Saturday, November 22, 2014

Interstellar / ***½ (PG-13)

Cooper: Matthew McConaughey
Murph: Jessica Chastain
Murph (10 Yrs.): Mackenzie Foy
Murph (older): Ellen Burstyn
Brand: Anne Hathaway
Professor Brand: Michael Caine
TARS (voice): Bill Irwin
Donald: John Lithgow
Tom: Casey Affleck
Tom (15 Yrs.): Timothée Chalamet
Doyle: Wes Bentley
Romilly: David Gyasi
Getty: Topher Grace
Dr. Mann: Matt Damon

Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures present a film directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Running time: 169 min. Rated PG-13 (for some intense perilous action and brief strong language).

“You're familiar with the phrase ‘man's reach exceeds his grasp’? It's a lie: man's grasp exceeds his nerve.”
                                    —Nikola Tesla, “The Prestige”.

In 2006, Christopher Nolan released a movie called “The Prestige”, about how magicians create their illusions. Real life electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla appeared as a character in the fictional film as a mentor to one of the magicians. While Tesla was a legitimate innovator in science, he gained a reputation as a “mad scientist” through his showmanship and some of his more outlandish experiments that never gained mainstream support. He provides a science-based version of the magicians work in that movie in a way that somewhat bridges the gap between art and science. This could describe much of what Nolan seems to do as a director. His latest epic space adventure “Interstellar” could be his grandest work of art and science yet.

The story takes place in a future in which all of the crops of Earth have begun to disappear to blight. War is a thing of the past as the people who have survived the plagues and famine that accompanied the blight have banded together to farm for survival. Corn is about the only viable crop left. Giant dust storms are a more common occurrence than tornadoes. Dreams of exploring and space travel and anything that doesn’t have something to do with cultivating food are things of the past. Children are assessed in school to point them in the direction of the most appropriate career before they’ve even finished high school. It is designed to make the process of contributing to society more efficient, but it suppresses certain personality types. There are layers of thematic elements here about labeling in society, the trend in our education system toward shared success and testing as the ultimate measure of our children’s worth, and the dangers of turning away from science as a progressive tool, rather than simply a tool of applied practicality.

We meet Cooper, a farmer, as almost everyone is in this future, who used to be an astronaut before NASA was shut down. It was believed that people wouldn’t support the exploration of space when there was such need for resources to create food. Copper hates farming, but it is something his father-in-law was good at and his son seems to have the right skills for it as well. His daughter, Murph, is like him, however, a dreamer and incredibly smart. Murph’s mother died of cancer when the world could no longer be bothered by finding ways to heal the sick for keeping the healthy alive.

Murph is obsessed with the idea that a ghost haunts her room. Copper tries not to encourage such thinking, preferring to rely on more scientific thought than paranormal. He does, however, share Murph’s penchant for abstract thought. Eventually he discovers that somehow coordinates are being communicated by whatever is behind the disturbances. He and Murph follow the coordinates to a remote location.

It now becomes impossible to explain any more of the plot without revealing a secret. As it turns out NASA was never shut down, just kept secret. The man in charge, Professor Brand, has been working on a plan to save the human race that involves searching for another habitable planet. It is believed the same agents responsible for providing the coordinates to Cooper and Murph have also provided a manufactured black hole near the rings of Saturn through which the humans can travel to find another suitable planet in another galaxy. He asks Cooper to return to NASA to pilot a mission to find that planet while he works to solve the problem of getting all the humans off our planet.

It occurs to me that this is one of those movies where when you try to describe it, you lose all the grandeur of it. Nolan’s camera is remarkable at finding the beauty and gravity of a planet ravaged by dust storms and covered only by crops. Once he takes it to space, his imagination really takes over and gives us planets made completely out of ice and one covered in water and sacked by gigantic tidal waves. There is a docking sequence late in the film involving a satellite which the crew has lost control over that is one of the most intense sequences of suspense to be found in a movie. Visually it recalls a similar scene in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but it occurs at a much faster pace in this one.

The film—while visually stunning—is very dialogue driven. Much of the theory presented here is very technical, and it is obvious that Nolan and his co-screenwriter and brother Jonathan have put in a great deal of research to get the details correct. Despite its technical angle, the movie is at once very cerebral, which represents science in a way most people don’t often think about it. Much of science deals with the unknown and so must be theoretical. This movie understands that very well. So much of the theory is speculative and yet Nolan delivers his science lesson in such a literal manner that it plays very clearly to the audience. The climactic sequence might be a little too literal for some people looking to find holes in the plot. And yet, Nolan keeps the movie totally engaging with a pacing that never feels like it stops to take a breath.

The movie alludes to “2001” in several moments other than the docking sequence. It’s usually in a joking manner, as when the artificial intelligence robot— which is designed to look remarkably like the “2001” monolith—jokes about ejecting the astronauts into space. These allusions are hardly coincidental, but “Interstellar” is a remarkably different film than that sci-fi classic. While that film was more of an impressionistic take on space and our place in the universe, this film gives the appearance of a realistic evaluation of the human spirit to triumph over any threat to our existence. While the prestige is what drives any filmmaker, perhaps it is Tesla’s words from that film that truly describe what this one is about. While these characters seem to grasp beyond their means, we may be destined to reach past our limitations to eventually achieve an advanced place in the universe.

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