Ground Control to Chris and Jon
“Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.”
― Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle
Matthew McConaughey is a bore to watch. There, I said it. Unfortunately he is the star of “Interstellar”, Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi film. McConaughey's performance in “Dallas Buyers Club” was a tour de force but “True Detectives” showed the limits of his force. He has a propensity to ham it up if left unsupervised - see “Wolf of Wall Street”. Nolan gave McConaughey free reign to drift when the actor needed to be fastened to his command chair. Someone might have tapped the director on the shoulder and noted that John Lithgow, a seasoned master of stage and screen, was on the set. Lithgow plays a grumpy old man with nothing to do except yell at his grandkids. He did an amazing job but there are only so many ways to bark at children. Michael Caine, another screen legend, phoned-in his part as the chief Scientist. The other cast members were saddled with roles that failed to test their mettle, maybe they could have assisted Lithgow with the kids. It is a crime that all these talented people were put under the yoke of Nolan and hundreds of millions in studio money. They needed direction, not expensive props. They were crushed by an army of accountants and technicians adrift without a leader. Even Matt Damon, who has exhibited discretion in his choice of material, fell victim. Two hours into battle Matt rises out of a deep induced coma. He has openly expressed regret for rejecting a part in the sci-fi mega-blockbuster “Avatar” which explains his unfortunate decision to participate in this holiday turkey. Damon throws a few punches and then blows up, literally. His character’s fury is rooted in having lied in order to secure an undeserved rescue. The off screen Damon might be equally peeved for different reasons.
Nolan’s films prove the ‘The Peter Principle’. This is business management jargon for the idea that managers rise to the level of their incompetence. Promotions based on past work are no harbinger of future success as the new job requires a new toolkit. This writer/director started with an innovative independent film, “Memento”, based on a leading character with no ability to retain long-term memory. It was followed “Insomnia” where a California detective is forced to solve a case in the endless sunlight of an Alaskan summer. It was a main-stream commercial feature with big name stars and pushed the boundaries of a detective story, think “Crime and Punishment” rather than Dick Tracey. The serial killer was played against type by Robin Williams. Ironically during the dissection of this actor's suicide the stress of working in constant daylight took a serious emotional toll on the erstwhile comic, leading to a relapse and a stint in rehab. It had the opposite effect on Mr. Nolan’s career leading to his taking the reigns of the Batman franchise and his own high budget science fiction film “Inception”. These endeavors showed strong box office which led to Nolan being given the opportunity to direct another of his ideas, which he penned with his brother Jonathan (who wrote “Memento”). “Interstellar” is a complicated apocalyptic tale with elements of time travel and space exploration. Commercially speaking the Nolans’ projects have shown a general upward trend in gross receipts. They have been given more resources and delivered solid returns. Artistically speaking, however, things ended with “Batman Begins”. In viewing “Interstellar” one wonders whether Robin Williams wasn’t the only victim of “Insomnia”. Plumbing the minds of brain damaged loners and guilt wracked detectives does not prepare one to paint portraits of established super-heroes or create other worlds. The Nolan brothers are better suited to a narrower canvass. Unfortunately “Interstellar” is a grand showcase of glitzy lazy amateurism born of being overwhelmed.
It’s difficult to give scope to the epic horribleness of this film. Usually the craft-related departments come through in these blockbusters. Not in this case. Even the makeup was bad. McConaughey, who plays a NASA pilot/corn farmer, had an unearthly copper hue. This dove-tailed with the flatness of the special effects, astounding for a modern day sci-fi feature. What was particularly disturbing was the blatant borrowing from Kubrick’s “2001”. Imitation of a classic is derigueur… but a half baked, half assed re-staging? Norton's “astronaut falling into the time abyss” is even more embarrassing when one considers the original was made over 46 years ago, decades before wide-scale deployment of computer graphics in motion pictures. Nolan’s visual impairment is matched by his aural deficits. The sound mix lost all sense of proportion. Key moments of dialogue were drowned out by tinnitus inducing swells of music or special effects. Not that hearing the words really mattered. Nolan has the knack of repeating things in droning soliloquies. If you miss it the first time due to a timpani drum or a tidal wave, you will have four or five more opportunities to digest the narrative. As we drift through Nolan’s universe with this crew of tired cartoon characters, we yearn for yesteryear’s stark simplicity. Nearly half a Century ago HAL was terrorizing his astronauts with simple curt sentences as they breathed and breathed and breathed. This combined with the Strauss waltzes defined the rhythms of space. Instead we are subjected to the tedious dialogue on obscure science or non-sensical plot points. Nolan’s script is designed for obsessive test takers who are interested in passing a quiz on the plot, rather than an audience focused on experiencing the texture of other worlds. There is a madness to the grand reveals in this film. Are we supposed to believe that this passionate NASA employee is completely unaware of a major NASA installation with a few hours drive in this underpopulated world? Are we to believe that the people in charge of this super massive installation are unaware that the leading NASA pilot is just down the road? Are we to believe that the NASA chiefs would suddenly hire this pilot who happens upon the facility due to his 10 year old daughter's receiving messages in morse code from another dimension? Yes, yes yes….. Which begs the exclamation, WTF!? It goes on and on…. for 2 hours and 49 minutes. This audience member was praying that another encounter with a black hole would speed the clock… alas unlike the Lazarus project heroes stranded on those distant planets, there was no hibernation chamber to shield us from the desolate monotony.
Even the most insipid late night television spot can lay bare insights into the society at large. This holiday blockbuster offers a strange asymmetrical message regarding scientific progress. “Interstellar’s” earth has suffered an unspecified ecological disaster leading to the degradation of farmland and a one generation end-time. There are vague references to greedy selfishness being at the heart of the debacle. Everyone wanting too much which might hint at a call to collectivism. Strangely McConaughey seems to exhibit an abhorrence to the idea that the government, or anyone, can tell him anything. The apocalypse has had no dent in our hero’s solid American individualism. Oddly the this end-time earth bears little resemblance to the standard “Mad Max” set-piece. It is a subdued shabby rural setting. Imagine a crappy small town in the Mid West or upstate NY that is visited by a dust storm every fortnight. It’s drab, but people are well fed. There is a muddled sense of order more Mayberry than dystopia. The government has the same listless quality. There is an odd sequence where the local school teaches McConaughey’s daughter that his beloved Apollo missions never made it to the moon. This propaganda is designed to keep the young people interested in farming rather than technology. This makes little sense as McConaughey’s farm is swimming in high tech automation. Logic would dictate a Federal push against publicizing space exploration achievements would have no bearing on agriculture as a career. Unfortunately we are in the Nolan’s strange universe. This particular storyline makes Pol Pot’s campaign to promote smoking seem downright comprehensible. “Interstellar”, despite the reams of expository dialogue, is riddled with inexplicable reasons for the characters’ motivations. Probably the central incredulous plot point lies in Caine lying to McConaughey about the prospects for earth. We are supposed to believe this former NASA pilot, who loathes his current farm work and obsessively collects space trinkets, would refuse to lead an intergalactic mission to save mankind. All because of his young daughter. I guess the Nolan’s missed the news story about Mars One, the current ONE WAY mission to form human colonies on Mars. Here is a quote from the NY Times article: “More than 200,000 people from dozens of countries applied”. No doubt there are hundreds of parents amongst the throngs willing to abandon their families to serve some outlandish fantasy of “progress”. McConaughey himself is an odd proselytizer about Science’s place in man’s future. He rails against the lying PC police who deride NASA. At the close of the film he has a change of heart. He sits in the old farmhouse replete with a small little league field outside. It is now located in a huge space station orbiting Saturn. He senses something is wrong and embarks for the wormhole to get to his sweetheart. Her partner has conveniently died. His sweetie sits in her brave new world. The odd thing is it bears a remarkable resemblance to the desolate earth everyone is abandoning. One again, WTF? One keeps on thinking - why didn’t everyone just stay on earth and try to solve those problems? This sort of question is never really addressed in the film. Earth IS finished. Period. All the wizardry that assures a successful space mission never applies to the mother planet. Underneath the copper skin of McConaughey’s “down to earth” hero is a pernicious technological escapism. This badly executed, poorly thought-out, feature is really a paean to mankind’s technical prowess. Our answers lie in our abilities to innovate. We can always build tunnels to escape out mistakes.
The Nolans have proved themselves clever with their early work. This film is dumb which is highlighted by it’s attempts at being smart. There is a constant refrain from Michael Caine of Dylan Thomas’ wonderful poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Goodnight”. The force of this work lies in KNOWING the fight will inevitably END IN DEATH. The valiance is born in being DOOMED. So why is this poetry triumphantly repeated by the lead scientist charged with manning earth’s salvation? Well the clever Nolan brothers might say that Caine knew the earth would fail. Correct. Except that he had a strong faith in his mission’s success exhibited by the fact that he felt guilty about not having a majority of earthlings join in his careful PLAN B. Thomas’ words sound good, especially when rounded by Caine’s rough English accent. Unfortunately they make about as much sense as the rest of this draw-out mess of a film. It is inconceivable that people who would carefully plot the logical progress in “Memento” would make the amateurish mistakes which permeate every aspect of “Interstellar”. How could this happen? It is preferable, from an artistic POV, to believe the Nolan brothers are simply in it for the money. Sadly it seems this nearly three hour waste of time is rooted in a genuine effort to produce good work. It would be economically more rewarding to produce a shorter film. There is also an excess of heartfelt nonsense that simple con men would eschew. No, the fraternal duo are being blinded by misguided accolades and the Sirens’ call of huge budgets in order to spare no expense for their “vision”. Audiences everywhere can hope that their inner circle possesses an honest friend who can advocate for spare modesty in their next endeavor. How about a ninety minute film of a father caught between the pull of duty and his tween daughter? Unfortunately one sense future movie-goers are in store for more of the Nolans' magic. The brothers might want to ponder the lyrics of a current indie calypso band: “Don’t need no message from outer space, to see what’s goin’ on in front me face” *. And maybe someone could send them a copy of “The Peter Principle”.