Monday, May 4, 2015

Time and space and meaning

Interstellar is 2001 as remade by Frank Capra. That is to say, it's half hard sci-fi with a philosophical/mystical element and half sentimental family melodrama. Like many a dystopian story, not a lot of time is spent on explaining how we got where we are; suffice to say that at some point in the future, Earth is dying due to something called the Blight. Food stuffs no longer grow (corn is the last viable crop) and people are starving. The current generation sees themselves not as explorers or innovators but as caretakers of what few resources are left, to the point where children are being taught that the great breakthroughs of the past, like the Apollo moon landing, were faked so they don't dare dream of doing great things themselves.

That plot is interesting enough to sustain an entire movie, but Christopher Nolan uses it as story #1, a mere backdrop for story #2, of how a group of NASA scientists go underground (literally) to work on a life-saving mission. They have discovered a wormhole near Saturn that leads to a part of the universe with several planets that might be able to sustain life. Exploratory missions have found three strong possibilities, and through a long and convoluted storyline 2.5, NASA pilot turned farmer Matthew McConaughey winds up heading a trip through the wormhole to investigate the three worlds where we might send humanity to survive. There is a second plan, to launch mankind on an artificial satellite, and this is where the plotholes begin to creep in, at least for me, so I won't comment further on this development. At any rate, story #3 is about McConaughey's family, specifically his tie to his young daughter, and this is where the sentimentality gets distracting, so again, I won’t dwell on this.

At nearly three hours, this is both too long and too short. It's too long for one sitting—the plotline (story #2.75?) involving Matt Damon as an explorer from a previous mission felt especially extraneous even though Damon was very good. It's too short from the point of view of narrative. As I noted above, an entire movie could have been devoted to the backstory, so maybe this would have worked best as a TV miniseries. The screenplay was bloated with interesting ideas that never really got explained or worked out, and another couple of hours might have helped that.

The special effects, many of which were clearly inspired by Kubrick's 2001, are superb. In fact, in the last 20 minutes, the plot gets so twisted around, I would have lost interest and stopped the movie if the visuals hadn't been so compelling. The acting is generally solid. McConaughey is in practically every scene and I grew tired of his drawl and his intensity, but it's not really his fault that he's in too much of the movie. The two scenes of sentiment that worked on me both involved excellent performances by old pros Michael Caine (above with McConaughey) and Ellen Burstyn. Another vet, John Lithgow, in equally good in a less showy role. In my usual old curmudgeon way, I praise it by saying that this was not as disappointing as I was expecting it to be.