Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Interstellar (Film Review)

Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar achieves much and achieves little, both at the same time.

The film itself tells the near future tale of an earth shaken by blight, where the mid-west has returned to dust bowl status, and our very technological advancement has come to a halt. The only option, it seems, is to double down and plant more corn, and ride that spiral down to global extinction. But there is a hope, and that hope is a wormhole to another galaxy, and in that galaxy, there might be a planet suitable for life.

The film itself was cut with Nolan's usual excellent editing. You bop back and forth between perspectives, complete with time dialations, so keeping track is especially difficult, but Nolan keeps you there without feeling it. This film deserves a prize for editing.

As space exploration films go, this one hits the ball out of the park. It's an order of magnitude better than any space exploration film that I've ever seen. (You don't want to watch those old films unless you are truly dedicated.) You see, space exploration is the stuff of science fiction, and on the screen, science fiction winds up boring. Thus, all too often, lasers and chase scenes get added to spice SF up. Congrats to Nolan for avoiding that cheap content. Some content was typical SF, and he made those work well, such as hostile planets and marooned survivors. We know those tropes well, and we keep using them because they work.

What Nolan replaced the cheap SF content with was cheap emotional content. Despite his attempt to make the story a human-centric story set against the backdrop of science fiction, Nolan gives us content equally sweet, like a Twinky, seemingly full of tasty filling but really mostly air and not very nutritious. You see, although the film claims to have substance, it lacks substance. The claim of substance does not adequately take the place of substance, no more than dessert takes the place of dinner. Despite their resemblance, the differences in nutrition matters more than the similarities in consumption.

I am most disappointed in the ending, where it seemed that all the hard choices weren't made. They seem like they were made, but they weren't made. A hard choice that comes out of a plot twist is not a hard choice. There a difference between someone in the audience saying to themselves, "Don't do it!" and feeling sick to themselves at the loss of a character, and the audience saying, "Everyone will be fine. SURPRISE!" If the audience isn't having a hard time with the film, if the audience isn't feeling uncomfortable with the hard parts, then I modestly suggest that the script isn't doing it's job. For a film that wedges itself into the moral imperative, it doesn't wrestle with those morals much.

Do you know what I wanted out of that film? I wanted a film with a science and a fiction ending, not some fanciful Hollywood ending. Make it hurt. The survival of humanity is at sake, so make it hurt. Imagine if D-Day soldiers suddenly found a giant diesel mech climbing out of the English channel, smashing the German defenses, and saving all their lives. Would't that cheapen the sacrifice of D-Day? The fantastical does not sit well in this sort of SF. (I level the same criticism as 2001, so I'm not playing favorites here.) That tells me that Nolan just didn't work hard enough for the end.

Endings are hard. I should know. I've written enough endings, over and over again, to know just how freaking hard they are. Your end makes or breaks everything that you've done. You could be a genius for 95% of your book only to blow it at that last 5%. This film had one of those endings that seemed freaking awesome at first draft, but when poked hard, proves empty. To me, the ending felt like a plot wrap, not an ending.

Overall, I found the film quite watchable and entertaining. It's good SF candy. Just don't look too hard at it.