Sunday, November 9, 2014

Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" is both a feast for the eyes and food for thought

Barring the outbreak of World War Four or another round of some Black Plague-like pandemic that might thin out the human population a bit, the day when Mankind must address the question of depleting the Earth's resources will certainly come.  I personally think it will come much, much farther down the road than most of the more fervent Environmentalist-Wackos claim it will, but I agree that it will happen someday.  What Mankind will do as that day approaches is the central question of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.  Would Mankind look outwards to the stars to find a new home, possibly sacrificing ourselves and the lives of everyone we know in order to prevent our extinction, or would we be unable to put aside our own individual lives in order for our unknown descendants to have lives of their own?  

As I am childless, I cannot make any claim of being able to relate to the dilemma faced by Interstellar's main character.  I would suppose the scenario of knowing you may never see your child again, but that child and his/her offspring may live full lives versus remaining with your child while knowing he/she will not live very long would be fairly obvious - of course, you want your child to have the longest, fullest life possible, even at the cost of your own life.  At the risk of sounding pessimistic, though, I personally don't have enough faith in the ability of Mankind as a whole to be selfless enough to choose Mankind's survival over the survival of one's own immediate family.  I happen to believe that individuals, given the opportunity, will choose a self-serving course of action over one for the "Greater Good" 99.99% of the time, give or take a percentage point or two.  While I leave the question of whether I am right or wrong in that belief for some other essay, some of the characters in Interstellar seem to share my grim assessment of people's priorities.  However, I do find Interstellar to be a very hopeful, positive outlook on how some people in particular, and Mankind in general, may face that problem when it arises. 

The film shows us a time in our near-future, perhaps later this century, perhaps a bit farther off than that, when Humanity has all but exhausted the soil of Mother Earth.  Crops are no longer yielding enough to keep us alive, and the depleted soil billows in clouds of dust that create a new Dust Bowl era - one that stretches a bit farther than the American Midwest this time around (perhaps we could call this the "Eco-pocalypse").  A family consisting of a former NASA pilot named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), his fairly-grounded son, his head-in-the-clouds daughter named Murphy (as in Murphy's Law) and his father-in-law struggle to raise corn in the weak Texas soil.  An almost divine-appearing set of happenings and coincidences lead Cooper and Murphy to the hidden location of a now-underground NASA, as the space agency is now an off-the-record government agency.  In this future, the ignorant tax-paying masses demand their tax dollars be spent on needs more pressing to them than space exploration, but thankfully, a few more deeper-thinking folks still believe the subject to be important, so the work continues in secret.  

NASA is now conveniently headed by one of Cooper's former teachers, one Professor Brand, (played by Nolan's own little good-luck charm, Michael Caine), who fairly quickly convinces Cooper to pilot an exploratory mission into a conveniently-placed Einstein–Rosen bridge ("wormhole") near Saturn that leads to habitable planets in another galaxy, in order to find a new home for Mankind.  Leaving his family behind, Cooper, along with Brand's own physicist/astronaut daughter (Anne Hathaway), two other scientists and a couple of sarcastic robots, begins a decades-long mission into the wormhole.  By the end of the film, we see how all of those cosmic coincidences and lucky breaks fell into place, and how Mankind may ultimately play a part in its own salvation.

Much like Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece of science fiction/science prediction, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar is a story that begins with the question of what Mankind must do when we have reached a point in our evolution where we've gone as far as we can without becoming something else.  In the same vein as 2001, cosmic occurrences are placed in Mankind's path by unseen/unknown entities that act as motivators to drive Mankind to move forward when we seem to have lost the drive to do so on our own.  Unlike 2001, a fairly emotionally-sterile film by design, the notion of love as a force of nature, one that can affect not only decision-making, but actually play a part in natural occurrence, comes into play in this story.  More so than in any of his other previous films, Nolan uses the dynamic of family love as a driving factor, as we see how Cooper's relationship with both of his children suffer as they grow to adulthood without him, and how Professor Brand's own daughter believes her love for others might be a factor in the mission's direction.

Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan share credit for the screenplay, and their script does a phenomenal job of balancing such things as explanations of quantum physics with emotional insight into the human beings explaining them.  Maintaining the emotional power of the story among the fantastic visual effects is also attributable to the performances of the cast delivering the soul of that script, some of whom make the most of limited screen time.  Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain in particular, who portray the Cooper children in adulthood, both give powerful performances with their relatively little screen time, effectively conveying in different ways how abandoned they feel, and how their lives, along with the rest of Mankind, seem to be slowly spiraling to a halt as the Earth dies around them.  

Interstellar, much like Gravity from last year, uses its superb visual effects to emphasize the emotional impact of its story in a marvelous fashion.  I didn't find any of the effects sequences to be self-indulgent, and even more remarkable for a film with an almost-three hour running time, the effects never seem to overwhelm the movie's message.  The sound design in particular was Oscar-worthy, in my humble layman's opinion - the silence of space, then the abrupt thunder of ill-happenings when atmosphere is introduced, laid out in the 360-degree realm that is zero-gravity was fantastic.  The sound mix, however, had a few hiccups, as a few lines of dialogue were overwhelmed by the effects around the character speaking, but I suppose that could have been a case of McConaughey mumbling much like he does in those Lincoln commercials...

I have a list of filmmakers in my mind, composed of directors whose work will get me to buy a ticket, no matter what it is, and Christopher Nolan's name is on that list.  Much like he did with Inception, Nolan has created something that accomplishes a task that is much easier said than done - a movie that both greatly entertains me and forces me to spend several hours afterwards thinking very deeply about a subject. If there is anyone making films these days who can legitimately claim to be the heir-apparent to Stanley Kubrick, it is Nolan, and I do not say that solely because Interstellar may very well be this generation's 2001.  It is not the equal of that film, but it is certainly worthy of being included in any conversation along with it, and it is definitely one of the best films of this year.