December 9, 2014 – 5:14 am

Interstellar (2014) is a hodgepodge of influences that Christopher Nolan stuffs into an all-inclusive science-fiction extravaganza that’s almost three hours long. He also hits his target with admirable precision, says Critic After Dark Noel Vera.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) starts out very Grapes of Wrath and ends up a little Book of Genesis. Along the way you see the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (of course); design bits from Alien and Star Wars; story details from (though I don’t see Nolan ever confirming this) Marooned, Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars and (guessing he’d rather die than admit it) Field of Dreams; imagery from The Right Stuff and (this Nolan does admit - it’s a much tonier source) Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.

I also sense borrowings from both fantasy and science fiction literature, particularly Frederick Pohl’s Gateway, CS Lewis The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and (for the finale) a cross between Robert Heinlein’s short story “And He Built A Crooked House” and Gregory Benford’s novel Timescape (either that or Nolan’s been sneaking quick peeks at John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness). A hodgepodge of influences Nolan stuffs into an all-inclusive science-fiction extravaganza almost three hours long.

Give him credit for doing two things right: the science is mostly accurate, thanks to executive producer/theoretical physicist Kip Thorne; and the effects are impressively rendered - mostly non-digital, far as these inexpert eyes can see, with the kind of crisp imagery usually found in analog, on-camera effects.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Interstellar great science fiction, mainly a competently contrived adventure marred by an excess of what Kubrick once called “spacesuit melodrama” - stuff Kubrick stripped from his own 2001 by dropping most of the dialogue and all expository narration. With fanatically researched and designed costumes, sets, and effects Kubrick creates a hyperrealistic world against which he presents a mystery: that the universe, so carefully crafted and photographed, is so unknowable.*
* An even greater mystery: that Kubrick managed to produce such a slow-moving enigma and still make a killing (albeit not immediately). I’m sure there are contextual reasons (a more adventurous zeitgeist, an audience receptive to mindtrips (with accompanying recreational hallucinogen of choice), fact of the matter remains: first weekend figures have Interstellar being edged out by an animated marshmallow stuffed into too-tight armor. Kubrick must have done something right.

Matt Damon’s ‘past sell-by date’ character demonstrates how a touch less explanation goes further in excusing a nonsensical villain than a touch too much. When HAL 9000 finally loses it and extends spacepod clamps towards Frank Poole we’re hardly surprised; if anything HAL confirms fears established long before we stepped inside the movie theater (that HAL speaks in Douglas Rains’ faultless velvet voice goes a long way to stoking those fears).

But that was Kubrick’s genius: he realized that if he withheld details he could literally get away with murder (several in fact); when Nolan tries something similar you still see outlines of the Syd Field* paradigm: three acts with rising action, a climax, and clear motivations for all involved (as for Damon’s Froot Loops spaceman, of course, he’s got a clear motivation: he’s crazy).
* Nolan can’t ever seem to escape that three-act structure - Memento was basically Syd Field done backwards; Inception was Syd Field nested inside Syd Field nested inside Syd Field nested inside; the Dark Knight movies were Syd Field in a Dracula cape; this picture is Syd Field in space.

Interstellar has its moments - the waterlogged planet radiates an aura of undefined menace (when the wave hits the fan all our fears prove entirely founded - are inadequate, if anything). The frozen planet did serve up one sharp Pythonesque wink - the ship gliding elegantly past cloud banks, only to gouge a chunk off a nearby billow. Have to admit it’s a shock, especially to non-Nolan fans - did the man suddenly acquire a (gasp!) sense of humor? A surrealist urge? Have we misjudged him all this time? For a minute (but only a minute) our smug skepticism is plunged into doubt.

I’m being unfair of course; Interstellar’s sense of humor is personified by TARS, an automated steel cabinet with simian gait and attitude to match. TARS though feels like a last-minute attempt at comic seasoning, a token comic figure; dark irony on the other hand isn’t just a major element of 2001, it’s integral to Kubrick’s vision of man’s evolutionary progress, from distant past to near future (hominids invent the tool-weapon, split neighbor’s skull open with it; hurl tons of steel into orbit then fill said structure with bored passengers spouting transit-lounge inanities; respond to an extraterrestrial challenge with a nuclear-powered exploration vessel complete with giant centrifuge and artificial intelligence–and never once suspect that aforementioned intelligence is more responsively demonstrably human than anyone else in the ship).

Nolan does pause in his nonstop litany of sacrifice and redemption to grant us a quick glimpse into the folly of the anti-science crowd - namely a scene where Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper confronts a schoolteacher who flat-out tells him that the Apollo space program was a hoax meant to bankrupt the Russians.

Several thoughts on that: 1) A hoax? Hoaxers have been working for years to sell their theories, which haven’t gained much traction, much less acceptance (the charge that the space program is a waste of funding is harder to shake off, though); 2) it’s a well-written scene, and horrific in its way, but presented so earnestly that you’re not sure you’re meant to laugh; and 3) Cooper’s reply is so dead-serious indignant, he wraps himself so tightly in his higher-moral-ground cape that you don’t feel like laughing at all. Nolan needs to lighten up, seriously.

It’s a matter of sensibility, of course: boiled down to its essence Nolan’s view of science and its champions is unabashedly romantic, something even Neil deGrasse Tyson might approve of. Kubrick’s view of science is  more complicated - for every two steps forward, he seems to think, Man takes a stumble back. Kubrick’s sentiments are persuasive; they tie in with what we know of history, and of the trustworthiness of scientists in general. Don’t get me wrong though; Kubrick believed in scientists, loved technology - it’s just that his love and faith wasn’t unthinkingly unqualified.

Happy for Nolan - he’s aimed for a specific career, gone after it with drive and determination, hit his target with admirable precision. Interstellar is presumably the film he’s always dreamed of doing and finally realized - I’d say his best work ever, the first feature from him I could actually watch from beginning to end without too much fidgeting. More power to him (somewhat); may he make more (mildly) nutty productions like this, for years (not too many!) to come.

Note: You can also email Noel Vera at [email protected]

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