Friday, December 12, 2014

Interstellar Problems and Thoughts

Christopher Nolan makes some fine films. Really, I didn't like The Prestige much at all, and yet it was a well-made, inventive, and original movie. And yet I've repeatedly had to write follow-up articles about the flaws in his pictures. Inception needed one Double Dip entry, as well as two Question entries to discuss thoughts about and common issues with that dream-heist story. The Dark Knight Rises required similarly protracted consideration. All of these ambitious narratives are packed with issues, both small and large - and if you click on my "Christopher Nolan" tag at the right side of the page (or at the end of this post - oh, f--- it), you can see me wrestling with that fact.

Sadly, no one sings "A Whole New World" like in Aladdin.

But only an unrealistic, childish fool expects perfection from others - especially in the field of art, where one may not always understand what a director is doing, or where one's complaints may have more to do with personal preferences or baggage than actual "objective" and "valid" criticism/critique. Interstellar is full of at least as many problems as tDKR, so the following list spells out those problems, as well as my thoughts on them. Let's get started, with one SPOILER WARNING for anyone who hasn't seen the movie.

First, the emotional miscues:

1. Most importantly, there is simply no freaking way that Coop is leaving his daughter's deathbed. While it's true that parents shouldn't outlive their kids, he's missed her whole life, and he would feel the need to celebrate whatever time they had left. Also, Murphy's family ignores their (great-)grandpa completely - y'know, who's also the guy who saved the freaking world (along with their mom). It seemed less like they were giving them space or were preoccupied with Murph, and more like they were cardboard cutouts.

I think that scene is indicative of Nolan's love of heist-movie-style slickness. The best comparison here is to the end of tDKR, where two characters in a cafe share a moment that suggests Nolan is better at flashy cinematic emotion than more naturalistic feelings.

The great thing about my daughter is that she gets older and older while I stay the same age!

2. The love speech did not ruin anything for me - it's a character moment about Amelia's hopes and beliefs, not a statement of fact or something they work into the plot later. I could appreciate the insight into her mindset, yet it did make me roll my eyes - all that sweet stuff is totally specious! The same words could be said about any single human emotion, so it's almost a waste of monologue. This problem could have been remedied by simply making the speech shorter, that's all.

3. Matt Damon is a good actor, but I don't know that he's quite right for this role. I can't tell whether it's his acting style, or his profile as a star, but he felt wrong.

4. I looooove modernist poetry, but Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gently" is a bit overexposed. More to the point, however, it's a poem by a guy who drank himself to death in a bar in NYC. I've been to that bar and it's got an incredibly depressing vibe. For those of us who know about Thomas, the repetition of the work was... It was like hearing a Marvin Gaye song about fathers and sons - it's too hard to ignore the fact that Gaye was murdered by his dad.


5. What was up with Affleck going shithouse on the doctor for saying "your wife and son can't stay here?" High emotions like that, much less physical violence, need to be set up more - or else the response is so disproportionate that the guy seems insane.

I was really glad that Topher Grace grabbed that tire iron the second time around. Also, I don't know if either Affleck or Topher were the best choices for those parts, but (as with Damon) I'm ultimately able to be okay with it. I was not okay with Casey Affleck looking so much like his brother under that mega-beard.

6. The entire thing with Dr. Brand's lie felt a little unnecessary and excessive. First of all, from a story perspective, it can feel a bit superfluous - since the stakes are already extreme, we don't need them to get worse.

And it seems impossible that no one would notice what Jessica Chastain's grown-up Murphy spotted, much less that no one noticed it much, much earlier. I understand that it brings Murphy in for a critical part of the film, but it's a beat that's standing on very shaky ground. And, secondly, we just saw Michael Caine's Alfred pull off a horrible but "morally just" lie in The Dark Knight Rises. Repeating the same beat with the same actor in similar-ish roles in two consecutive movies is... It's not a wise choice, and risks taking me out of the film, that's all.

Why does Mr. Nolan keep putting me in fetish gear for nerds! I'm not your Geek I'd Like to F--k!

And now, the science/plot miscues, which are likely to bother viewers more:

7. First off, the discussions of the wormhole and time as a resource would've happened way earlier - on the ground, in fact.

8. I think the "sorta kinda one-way communication through the wormhole" thing is very dodgy. They can pick up all this information about the other side... except for when it's dramatically appropriate for them not to.

If I'm the NASA head, and I hear "all we can tell you is that there's a black hole there, and 12 planets, and 3 of our people activated their beacons. But we can't receive any other kinds of communication than whatever the hell it was that told us those 3 things..." then I promise you my response would be, "riiiiiiiiiiight."

9. It's weird to see scientists repeatedly use a non-traditional version of Newton's Third Law of physics. The words "you have to leave something behind" are bulls--t for the purposes of science, but it is basically a thesis statement for the movie. I'm not quite sure if they're being very corny and talking literally leaving something behind (Earth), or the concept of their being a price for achievement (McConaughey zooming off to his probable death).


10. A wonderful friend of mine noted: isn't it kinda weird that Damon's role had his own still-functioning ship? Did all of the astronauts get those? Wouldn't the prior astronauts be able to maybe get back to the wormhole and report back properly if they had those?

I replied to her with "can't you build beacons that automatically report environmental conditions in their immediate vicinity, instead of just saying 'come here?'"

Now, before I talk about this next problem, here's the set up:

When McConaughey learns about the mission, I thought that they said there were 12 solar systems on the other side. This made me think that the wormhole led to some place where 12 solar systems were close enough to reach. The big issue - which my brain initially avoided with the "solar systems" confusion - was that they were looking near a black hole. Black holes are basically the "a wizard did it" of movies because we don't know much about them, except that they're probably one of the top two or three most powerful things in existence. But all the planets being near a black hole raises so many "but wait" thoughts. So:

11. Where is all the light coming from? It didn't bother me until I saw the second planet, but where is the freaking Sun in this place?

Now I don't believe the black hole would remove the light from these planets, but I don't see where they're getting their light from. More importantly, can you even have a black hole inside a solar system? Wouldn't it just wreck the place?

The singularity is in another galaxy, and even it thinks Ferguson was bulls--t

Which brings us to the biggest problem in the movie for me:

12. why would you ever explore a planet that's orbiting a black hole? First off, it's definitely going to be destroyed. If you're gonna die very soon and can move your entire population twice, I guess fine, but... Let's just say, this presents a worse safety net than Venice.

Secondly, I'm pretty sure that when black holes destroy certain things, they create huge blasts of radiation. So that first water planet may get inescapably cooked at any moment. That's even more perilous than "some day the black hole will eat us."

And there's a third, even worse problem (damn, I use that word so much for a movie I really enjoyed) with the planet: the black hole is guaranteed to attract all sorts of things - moons, asteroids, comets, stuff like that. And while the black hole will gobble those up, that stuff will still be heading in the direction of that planet... Which makes that planet even more dangerous as a new home. It's like being strapped to the windshield of a speeding car - things will be flying right at you.

As to those three points, I'm just saying that a huge chunk of the story's complications arise from a choice that made me really scratch my head. With all those problems and more, why wouldn't the planet orbiting a black hole be the last place you check out?

13. I also didn't hear the line about the other 9 missions failing. This led me to some confusion, the first of which being I always wondered why they were only looking at those three planets, and why they didn't bring more fuel. After planet #2, I gave up wondering. But I think there should have been more discussion of what the other 9 did - there's enough running time in this pic to have given us that.

I finally found a place without a g-d Starbucks.

14. Although the thematic tie back to the opening mystery and the dad/daughter relationship is sweet, I don't need Coop to be the one who sends messages into the past. For one thing, it's kind of incredible that these future people can do all that but are so different now that they can't communicate with us - yet they do remember the exact two people that will save humanity.

Now, I don't mind "They" at all. By definition, scientists look for reasons to explain things, and something impossible invites theorizing. If there's a new wormhole by Saturn, then it's either an amazing coincidence, or something/someone made that happen. And the timing makes the coincidence explanation reeeeally unlikely. So, it's Providence (I love that word), and thus a "They."

Moreover, I like that someone out there - God, aliens, future people - help our species survive. So I'm willing to go along when Coop starts theorizing that they're future humans. I'd like to believe that he's wrong, but I do assume that he's just forming a hypothesis to support these incredible events.

This was the original ending to Children of the Corn.

15. I would have preferred if the film didn't involve our hero in the time travel - that "They" sent messages into the past, not Coop. Why? Because it sets up a time paradox, and most movies don't need that - especially one like this, that's already taking some huge leaps. The end is like if I sold you a watch, then got you to buy a car and a house within the next ten minutes. Slow down, Nolan.

By time paradox, I mean "humanity is only saved because Us From the Future come back to save us in the past." That idea doesn't wash because we would have needed to survive into the future to have come back to save ourselves in the first place. I could elaborate, but that's the basic idea.

I just wish I didn't have to juggle a time paradox crisis along with the next issue,

16. which is partly an extension of the last problem. I'd rather the "They" were aliens, or unexplained, than learn that they are future humans. Hell, I think I'd rather they were future aliens than future humans.

Why? Well: it's a big universe out there, so it's cheesy/solipsistic that it's Future Us; I'm trying to buy the tesseract in the first place, and how Coop got himself right where he needs to be; the extent of their advancement is insane, which must take forever; the extent of their advancement makes it seem less likely they can't talk to us. Couldn't they make a mashup of video transmissions and deliver us some clear instructions?


Well, everyone, it's not fun to gripe or complain about something that you find enjoyable and pleasing. I'm happy to say that I'm pretty much done addressing flaws in the picture.

But I hope I've given you some food for thought regarding this ambitious blockbuster. Your mileage may vary, as with all things, and I invite you all to let me know what you think, on this site or elsewhere.

It's really no wonder that when I left the movie, my brain felt... numb.

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