Interstellar: Grapes of Wrath meets 2001: A Space Odyssey

This isn’t a review. It’s more of a “first impressions” post as I just got back from seeing the movie. I still have my giant “small” soda in hand. I should probably think about the movie some more before talking about it, but man, I really want to talk about it before I conk out from the exhaustion that comes from seeing a three-hour movie on a work night.

What we have here is a very good science fiction film. Like, exceptionally good. The only problem is it’s suffocating inside an undercooked melodrama. Okay, okay, that’s not the only problem, as much as I hate to admit it. About three-quarters into the movie, things get extremely frustrating when we’re forced down a detour, which insults us with the same kind of routine action that completely derailed Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. Why Hollywood insists films like this must have a human villain, I’ll never know. Is flying through space in a tin can not harrowing enough?

The Earth stuff is quite good before McConaughey departs on his journey. Early on the film champions NASA, though not enough, and gives us a startling prediction about what could happen to a scientifically apathetic culture: you know how creationists are constantly trying to sneak their ignorant propaganda into school textbooks? Well, in Interstellar’s future, the odious moon nuts have managed to do away with any textbooks which mention the Apollo missions. Talk about a dark vision of the future. I wish more big movies dealt with issues like this. Here, McConuaughey gets his daughter suspended from school when he defends her decision to show her classmates a real textbook.

Speaking of the daughter: the actress who plays her younger self is much better than the one who plays her as an adult. Which brings up another point: there are movie stars in Interstellar you’re not going to expect and, surprisingly, the trailers don’t spoil that they’re in it. Yes, the trailers show way too much, as they always do, but not as much as usual. So there are still plenty of surprises left.

My only problem with the opening act is there’s a painfully obvious setup which I don’t think many people will fail to piece together. Sure, nobody’s going to figure out how it’s going to resolve exactly, but they’re probably going to know what the filmmakers are up to just the same. I just don’t think the story is being as clever as it thinks it is as the clues are anything but subtle. Then there are some plot holes, which I didn’t really catch until my girlfriend pointed them out, but now I can’t stop thinking about why the hero did this, then immediately did that, which contradicts his desire towell, I’ve said too much. (Update: actually, it makes sense when you think about it.)

Yes, it’s more than fair to compare this film to 2001: A Space Odyssey, because this film makes it clear it isn’t dumb enough to pretend 2001 doesn’t exist. But having seen Interstellar, Kubrick’s decision to focus on emotionally-neutral characters seems like a better move than ever before. By doing so, Kubrick actively avoided the pitfalls Nolan willing dives into headfirst. How Kubrick knew this kind of drama wouldn’t work in a film like this is amazing, and it just makes 2001 seem all the more important. Don’t get me wrong: I think the drama confined to the spaceships was good stuff. But trying to infuse that story with what was going on back on Earth just diluted the whole thing.

I know I’m nitpicking here, but it’s extremely irritating when a secondary character has to use the ol’ pencil-through-the-paper trick to explain wormholes to… you guessed it: an astronaut. Yes, McConaughey’s character is an astronaut/scientist/engineer, yet when he sees the wormhole in person he needs a grade-school visual aid. But then this offensive moment is quickly and completely eclipsed by one of the best parts of the movie: the wormhole itself. Is that really what a wormhole would look like? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t compelling.

And exciting, too.

In fact, all the space stuff in this film is absolutely fantastic. That just makes it all the more frustrating that the Earth scenes stretch on for so long after they’re welcome. The spaceships all look and feel believable, the lack of sound in space is refreshing, and to merely describe the special effects as “dynamite” would be an understatement. What I loved the most, other than the wormhole and the black hole of course, were the robots. Have you ever seen cooler robots in a film? We’ve come a long, long way from stuffing little people into plastic shells and calling them robots. But then again, I’ve liked a lot of the movies that did that (Silent Running, for one, Star Wars for another) a lot better than this movie.

Oh, well. Science fiction fans will love it (I did, despite my complaints). Everybody else, though, might think it’s a little flat.

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