Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A sometimes blurry 'Interstellar' vision

How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen a worm hole?
Christopher Nolan's Interstellar provides us with reason to re-appreciate the genius of director Stanley Kubrick, who brilliantly opted to use minimal dialogue in his momentous and still glorious 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Nolan, who wrote the screenplay for Interstellar with his brother Jonathan, includes some surprisingly opaque dialogue that -- at least momentarily -- deflates the grandeur of his deep-space enterprise.

Kubrick's genius consisted of not trying to explain everything. He allowed the mystery of his movie to match the incomprehensible vastness of space.

Nolan, on the other hand, offers dialogue that explains without always clarifying all of the movie's narrative lapses in what amounts to a strange and not quite digestible mixture of homespun virtue and theoretical physics.

It's one hell of a tall order, I suppose, trying to span the distance from dirt farms to black holes.

To be fair, it should be noted that along the way, Nolan creates images that give the movie a stunning, forceful presence -- no small achievement.

It's the conception behind the drama that sometimes falters. Nolan begins with yet another view of a depleted Earth. Agriculture is failing, population has diminished and breathable air is on schedule to run out.

Is there a way out of this dystopian trap?

Enter Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a NASA pilot turned farmer, who finds his way to a secret NASA hideout where he's recruited by Dr. Brand, a renowned physicist played by a weary-looking Michael Caine.

Cooper's assignment: to fly the ship that will journey through a worm hole and beyond. It's part of an attempt to find a new galactic home for the dwindling populace of Earth.

To pursue this mission, Cooper -- a widower and father of two -- must leave his young kids (Mackenzie Foy and Timothee Chalamet) in the care of their grandfather (John Lithgow).

The explanation for how Cooper goes from farmer to space hero is not especially convincing, but it launches him on a voyage of salvation along with a crew that includes Anne Hathaway's Amelia, the daughter of Dr. Brand.

I don't think it's spoiling anything to tell you that the scientists in Interstellar are operating under the assumption that an unspecified being (or beings) is providing humanity with an assist in its quest for survival.

After his acceptance speech at this year's Oscars, I wondered whether McConaughey already had traveled in space, but he brings a down-home Texas twang and lots of high-level fretting to the role of a man thrust into the position of trying, as a mere human, to do something usually reserved for superheroes; i.e., saving all of humanity.

If there's a truly compelling reason to see Interstellar, it centers on the grandiosity of Nolan's space vision, made significantly more powerful when seen in Imax. Nolan captures the vastness of space, and some of the action scenes involving docking maneuvers of space craft are suitably impressive.

Cooper's adventures keep him away from Earth for quite a while. So it's not surprising that somewhere toward the middle of the movie's two-hour and 49-minute span, Cooper's kids become adults, played by Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck.

Of the two, Chastain has the more important role because we're told that her character has a powerful love bond with her space-voyaging father. More about that later.

Nolan fills individual set pieces with tension, but the greater question (will mankind survive?) doesn't exactly keep us on the edge of our seats, and when the dialogue tries to incorporate scientific jargon, the outlines of Nolan's human drama tend to blur.

Those familiar with Nolan's blockbuster filmography (a couple of Batman movies and Inception) hardly will be surprised by the movie's ambition, but it's a bit odd that Interstellar tries to bring the whole business to its conclusion by telling us that love (in this case between father and daughter) has the potential to bridge the space/time continuum -- or something like that.

At times, Interstellar feels reminiscent of Kubrick, and at other times it feels almost Spielbergian, particularly in opening segments that take place in a future that has been made to resemble the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression.

I wore out on Hans Zimmer's creative but inescapable score, which provides both menace and cosmic inspiration. Zimmer hits highs, and then tries to repeat them.

One of those highs involves a Michael Caine recitation of Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, which serves as a kind of poetic bit of cheerleading, encouraging humanity to rage against the dying of the light -- which in this case reaches beyond individual death to the extinction of the entire species.

Nolan's gigantic exercise soars and sinks, even as its boosted by amazing sights: a planet on which ocean waves reach mountainous heights and a journey past a black hole, for example.

Some viewers may find that Nolan has infused Interstellar with palpable human longing. If you share that view, the movie may strike a deep chord with you.

Me? I can't think of a recent movie that gave thrills with one hand while eliciting groans with the other. You'll have to see Interstellar for yourself to determine on which side of the line you land.

I'm not sure you'll agree, but I thought Nolan's movie represented an outsized amalgam of unlikely bedfellows, the Beatles and Einstein. It goes something like this: All you need is love -- and quite possibly an advanced degree in physics.

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