters, particularly Valjean and Javert, who seem polar opposites (Valjean the embodiment of kindness and redemption, and Javert a human manifestation of vengeance and obsession), but neither of whom are completely black-and-white.  Javert remains a misguided antagonist who cannot separate morality and lawfulness, which leads to his famous conundrum in the end.  The film’s only missteps, maybe, are the extended battle scenes, which are fatiguing and sometimes make the film feel as though everything was leading up to a big gunfight, and the sheer, for lack of a better term, “Britishness” of the whole production, which obviously cannot be avoided.  It’s just disconcerting to hear Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) speaking cockney on the streets of Paris.  Make no mistake: the positives outweigh everything else, but if I were to watch it again, I’d probably fast-forward the fighting.

Is Les Mis one of the best films of the year?  Probably, though I’m not yet sure how to compare it to other films.  But wait – that isn’t my job; it’s the job of the people at the Academy, who haven’t gotten it right since before the damn musical was written.

Les Misérables (2012); written by Alain Boubil; based upon the novel by Victor Hugo; directed by Tom Hooper; starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, and Amanda Seyfried. 

The Dark Knight Rises

Death by exile

Since this may be my last chance, I’d like to examine just a few of the logical missteps in Batman’s modus operandi, many of which were suggested to me by a friend during the car ride to see The Dark Knight Rises: Batman and other masked vigilantes cannot legally arrest anyone.  Without admissible evidence, any villain kidnapped by Batman and left on the stoop of the police department is free to get up and catch a cab home.  Adding the fact that vigilantism is largely illegal, “the Batman” (i.e. a nocturnal maniac in an elaborate costume who beats the tar out of people unprovoked) cannot present himself as a witness without revealing his identity.  The absolute only way Batman would be able to stop crime would be to murder every criminal he came across, curbing his “no killing” rule.  Even if Bruce Wayne were to come forth as witness to a crime or offer open help to the police, he has an endless assemblage of illegal tech in and below his house (including military-grade tanks).  If Christopher Nolan’s Gotham were a real place, rest assured, Batman would be spending plenty more time in his cave than anywhere else.

The final film in the Batman Begins series is an effective ending to the trilogy and the most character-centric film Nolan has done, albeit with more than a few failures.  On the upside, Batman himself appears for maybe ten minutes of total screen time, while his alter ego, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) deals with some personal trials after an eight year absence from crime-fighting.  The film focuses on these trials along with the exploits of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who arranges to steal Wayne’s fingerprints in exchange for the elimination of her criminal record.  The film’s deuteragonist, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) climbs the ladder of the Gotham police force and takes on a role very similar to that of Robin, the sidekick of Batman, a non-coincidence that provides some good payoff in one of the film’s final scenes.  The other major players are Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist with a cult-like following bent on purifying Gotham through its destruction, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a determined businesswoman with lots of money and a nebulous agenda.

I’ve discussed Christopher Nolan’s writing problems in the past (see Inception), and although The Dark Knight Rises possesses a more emotional foothold than its predecessors, plenty of fundamental issues are still present, namely when it comes to female characters.  Women get a better deal here (which isn’t saying much, considering Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fate in The Dark Knight): Hathaway’s character gets plenty to do in the way of action, and more importantly, has some personal motivation for getting involved in Gotham’s criminal underbelly.  Cotillard’s character is an important business mogul with serious ideas for a billion-dollar company, but once the action starts, she becomes a damsel in distress, and later, when her true identity is revealed, she satisfies that Generation Nolan film convention in which women with goals must use sex to achieve them and/or be deceptive and snakelike (see also George Clooney’s The Ides of March).  Both women harbor romantic feelings for Wayne, and like Nolan’s two female characters in Inception, these two serve as disparate romance options for the male lead.  They revolve around the guy, and if he didn’t need them, they wouldn’t exist.  Additionally, while Hathaway tries to play against type and be a self-motivated character, these contrived feelings for Batman (not to mention the sexy catsuit and high heels she’s required to prance around in) subvert what is otherwise a valiant effort.  Selina gets a sidekick, Holly Robinson (Juno Temple), commonly known as one of the first openly gay characters in comic books, but Temple is criminally underused while time is wasted on individual male cops and criminals who have no real bearing on the story’s events, including Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, who has appeared in all three films), in a mock courtroom side-story that is never actually resolved.

There are also some interesting “buzz word” moments that I think are worth examining.  Bane’s takeover of Gotham is described by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) as an “occupation,” and Bane proceeds to dismantle the power structures of the city (which includes driving the entire police force into hiding) while claiming that he’s placing the power in the hands of the people; the word people is spoken very deliberately, like a taunt.  The city’s single court room is now run by a mob of cretins, and pyramids of books and papers are scattered and piled everywhere.  Every defendant is killed in a barbaric, Hun-like manner, regardless of guilt.  It seems that when the “people” obtain power and there are no billionaires or police to save us from ourselves, the system falls apart and the doors to the Dark Ages are reopened.  Nolan has already responded to this commentary, claiming that the film is “obviously not” a criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but if it was obvious, viewers would not be making these claims based upon evidence gathered from the film.  You cannot create a story with the intent of having it interpreted; no matter what “side” you’re on, Nolan’s film glorifies the police and reinforces the necessity of the wealthy while trodding on free will and treating ordinary people like commoners.  Wayne’s ascent from a gargantuan (and apparently unsupervised) prison tower among the burbling chants of other prisoners (who all happen to be trained baritones) evokes a sort of religious vibe, satisfying the Rises part of the title while making one wonder what Batman himself thinks of the people – he’s a wealthy man who unconditionally aids the police, but he’s adamant about ensuring that Gotham’s savior “could be anyone.”

Among the leaps in logic is Bane’s (and his boss’s) ultimate plan: destroy Gotham as per the wishes of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), who was defeated in the first film.  Considering how petty their goals are (right up there with Hans Gruber), why are Bane’s thugs so devoted and ready to die for the cause?  The film’s opening brings on this question when a henchman happily goes down with a doomed aircraft simply because Bane asks him to (this scene also features Aiden Gillen as a cocky CIA agent with a pompadour haircut, illustrating the underuse of great TV actors in films).  How do the thugs plant bombs of incredible power beneath massive suspension bridges without anyone (particularly boaters) noticing?  What’s the point of isolating Gotham into a medieval city-state if you’re going to blow it up anyway?  How many movies are going to make use of the trigger-button MacGuffin before filmmakers realize it no longer provides any real tension or drama?

The film effectively book-ends the Batman saga despite the numerous hair-pulling moments, and the statuses of the film’s main characters (not to mention the Batcave) make for a surprisingly pleasing conclusion (with no cliffhangers or silly post-credits scenes).  For full enjoyment, however, please blacken your third eye.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012); written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, and Tom Hardy.