Movie Review: “Interstellar” (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2014)

*Update: Phil Plait has an article up about the science involved in Interstellar. He’s obviously of a very different opinion about the film’s artistic quality than I am, but he really is an astronomer, so trust him about the science. I certainly knew the system orbiting the black hole was wrong and the time dilation didn’t seem right, but he actually knows what he’s saying. He also wrote a book that has a description of what it would actually be like to fall into a black hole if you’re interested. I will add a link if the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe does a review, which I’m hoping for.

I never actually wrote a review of Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA/UK 2013), because I couldn’t really make sense of it–it was so full of religious images that it clearly had some point to make about belief, religion itself, or something related, but I could not figure out what it was. However, something I would definitely have said about it is that it bored the hell out of me because it was just a whole bunch of long chase scenes in space and its extreme over-reliance on CGI made it look like a Pixar film as far as I was concerned. It was also rather a scientific mess. Interstellar plays almost like a response to that film, one that brings back the wonders and other-ness of space as well as using photographic effects and real sets. People kept insisting that Gravity was a visual wonder, but I heartily disagree–this is a visual wonder.

Where Gravity was almost entirely made of digital effects, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema not only focus on photographic effects–they revel in the fact that they are shooting on film and using real lights and sets. Even when they need to use fake backgrounds (a requirement of the story), they are actually projected onto the set behind the actors, so that they become photographic (a trick Kubrick previously used). The film is full of lens flares and overexposures. Is it a bit showy and perhaps even pretentious? Maybe. But it looks amazing. When the starlight glints through the window in the back while the crew discusses which planet to visit next and briefly obscures the view of the scene, then moves slowly out of view and the light slowly fades away, it’s the type of detailed, beautiful photographic effect that Stanley Kubrick would have brought to 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK 1968). Science fiction films often have seems similar to 2001, which was a film about how humanity is defined by making mistakes that allow for evolutionary development, and yet they so often seem to want to cover up imperfections and turn everything over to technology (often something they are arguing against in their plots). Kubrick did one of the greatest jobs in history of marrying his point to his visual techniques, and Nolan mirrors him here.

The plot of the film is fairly standard science fiction fare, albeit one that pays attention to its own science: the earth has turned into a giant dust bowl and growing plants is thus becoming increasingly difficult, with crops becoming impossible to grow one by one until all humanity has left is corn and even that will only last so long. So, the government secretly brings NASA back to find a new world for humanity, since this world has turned against us. Cooper was NASA’s strongest pilot but responded to the need for food and shutdown of NASA by becoming a farmer, exactly what the world needed, but then a mysterious gravitational anomaly sends him to what turns out to be the secret base of the NASA he never knew had been brought back. Of course, these things collide and NASA sends him on a years-long mission to scout possible new homes for humanity, away from his children for what could be a lifetime. Meanwhile, his daughter angrily follows in his footsteps at NASA, trying to crack the physics problem that will save humanity and unsurprisingly growing up to be exactly like the father she hates.

The point of the film is pretty simple, bordering on facile, saying that it’s the connection to one another that makes humanity strong. Brand comments that love is “the only force that we know of that transcends all dimensions” (Yeah, it’s a rather gag-inducing line.). Mann says that it’s “survival instinct” and the ability to improvise that makes humanity special. Cooper says that humanity was able to save itself through its love of other humans, connecting Mann’s and Brand’s ideas into the cohesive point of the film.

The acting, with one exception, is excellent, though no one has much to do. Matthew McConaughey, the world’s leading actor du jour, is excellent in his lead performance, having to show a mix of intelligence, selflessness, and caring without letting any one of those things overwhelm the others. He is pretty simply a good man, but in this situation it would be easy to play him as a caricature, and McConaughey, who once did play essentially a caricature in a science fiction film that shares many ideas with this one, avoids that pitfall. Jessica Chastain has a rather thankless task, playing a character who is either ecstatic or angry at every moment and thus could easily be over the top, but she (unsurprisingly) makes it work. Mackenzie Foy, while clearly far older than her ten-year-old part, probably has the most difficult part in the film, and she pulls it off with aplomb, coming across as a very smart kid with some trust issues and an incredible stubborn streak. She also actually looks enough like Jessica Chastain that it’s believable that they are the same person (well, to the extent that it’s believable that anyone can grow up to look like Jessica Chastain).

The one problem is, unsurprisingly, Michael Caine. Christopher Nolan has shown a proclivity for falling in love with actors and just recasting them in every film. When it was Christian Bale, it made sense, because he’s just a fantastic actor. When it was Cillian Murphy, it made sense, because he has such a great face for film. Michael Caine doesn’t have anything that makes him worth casting repeatedly. I know he has two Oscars, but he is one of the worst actors who has ever won even one award, let alone two. Here, in what should have been a very easy part, he’s wooden and annoying, delivering his lines with weird pauses and showing no ability to express anything on his face.

Hans Zimmer’s score is surprisingly strong. While he was once an excellent composer, he long ago became so standard and repetitive that he started to sound as dated as Alan Silvestri. But here he throws out the conventional playbook, and what he gives us works. Nolan helps by utilizing the same lack of room sound and moments of complete silence that Kubrick used so well in 2001, but Zimmer’s score adds something to the film, and that’s all you can ask of a score.

Interstellar is an excellent film–clearly the best I have seen in 2014. It’s not perfect, but I was much happier sitting through three hours of this film than I have been sitting through two hours of most other films.

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Movie Review: “12 Years a Slave” (Steve McQueen, USA/UK 2013)

Sometimes, I diagnose films with what I call “Holocaust* Movie Syndrome,” which means that they are being judged on the basis of the importance and power of their subject rather than their own merit. I call it “Holocaust Movie Syndrome” because holocaust movies are often given this treatment, receiving universal, almost unthinking praise simply for being holocaust movies. The treatment works in the opposite direction as well, with “silly” movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, USA/UK/Canada/Japan 2010) dismissed as “fluff” in spite of having obvious quality. It does not mean anything in particular about the film, which may indeed deserve the praise anyway (for example, The Pianist [Roman Polanski, France/Poland/Germany/UK 2002] was a clear case of Holocaust Movie Syndrome, but was in any event a remarkable film that deserved that praise), but it means that much of the critical reception is rather shallow and cannot be given the weight that critical opinion usually carries.

12 Years a Slave was a clear case of Holocaust Movie Syndrome, being praised mostly on the basis of its depiction of an important and emotionally powerful subject. That meant that, in spite of the immense praise it is receiving as the likely Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, I went in to this film with little idea of what to expect. In the end, it ended up a good film, if not one that deserves quite the praise being heaped on it.

The film’s tale is the powerful, riveting true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man in 1841 New York who is kidnapped into slavery in the south and spends 12 years as a slave before being able to return to his family and freedom. It’s interesting and packs an emotional wallop, and director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley use the strength of the story and its characters to maximum effect.

The one problem is that the film’s greatest strength—the story—also becomes a weakness as McQueen is unable to stay focused on a single point throughout. Much of the film fits a central point about the miraculous-yet-dangerous ability of humans to hide within themselves to avoid facing what is wrong around them or even within themselves. For a film that does an awful lot right, that’s not the biggest flaw in the world, but it is enough to keep the film from being a masterpiece, or even being as good as Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA/France 2013) or Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, USA 2013) were in its year.

McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt advance their central point with a number of interesting visual elements. Brutalities of various types—murders, beatings, etc.—are consistently happening on or just off the edge of the screen, out of focus, or in darkness that hides just how brutal they are, as the in focus characters do their best to ignore them. Those techniques make it all the more powerful when we finally do see the brutality full-force, first when Solomon himself is strung up but survives and then when he is forced to whip a fellow slave himself. They also use changes in coloring and lighting to their best effects, enhancing the terror of Solomon’s discovery that he is trapped in some bizarre sort of prison cell with low-key lighting and enhancing the relative freedom that Solomon feels in Judge Turner’s cane fields with bright, saturated colors. It’s a well-made film visually.

Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a cast that is rather uneven, but he leads it with an excellent performance. Like with Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, he plays a character who generally does not wear his emotions on his sleeve and so is often limited in what he can show, though he does everything they ask perfectly well. And then, he has a few scenes where he gets to (relatively) chew the scenery, like his tearful explanation of his situation to Bass and his reunion with his family, and he is absolutely fantastic in every one of them. It’s a great performance, and one that is really marked by his restraint. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, and Benedict Cumberbatch are excellent in small roles, seeming completely natural and showing a remarkable amount of depth for what little screen time they have. However, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o are both relatively weak in their roles, sometimes coming across as though they are trying to hard or just as generally appearing unnatural.

The other role that deserves note is Brad Pitt’s performance as Bass. While he does not have much to do and does not really stand out in a good or bad way in his role, I found it rather silly to cast him in that part, immediately turning that character into a white knight who is bound to save Solomon. We’ve seen him betrayed again and again, to the point that we would be just as suspicious of Bass as he would be, but once we see that he’s Brad Pitt, we know he’s not going to sell Solomon down the river or fail. It’s nice that Pitt wanted to be in the film to lend it some star power (though since he was a producer, he already could have done that) and certainly his performance is not a problem, but I think it was a mistake to cast him in this way.

Hans Zimmer produced an excellent score that uses Solomon’s facility with a violin to full effect and perfectly enhanced every emotion the film sought to elicit. It wasn’t one of the more attention-grabbing scores one could ever hear, but it did exactly what you want of a film score.

Overall, 12 Years a Slave is a very good film that has one major flaw that keeps it from really being a masterpiece. Luckily, it does everything else about as well as you can ask, and that’s what keeps it worth watching. Further, it is of course an emotionally powerful journey that will punch you in the gut, and I’m not sure that the commoditization and dehumanization of people involved in slavery has ever been captured more strongly.

 

*The “holocaust” being referred to throughout is the Nazi-led holocaust from World War II. I am simply calling these films “holocaust” movies for the sake of brevity, and certainly do not mean to imply that other holocausts have not occurred, as indeed they have.