Interstellar review

On Saturday, 15 November 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for a matinee of Interstellar at the Jordan’s IMAX theater in Framingham, Mass. We liked the relationship-focused highbrow science fiction film.

Plot

Interstellar follows Cooper, an astronaut turned farmer in an unspecified near future in which human spaceflight has faltered because of the urgency of feeding billions amid severe ecological degradation.

Widower Cooper’s son Tom is content to become a farmer, but his restlessness is mirrored in his daughter Murph. Despite being science-minded in an era focused on mere survival, Murph claims that a poltergeist is trying to send her messages.

An errant surveillance drone leads Cooper and his children to a secret NASA base, where his former colleague Prof. Brand and his daughter are working on sending a second wave of explorers through a newly discovered wormhole near Saturn to find inhabitable planets.

Aware of the relativistic effects of faster-than-light interstellar travel, Cooper gets his father Donald’s blessing and reluctantly leaves with the younger Brand and a small crew to try to save humanity….

Interstellar poster
Christopher Nolan’s latest SF movie

Cast

The cast of Interstellar is uniformly solid, with several actors from past Christopher Nolan productions. Matthew McConaughey is grounded as Cooper, despite the talk of imminent Armageddon, wormholes, and love and gravity transcending the dimension of time.

John Lithgow and Michael Caine are Cooper’s father figures as Donald and Prof. Brand, respectively. Anne Hathaway is emotional but strong as the younger Brand, and Mackenzie Foy plays a young Murph (named after Murphy’s Law — “Whatever can happen, will”).

As more time passes on Earth while the subjective time of the astronauts is shorter, the adult Murph is played by Jessica Chastain, and Casey Affleck is the older Tom. Murph and Tom react in different ways to their father’s absence. Matt Damon plays Dr. Mann, “the best of us” and part of the first wave sent through the wormhole.

Bill Irwin is also noteworthy as the voice of TARS, a former military robot among those retasked with helping the laconic Cooper’s mission. He brings a sense of snarky humor and potential menace to the proceedings, referring directly to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Direction

Christopher Nolan’s meticulous style is similar to that of 2001‘s Stanley Kubrick or Prometheus‘ Ridley Scott. He’s more comfortable with high-concept speculative fiction in movies such as Inception, Duncan Jones’ Moon, or Rian Johnson’s Looper than with the emotional content of Steven Spielberg’s best.

Viewers waiting for action and suspense have to wait a while before the three-hour-long movie gets to it, and the parallels between Coop and Murph and Prof. Brand and his daughter are pretty obvious. When Donald or Prof. Brand fulminate on the human condition and our need to explore the universe, it’s clear that’s what Nolan thinks.

Still, even if I agree with the sentiment and understand some of the underlying science, I’d rather he spent less time explaining and more time engaging the audience. Overall, Nolan handles his cast and the narrative jumps in time well, but Interstellar feels more technical than passionate, and he’s unlikely to persuade any who might disagree.

Cinematography

Nolan’s true strength is with creating a believable universe. As with last year’s excellent Gravity, space travel is shown to be difficult, dangerous, and ultimately worthwhile. The psychedelic imagery during the wormhole travel is mercifully brief.

The visualization of “Gargantua,” a black hole around which some potential homeworlds orbit, is excellent. Any good science fiction movie should show us something we haven’t seen or maybe even haven’t imagined before. Much of the science is sound, and the distant planets reminded me of some documentaries about hazardous arctic exploration.

Sure, one could quibble with the environmental science, the description of gravitic propulsion, and the late appearance of O’Neill cylinders in the movie, but I was glad to see this movie on an IMAX screen with a full house. As other reviewers have noted, like Big Hero 6, some of the best parts of Interstellar are when it shows people using science to try to solve problems or mysteries.

Soundtrack

As with Inception and many recent action movie trailers, Interstellar had the booming “bwong, bwong” sound to underscore important moments. I could have done without that, but I have to admit that the IMAX theater’s “rumble seats” were nice for the scenes when Cooper and company were flying by the seats of their pants.

There is no music quite as memorable as “Thus Spake Zarathustra” from 2001 or Vangelis’ themes in Blade Runner. As in Gravity, I liked the absence of sound during some of the space scenes.

Rating

I liked Interstellar more than Elysium and about the same as Contact, to refer to two Jodi Foster SF movies. It’s definitely part of a wave of more serious speculative fiction, providing a nice balance to the explosions of Star Trek: Into Darkness or comedy of Space Station 76 while I wait for the next cyclical revival of classic space opera.

I’d give Interstellar, which is rated PG-13 for some violence, a 7.5 to 8 out of 10, three and a half out of five stars, or a B+. I think that some critics were overly harsh, but I’m also more of an SF buff than the general audience.

Speaking of which, I’m still enjoying Jonathan Nolan’s cyber-dystopian Person of Interest on television, and I’m cautiously optimistic about his adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for HBO. Also, it is with some sadness that I note the passing of Glen Larson, who created the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and many of the other genre TV shows I grew up on.

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The Dark Knight Rises, a belated review

On Sunday, 22 July 2012, I met Beruk A. and James B. at the AMC Loews Boston Common for a matinee of The Dark Knight Rises. Sadly, the superhero sequel was overshadowed by the tragic shootings in Colorado.

We enjoyed the film, which neatly wrapped up director Christopher Nolan and lead actor Christian Bale’s take on Batman. I liked The Dark Knight Rises a little more than The Amazing Spider-Man, if not as much as the four-color The Avengers.

Wallpaper 6
Nolan and Bale’s Batman comes to a conclusion

Cast: Bale is a decent Bruce Wayne, a tortured soul masquerading as a billionaire playboy. He’s not as fun as Adam West (who once called me “chum”), as slick as Val Kilmer or George Clooney, or as initially odd a choice as Michael Keaton was for the costumed vigilante.

Bale is again ably supported by older character actors in The Dark Knight Rises. Michael Caine is Wayne’s cockney and concerned butler Alfred, Morgan Freeman adds mischievous gravitas as technologist Lucius Fox, and chameleon Gary Oldman is the embattled Commissioner James Gordon.

Newcomers to this cinematic version of Gotham City include Marion Cotillard as mysterious executive Miranda Tate, Tom Hardy as brutal assassin Bane, and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as idealistic police officer John Blake. Blake becomes the audience surrogate in hoping for things to improve, even as the police as a whole are outmaneuvered.

They all did well in their roles — even if Hardy was sometimes hard to understand through his face mask — but Anne Hathaway deserves special mention for her performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

I had some doubts about the young actress, but Hathaway was properly slinky and cunning as the (never-named) cat burglar and con artist. She was believable in navigating Gotham’s seamy underbelly and its glittering galas, and she brought much-needed femininity and light to Nolan’s grim and gritty universe.

Plot: Batman Begins showed how an orphan could become an anonymous champion of justice, and The Dark Knight depicted Batman fighting grotesque villains (Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face and the late Heath Ledger’s unparalleled Joker). The Dark Knight Rises expands on both those themes and is Wagnerian in showing Batman fighting Bane and a conspiracy for the very survival of Gotham City.

Nolan tries to make the plot a complicated puzzle, but even the trailers for the movie telegraphed some of the resolution. Anyone who has read the comic book storylines of Batman: Year One, The Killing Joke, Son of the Demon, Cataclysm, No Man’s Land, and Nightfall knows what to expect.

I appreciate Nolan and Bale’s somewhat more realistic approach to Batman’s world and motivations, but the pendulum has swung very far from the cheerful camp of West’s 1960s superhero. Even the direct-to-video adaptations of DC Comics are moving to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, another obvious inspiration.

Rich felt that Nolan’s Batman isn’t as majestic or as much of a loner as he prefers, but I agree that the amount of time that passes for the desperate citizens of Gotham (and the audience) is on the long side.

I thought that The Dark Knight Rises‘ political subtext was muddled. Following Joseph Campbell’s hero pattern, the aristocratic hero must wander, reject his father figure, be humbled, triumph over his dark reflection, and then walk away or die. Other than a bus full of orphans, we see very few of the 12 million ordinary citizens whom Batman is supposedly fighting to protect.

On the other hand, there’s a populist “99%” strain to Bane’s Robespierre-style demagoguery — even if he’s just a tool of the League of Shadows. The military and police are shown as impotent, implicitly endorsing vigilantism. Granted, dressing up as a bat to fight crime doesn’t always make sense, but why bring up those points if you’re not going to fully show both sides?

Visual effects: From the opening scene of a daring aerial hijacking, The Dark Knight Rises‘ set-piece scenes were clearly inspired by the James Bond movies, which Nolan also paid tribute to in Inception. The battles of The Avengers were more cosmic and colorful, but Batman’s gadgetry and vehicles are still impressive.

Like some comic book writers and fans, Nolan’s Dark Knight is more of an urban warrior than a stealthy detective or martial artist. Perhaps this leaves room for the next set of filmmakers to interpret and develop different aspects of Batman. Even though I miss the Batman: the Animated Series of the 1990s and even the recent campy Batman and the Brave and the Bold, I look forward to the upcoming animated Beware the Batman on TV.

Soundtrack: Hans Zimmer’s score is appropriately operatic, if not especially memorable. Unlike the Marvel Universe, whose movies include relatively recent popular music, it seems fitting that DC’s iconic heroes such as Batman stick with classical.

Spoilers and ratings: Note that some of the articles I’ve linked to contain “spoilers” about the plot, but I’ll try to avoid giving anything away directly here. I can see a few ways for how Nolan’s version could have continued, but I’m also content with his conclusion to Bruce Wayne’s story.

Since Batman is the single most profitable superhero film franchise, there’s little doubt that Warner Brothers/DC Comics will reboot the movies as soon as possible, not unlike various Marvel remakes. I do wonder if they’ll be able to maintain the quality amid stylistic and cast changes. I’m cautiously optimistic about the Superman reboot Man of Steel, as well as early plans for a Justice League film (for which I’ll have to write up my own ideas). I just hope they’re fun and well-done.

I’d give The Dark Knight Rises, which was rated PG-13 for violence, three out of five stars, a B+, or a 7.5 out of 10. The only upcoming movie that’s getting buzz and I’m excited about is Peter Jackson’s planned trilogy adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In the meantime, keep tuning in, same Bat time, same Bat channel!

P.S.: Here are my Batfilm ratings:

  • 1943: Batman serials — yet to watch
  • 1965: Batman ***/B+
  • 1989: Batman **/B
  • 1992: Batman Returns **/B-
  • 1993: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (animated) ****/A
  • 1995: Batman Forever ***/B+
  • 1997: Batman & Robin */C
  • 1998: Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (animated) ***/B+
  • 2000: Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (animated) **/B-
  • 2003: Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (animated) ***/B+
  • 2005: The Batman vs. Dracula (animated) **/B, Batman Begins ***/A-
  • 2008: Justice League: the New Frontier (animated) ***/B+, The Dark Knight ***/B+
  • 2009: Batman: Gotham Knight ****/A-, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies **/B (animated)
  • 2010: Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths ***/B+, Batman: Under the Red Hood ***/B+, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse **/B (animated)
  • 2011: Batman: Year One (animated) ***/B+
  • 2012: Justice League: Doom (animated) **/B, The Dark Knight Rises ***/B+, The Dark Knight Returns (animated) coming soon