Interstellar (2014)

2015 #110
Christopher Nolan | 169 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Nine months on from its theatrical debut, I’ve managed to remain remarkably spoiler-free about Interstellar, the ninth feature from director Christopher Nolan. “Matthew McConaughey lives on a farm and somehow ends up in space with Anne Hathaway,” is about all I knew going in. That and the somewhat divisive critical reception it had received, leaving what many had assumed could be an Oscar favourite with a disappointing tally of nominations (and its studio to have backed the wrong horse, resulting in Selma’s even poorer showing — but that’s a story for another day). I don’t consider myself a so-called ‘Nolanite’, but I have enjoyed most of his pictures (I didn’t love Inception as much as many, but still placed it third on my top ten that year), and found Interstellar to be no exception.

The story (beyond “the McConaissance spreads into space”) sees a near-future Earth where most of the crops have died and mankind is struggling to survive. The US government even pretends the space race was a hoax, in order to put future generations off attempting such innovations. Former test pilot Cooper (McConaughey) holds little truck with such BS, trying to raise his kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (a memorable Mackenzie Foy), to be a mite more intelligent. During one of the many dust storms that engulf their community, strange pockets of gravity in Murph’s bedroom point Cooper to somewhere secret where some people he used to know are doing something secret that, ultimately, sends Coop into space on a mission from which he may never return. Murph is not best pleased.

More plot happens. Interstellar is the kind of film where you could get an awful long way through the story just trying to explain the setup. That’s a certain style of storytelling, and in its own way a positive one — a plot that is constantly moving and updating, rather than one that presents a basic setup, runs on the spot with it for a while, then wraps it up. The latter is how most narratives unfold, which is why reviews can so often summarise said setup and that’s fine. Nonetheless, Interstellar’s first act goes on too long, and could do with a good trim. (For an alternative view on why the first act is in some respects the best part of the film and needed more development, read ghostof82’s review. I don’t disagree, but I do think to give that area more focus would’ve necessitated a wholly different movie.) It’s important to set up Coop’s home life on Earth, as well as the near-future world from which the story springs, but all this could be achieved much more economically than it is here. This is a movie, not a miniseries: sometimes it pays to get a wriggle on. The whole film could’ve done with such a tighten, in fact, not just the sometimes-aimless first act and the flat-out overlong finale.

Flipside: maybe this is a “first viewing” problem. How many great films are there where, on the second or third or fourth viewing, you just wish it was a bit longer, had a bit more for you to see? Last time I re-watched The Lord of the Rings I was amazed how quickly they flew by, and that was in their extended form too. Yes, I’m now one of those people who thinks 12 hours of people walking across New Zealand countryside isn’t nearly enough. But I digress. I don’t know if Interstellar is one of those films that would end up with you wishing there was more of it, but if it is, well, there’s already some there.

Based on a skim through online reaction, some viewers would indeed love even more, while others would despise it. One thing I find interesting about this apparently diverse reaction is that you can find an abundance of negative/semi-negative comments and reviews by people who write such things, but nonetheless the average user scores on the likes of IMDb and Letterboxd remain high. Maybe it goes down better with (for want of a better generalisation) the wider audience than film critic/blogger types?

For many (though not all), criticism/acceptance seems to hinge on the aforementioned final act. Without getting into spoilers, then, “it’s too far-fetched” is one criticism I’ve seen. Of a science fiction movie. I guess it depends what you’re expecting. The rest of the film is grounded in realistic or plausible science, so when it really pushes at the boundaries of the unknown at the end, some people struggle to accept that. But the vast majority of what we see isn’t yet possible — it’s all made-up science fiction (albeit based on real theories and, in some cases, expanded from existing technology) — so what’s wrong with a third act that does the same but in a more extreme fashion? Because it is, at least in part, inspired by some genuine theories. (So much work went into the science that it merited a 50-minute documentary on the Blu-ray. Which I haven’t watched, so I suppose it might say it’s all poppycock. Considering the film has inspired at least two genuine academic papers, though, I’m inclined to say not.) I think it’s very much a case of “your mileage may vary”. For all the people who think it goes too far but only at the end, I’m sure there are just as many viewers who thought the ending was exactly as daft and/or reasonable as the rest of the film, depending on their tolerance level for sci-fi.

From a filmmaking perspective, there is surely nothing to fault. The visuals are incredible. As you’d expect, the IMAX footage looks absolutely stunning. Every time the Blu-ray reverted back to 2.40:1 I was a little disappointed. A sneaky part of me thinks Warner deliberately make these sequences look less good to ramp up the quality of the IMAX footage (I felt the same about The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises on Blu-ray), but maybe I’m just being paranoid. The effects work is also sublime, once again demonstrating the awesomeness of modelwork for spacecraft and the like. The CGI vistas and space phenomena are nothing to be sniffed at either, mind. There’s also a particularly interesting featurette about how they created zero-G. Impressively, even in behind-the-scenes footage, where you can see the wires, it still sometimes looks like the cast are genuinely floating. (On another technical point, more than a few reviews complain of the sound design, specifically the music being too loud. Either the film has been remixed for home release or it just isn’t a problem on a home-sized surround sound system, because I had no such issues.)

A semi-regular criticism of Nolan’s work is the lack of focus on characters or emotion, often sidelined for an epic scope or tricksy narrative. Interstellar certainly has a… debatable climax, and it definitely has an epic scope too, but it’s also one of the most character-driven and emotional films on Nolan’s CV. In particular, there are strong performances from McConaughey and Jessica Chastain (as an older Murph); Anne Hathaway is largely understated, but slivers of emotion seep through when appropriate; and Michael Caine actually gets to do a bit of Acting in a Nolan film for a change, rather than just turning up as a wise old dispenser of exposition — though don’t worry, he does that too. One of the stand-outs for me was David Gyasi, getting a role that was subtly stronger and more thought-provoking than several of his more famous colleagues, and executing it with aplomb too. Similarly, the voices of semi-sentient robots TARS and CASE — Bill Irwin and Josh “he’ll always be ‘that guy from Dirt’ to me” Stewart, respectively — are highly entertaining. Apparently they were inspired by Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is another mark in their favour, though thankfully they’re not just a rip-off used for comic relief.

Interstellar is a “big” movie — it’s full of big ideas, a big scope, big emotions, big stakes (the entire future survival of mankind!) Some people love that kind of scale; others hate it. Whichever camp you’re in, a bad or good movie (respectively) can sway you away. It’s tough to say which of those Interstellar is with any degree of objectivity, because so many people have had so many different reactions, from outright love to outright disgust. I’d say it’s certainly not perfect: it’s too long, and the qualities of the ending are debatable for all kinds of reasons — not least that any sense of it being a twist (which is how it’s structured) is negated by it being eminently guessable 2½ hours before it’s very, very slowly explained to us.

For all that, though, I loved it a little bit. It’s a spectacle, but a thoughtful one. Even if it doesn’t develop those thoughts as fully or comprehensively as it could, and arguably should, it really tries. If a few more big-budget spectacle-driven movies could manage even that these days, we’d all be better off for it.

5 out of 5

Interstellar debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:15pm and 8pm.

Rage (2009)

2009 #81
Sally Potter | 98 mins | streaming | 15

RageI really didn’t expect to like this: a series of straight-to-camera monologues, performed in front of just plain-coloured backgrounds, about the fashion industry, written and directed by the writer/director of Orlando, which I thoroughly disliked. But I watched because it was going free and, despite the concept’s innate pretentiousness, it’s an intriguing one. Once Rage settled into its stride (or, perhaps, I settled into its stride), however, I loved it.

The group of fourteen people who appear before the camera are almost entirely self-centred and/or not very nice, which you may guess from the outset considering their industry, though almost all still have something to reveal as the film progresses. It’s surprisingly funny too. The off-screen action is conveyed by a very effective sound mix — we see nothing but talking heads (until an incongruous final shot, at least), but there’s always background noise, however subtle, and the key action in the wider world is revealed to the viewer through this, plus comments from some of the talking heads. But time isn’t wasted spelling out what we can’t see; instead, a bit of the viewer’s own imagination is required in addition to the sound and dialogue clues to create a version of events.

A starry cast (Steve Buscemi, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law, John Leguizamo, David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest… plus recognisable (depending on what you’ve seen, of course) faces like Simon Abkarian, Bob Balaban and Babel’s Adriana Barraza.) provide exemplary acting across the board, even if some of the accents (mainly Brits playing at yanks) are frequently dubious. It seems unfair to pick anyone out, but Lily Cole is perhaps the most surprising, her fragile character aided by her Pipling-esque eyes and pale skin, but it’s her actual performance that ultimately delivers more than her autobiographical-seeming first appearance would suggest. And one can’t ignore Jude Law playing a Russian/American female(?) fashion model — for once I actually thought he was quite good. Maybe this is his niche. The majority of the performances err toward the theatrical — something certain film viewers seem to struggle with — though the intercutting and passage of time, reflected in intertitles and costume changes, make the whole experience more suited to film; indeed, with the cameraperson being such a major character (as it turns out), it is technically unstageable. (It could be staged, of course, but it belongs as a film.)

And, talking of how things turns out, the most intriguing character of all is Michelangelo, the cameraman and only main character we never see on screen — indeed, it’s a considerable amount of time before we realise he’s a character at all and not just a filmmaking conceit. His presence and the filming style (supposedly shot on a mobile phone (or, I suppose, ‘cell phone’) camera) is not just a gimmick, but, as it turns out, vital to the story. It’s probably the only film ever made that perhaps works better viewed streaming online. All the characters are in some way unveiled throughout the film, but, almost without the viewer releasing it, so too is our supposedly-inconspicuous cameraman. By the end, what seemed to be a critique of the fashion industry — and a well-worn one at that — has something else to say too.

At least, one hopes this ‘critique’ of the fashion industry isn’t the main point, because it may be the film’s biggest problem. There’s very little, if anything, new to be found in the comments and criticisms made — we well know it’s a business filled with too-thin weight-obsessed diva-ish models, self-obsessed pretentious designers, money-grabbing moral-less Murdoch-alikes and no-hope fame-hungry wannabes, and Rage doesn’t have much more to say about it than this. Sure, no one sits around pontificating on why it’s all so evil, but it doesn’t take much to see the subtext. At least it’s often funny about it; though based on comments I’ve read online, it seems this humour may be too subtle for some. Perhaps they can’t see the inherent ludicrousness of it all, with the performances flying closer to realist than the My Family-level bluntness some require from their comedy.

It’s hard going at times, even if one is enjoying it — after all, it’s still just a succession of people talking to camera. Obviously what they say — and, indeed, don’t say — reveals things about themselves, others, and events off screen, but while I was never bored there were several occasions when my eyes strayed to the clock out of curiosity over how long was left. I’ve still seen much duller films.

I don’t doubt that Rage isn’t for everyone. Indeed, you only have to look at IMDb to see how many people loathe it with near-religious fervour. (Prepare yourself if you do, because some of the criticism is irritatingly brain dead. But hey, that’s IMDb!) Some people just won’t get on with its style, or find it too slow, and with 14 characters in 98 minutes, awarding them an average of under seven minutes each, you’re not going to get Alan Bennett-level character deconstruction. But Rage unapologetically is what it is, and I liked it.

5 out of 5

If you’re interested in an in-depth (and spoiler-filled) review of Rage which features phrases like “extraordinary testament to the mindbrain”, “Mugel and Potter use sound to build an entire lifeworld”, and “it enlivens, emboldens and enriches the film, engaging ear, heart, mind, memory, intelligence, even skin and senses as a brilliant texture”, try this one from Little White Lies.

Rage placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.