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.

Snowpiercer

Size ten chaos

snowpiercerYour first hint about the depth of Snowpiercer is that it’s named after a gigantic plot device: a self-sustaining train that bashes through solid walls of ice and snow in order to continue its eternal loop around the world.  The film is effectively the underdog version of Edge of Tomorrow: based on dystopic graphic novels, starring a reliable Hollywood actor, and far more concerned with what’s happening than why it’s happening or why anyone should care.  Which parts, I wonder, did Harvey Weinstein want to trim or change?

The story takes place after humans attempt to combat global warming, and instead cause a new ice age that apparently wipes out all life on Earth, though I’m not sure whose in-universe conclusion that was.  Either way, the remaining people have taken refuge on the aforementioned train, whose magic engine is responsible for sustaining the lives of the few thousand humans left.  A few issues already: why can’t they just turn on the engine and keep the train at a standstill?  The treacherous snowstorms at every turn aren’t exactly facilitating the goal of survival.  Also, even with the great length of the train, a few thousand people are not enough to keep the human race alive, so it’s kind of an all-for-nothing game already, but the narrative itself seems unaware of that, so we’re left to suspend our disbelief.

We start with Curtis (Chris Evans), a Boring Hero who has become sick of the caste system put in place by those who run the front of the train.  Those in the “tail section,” including Curtis’s friends Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Edgar (Jamie Bell), as well as one-armed/one-legged mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), live in squalor and eat nothing but blocks of protein that look like Jell-O and probably taste much less pleasant.  The story begins as a small army of mooks shows up and inexplicably takes away two of the tail section’s children, much to the chagrin of Curtis and Edgar, who spend five minutes speaking in exposition in a scene that would have been much more effective (and no less clear) if they hadn’t said anything at all.  A would-be riot occurs, during which inciter Andrew (Ewan Bremner) throws a shoe at the wrong person: Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton at her hammiest), who then makes an example of Andrew by making him stick his arm out the window of the train, exposing it to the cold until it is frozen and useless.  Then they slam it with a carnival mallet, because it’s fun to watch stuff shatter, and let’s face it, there’s nothing better to do.

Through some of the exposition, we gather that there was an attempt at revolution four years ago, but no one has been able to run the gauntlet to the front of the train.  But during today’s kidnapping, Curtis notices that Mason’s soldiers do not have bullets in their guns.  Gilliam agrees: these guys come in here with guns every day, but have never even fired a warning shot.  The next time they try something, Curtis rallies every able body in the tail section, including Tanya, whose son was one of the children abducted.  The good guys defeat the guards and rush through the gates that they’re not allowed to pass.  The movie still has two hours left, and it waits almost that long to try to develop the characters (y’know, after most of them are dead).

From here, Snowpiercer becomes a relentless Game-of-Death-style battle movie, in which each train car involves a different type of fighting, ranging from various Bull-shitsu to unnecessary slow-motion kills to Zero Dark Thirty found-footage night-vision.  The one bit of story that happens in between involves the freeing of Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), the film’s Belligerent Savant, from the prison car, along with his supposedly clairvoyant (because that’s normal!) daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung).  Nam is the creator of the gates that separate the train cars, so Curtis’s troupe needs him if they’re going to get far.  Through one thing and another, Curtis, Nam, and Yona make it to the end, where the two men have a heart-to-heart about whether they should open the final gate that leads to Wilford, the Godot Character who rules the train, or just blow a hole in the side of the car they’re in and see if they can survive outside (Nam has evidence that the snow is melting, but it’s mostly a blind-faith idea).  Just in time, Curtis is invited to the obligatory Dinner at the Ivory Tower, after which he has to choose whether to become the new, erm, “conductor,” as it were.

The scene prior to this, nearly two hours into the film, is the first time anything is revealed about Curtis and his motivations.  It’s a pretty good scene, but we needed it much earlier, before the exhausting battles and slaughter.  Chris Evans can act; there’s no question about that after The Iceman, but it would be nice if he were given the opportunity to do so before we’re asked to support his violent coup.  Sadly, his steak dinner with Wilford, which is thankfully not rushed (and which reveals that, much like the revolution in The Matrix, this revolt was planned by Wilford and Gilliam in order to keep the population of the train under control), brings attention to an important bit of Fridge Logic: why does the caste system exist in the first place?  No reason is given for the horrid conditions of the tail section, and it’s not as if finances have anything to do with it, since there’s no currency in this particular dystopia, just the damn train.  And after enduring so much intense violence, the lack of answers or depth is a real groin-punch, and it opens the sluice gates for a zillion other questions we’d have been willing to keep quiet about if we’d gotten some attempt at resolution or character development: why, if Wilford has spent his entire life obsessed with trains, does he never use one bit of correct railroad terminology?  How/why did the government greenlight the construction of a train that spans the entire world and never stops running?  How does a community of people survive on pure protein, without fruits and vegetables, without getting scurvy?  Why does Curtis react the way he does when he realizes that the protein blocks are made of processed insects?  People eat those in real life, and in many areas, are pretty happy to have them.  What is Minister Mason (Swinton’s character) “minister” of?  Why is she, in all her madcap glory, cast aside early and replaced by a silent Übermook?  How does such a large percentage of such a small human society have the exact body-type and low-rent aspirations conducive to becoming monstrous security guards who stand in a room all day, waiting for opponents to show up?  Why do they wear black masks?  Why use unreliable weapons like axes when the exact outcome of the battle is so vital to Wilford’s plan?  Why does a genius like Wilford think that cutting down an already-reproductively-insignificant population by 70% will ensure the survival of the human race?  Why keep the tail-section people in filth, poverty, and boredom, without even giving them the option to work jobs or somehow contribute, and then blame them for being useless?  Why keep them alive at all if you only want them for their children, when the people in the front are clearly reproducing too?  How did Edgar ever know what steak smelled like if he was born on the train?  Why are all the women either bereft mothers or vilified?  Does anyone not comprehend what Mason’s painfully obvious innuendo about keeping the aquarium population balanced is an allegory for?

Most important of all, if Curtis’s anger is based around the fact that he hates himself for becoming a selfish, deranged cannibal when he and his people were first corralled into the tail section – a scenario that almost saw him kill and eat the infant Edgar, after killing his mother, when food was scarce – how does he so readily abandon Edgar to die at the hands of Wilford’s forces, and then later execute a woman at pointblank range, right after ordering one of his mates to kill yet another woman (this time a pregnant teacher played by Alison Pill)?  Are we really supposed to sympathize with him after this?  It’s almost as if Curtis was deepened as an afterthought, without retrospect.  Does he really think he’s going to make humanity better by killing most of the remaining people?  Are we supposed to be inspired by the ending, in which two whole people survive the ordeal?  Good news for the polar bears.  Not so much for the humans.

The problem is the same one so many films and TV series have: the abundance of answers, and complete absence of justifications.  The focus on plot and not on characters.  We can’t care about what happens if we don’t care about the people it happens to.  Again and again, these House of Cards plots dictate a film’s story, and any coincidental characterization serves only to string one noisy, desensitizing fight scene to the next one.  Everyone loves to guess who will still be alive by the end, rather than get to know anyone before they’re put on the chopping block.

One piece of advice for aspiring dystopians: don’t struggle to have a point.  Don’t orbit some shopworn theme or broad idea.  Have a character worth caring about, and don’t kill them for shock value.  The rest is pretty easy.

Snowpiercer (2014); based on the graphic novels Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob; written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson; directed by Bong Joon-ho; starring Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Go Ah-sung, and Song Kang-ho.