Interstellar: We ARE in Kansas!

Interstellar, by Chris Nolan

We ARE in Kansas, Dorothy

By Kenneth Brown

Notwithstanding Matthew (“I’m my own god”) McConaughey’s excellent work in this film, I could barely keep myself interested, or indeed even awake at certain moments, in spite of the earsplitting volume at which Hans Zimmer’s baldly programmatic score was blared at us every time something of significance in the plotline made it necessary for the filmmaker to grab us by the ears and direct our attention to it. Such desperation in the final cut of a movie soundtrack usually points to a lack of punch in the screenplay.

What really bugged me about this film was a quality that’s common to other films of Chris Nolan’s. He is constantly telling us that everything on screen is Significant, which means that he’s made everything of equal insignificance. Every minute of the film seems to demand a “saving the world” resonance, so much so that the actual saving of the world, when we finally get to it after 2 hours and 2 many minutes, actually feels more like a denouement than a climax. Look at all that sweat and toil that the hero went through… okay, it’s done now. And the big emotional reward, when child re-unites with the lost father, the big payoff, is underplayed, and the two are once again parted. Okay, that’s done, on with the romantic resolution. Boy gets girl… except that there was never any chemistry between McConaughhey and Anne Hathaway to start with, so, well, that’s just another formula filled. The screenplay’s oddly weak ending seems to be saying, “well, you’ve seen all the Big Tricks, you can fill in the emotional subtext stuff for yourself.”

Ever since Nolan announced himself to the world with the groundbreaking Momento, I’ve been hoping he’d do something as good. And although the second Batman film (let’s call it “Joker” film) was fascinating, it was so because of a once-in-a-lifetime (alas too short) performance by an actor. And hurrah for Christopher Nolan for giving that actor space to work. It’s a real strength of his directing.

Why am I complaining about Interstellar? Because it feels like the artist is painting on a canvas that is too big, that the screenplay’s ambition forces the director to do amazing tricks one after the other, thus the Significant Moments problem. The fact is that the screenplay’s ambitions are too big for ME; it keeps presenting me with ideas that there’s no way I can get my head around (and that one doubts that his characters could actually get their heads around). This is a problem if you want your story to be about characters learning, responding, thinking and changing, and not about how clever the director is.

Once again, I feel like I’ve been asked to care about the people in the story more than Nolan himself cares about them, judging by the way he moves them around in his created world as though their decisions matter less than the structure on which Nolan hangs a bunch of cinematic Big Ideas.

This screenplay is as illogical and artificial as Inception, held together with duct tape and legerdemain, and ultimately failing to add up as egregiously as that film. The freaky ideas about time, space, gravity, and (be still my beating heart!) LOVE are offered as plot logic in a manner so blunt that I imagine that this film, thirty years hence, will seem as fatuous in its science as Flash Gordon seemed to my university cronies of yesteryear. Matt’s character Cooper perseveres in the face of all sensible physics, managing to communicate from a gravitational anomaly to his daughter and we’re given to understand that the anomaly somehow bends around on itself to the point where the daughter, having copied a few lines of Morse Code (not the densest medium of idea transfer), is able to solve a problem that has escaped quantum physics to date, thus enabling mankind to generate a planet where we can all be safe.

Well, not all of us, it seems.  Like all the superhero franchise movies (and this IS a superhero movie), this one can’t do without constantly reminding us that the world will owe its continued existence to America, predominantly white America. The stars and stripes are everywhere in this film. Space is an American lake, and as I watched the film in the company of two hundred very distinctly un-White, un-American people in Taiwan, I wondered uncomfortably how they received the message.

I know how I received it. It has a certain amount in common with The Wizard of Oz: the wide mid-western country setting beset by bad storms, the there-and-back-again plot that returns to that setting, the Tin Man who has to find his heart, the Cowardly Lion, the false Wizard, and little orphan Dorothy, who must symbolically find her way home. In fact, the more I reflect on it, the more it’s evident that Nolan’s Big Idea in the film is not Mankind’s Survival at all, it’s to remake the 1939 classic for the 21st Century. Considered thus, it’s well worth a look. Bring earplugs if you’re sensitive to loud noise.

Meanwhile, I’d love to see Chris Nolan make another film as tight as Momento; in that picture, he invited us into a rabbit-hole about time, and in fact, about how filmmaking is so much about the movement of time. Better that rabbit-hole than the worm-hole, where all the facts get shoved into a magic box, only to come out as… Kansas.

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