Wednesday, November 5, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW Interstellar (IMAX)
McConaughey In Failure To Launch: Not A Comedy This Time

Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Christopher Nolan's epic sci-fi adventure drama "Interstellar".
  Paramount/Warner Bros

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"Interstellar", Christopher Nolan's epic sci-fi spiritual survivalist adventure, fails to achieve lift-off from the word go.  Dressed as a father-daughter story about humanity, spirit expiration, star flickering and planetary exploration, "Interstellar" is a noisy, incoherent film that visually astounds but never involves you.  It's a massive disappointment from a director who cultivates intimacy well in small stories but gets overwhelmed when he has to transfer that story and space onto a big canvas in a big-budget setting. 

Mr. Nolan is caught between two worlds here -- IMAX, which he uses to stunningly good effect (better than in his masterpiece "The Dark Knight"), and the 35-70mm world containing most of the family sequences with engineer and space explorer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) -- but he doesn't effectively marry both worlds to achieve a cohesive, absorbing film.  The film's technical aspects, impressive in IMAX, drown out its few intimate moments and high-octane ones.  The sound mix is too loud and overbearing, frequently drowning out dialogue.  I couldn't hear much of what Cooper and others said in key scenes.  Add the Richter scale-sized rumbles and vibrations and you have all the makings of a Michael Bay disaster.  The film, to quote Dylan Thomas's poem, doesn't go gentle into that good night of theater darkness.

Widower Cooper cherishes his children Murph and Tom.  He dotes on his precocious daughter Murph, an inquisitive child who wants to learn more about science and has an acute sense of the soul and spirit.  Murph feels things -- ghosts, or people trying to communicate.  She rails against her dad abandoning her to find a habitable planet for an endangered humankind to live on.  (There's little scope to the sense of enormity of that predicament.  Very little of it is shown.)  Tom, by contrast, is indifferent.  He just wants Cooper's truck.  We can speculate that the story written by Jonathan Nolan and his director-brother occurs in the future, or perhaps Cooper's mind.

Before long Cooper and a team of space traveler scientists (Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley) toggle between planets with the help of human-voiced robots TARS and CASE.  Human-sounding robots? You would have thought that technology ("Star Wars" did this 40 years ago with R2-D2) could find non-humans to articulate.  A lot of this near-three-hour exercise isn't carefully plotted, developed or conveyed.

Watching "Interstellar" is like watching lightning in a bottle: striking moments exist but are over far too quickly.  The visions act as a substitute for the connection to narrative.  The Tom character isn't explored.  What do TARS and CASE do?  What is their purpose?  Can a father-daughter story be sustained when about two hours of loud, mostly uninteresting interplanetary travel separates them and causes a gulf in some in the movie-going audience?  The film doesn't appear to care appreciably about its characters.  Since Mr. Nolan gives us little time to know them I cared little about them or the film's destination, the final act, which in itself is a very hokey exercise.

"Interstellar" doesn't have to explain everything but it at least needed to be explanatory on an elementary level.  If Mr. Nolan wished to envelope us in a mystical, awe-inspiring atmosphere he should have taken care to engage and orient his viewers into the kind of experience they will be paying extra for in an IMAX theater.  Instead, everything about "Interstellar" feels rushed.  Forced.  Empty.  The hyper-sized screen and overwhelming images (ala "Avatar") as standalones aren't enough. 

Worse yet, when Mr. Nolan's editor Lee Smith cuts back and forth from IMAX to 35mm (and does so very often) it is off-putting and repelling.  This "distancing", from a filmmaking perspective -- a core part of "Interstellar" is distance and the title's very definition is, travelling between points in various stars -- actually works against the film's mission.  The imagery is astonishing but the film's rhythm is discordant.  "Interstellar" is a work that doesn't merit or measure up to the imagery that pervades it.  Time, temporal distance and difference is stressed through dialogue in "Interstellar" but Mr. Smith doesn't sufficiently support or demonstrate this in his editing choices.  The pace of "Interstellar" never, ever changes.  This is one of the film's most glaring flaws.

Mr. Nolan probably succumbed to the pressure of writing a big-budget story that the technology he so ably handles could harness and effectively carry.  Had he opted to write an intimate story and trust the visual effects to supplement, rather than drown it with excessive dialogue or Hans Zimmer's ear-splitting orchestrations, "Interstellar" would have been a great cinematic experience.  "Interstellar" promised so much but delivers very little.  The awe melts in your mouth like a sugar cube and the residue is the dry, bitter taste of nothingness.

Mr. Nolan made similar mistakes with "Inception", another grandiose spectacle that fizzled because of its lack of connection with the characters it showcased and the loud overwhelming score of Mr. Zimmer, and visuals that exploded.  Things in that film made little sense, especially the use of Marion Cotillard's character.  The Tom Cooper character in "Interstellar" is also a functionary tool, used in a truncated way. 

My biggest lament about "Interstellar" is that it doesn't try to savor its own glories -- that it rushes by them in cursory, light-years fashion.  There's little silence and resonance to be had.  Many of the film's moments don't breathe, and each time an opportunity to draw me in came, the director chose to repel me, and pull away.  Was it confidence?  Was it handling the big stage?  I'm not so sure that the big canvas is where Mr. Nolan operates best. 

A big name actor appears late on and has only 15 minutes to execute the film's turning point -- a twist that fails miserably and with a degree of incomprehension.  The actor is too plain and facially uninteresting to pull off the film's dramatic turn in such short time.  A no-name actor or a facially distinctive one would have met the requirements.  But the actor's appearance is in keeping with the expedient, hurried nature of Mr. Nolan's enterprise.  The actor's presence took me out of the film once again.  The appearance was awkward, as is much of "Interstellar", which tries emulating "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Contact", "The Abyss", "Gravity" and lesser films that were more invigorating and entertaining than this one.

"Interstellar" doesn't take stock of its own opportunities.  With usual Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister off making "Transcendence", Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography here is too dark.  At times you can't see Mr. McConaughey's eyes or face, and you certainly can't sometimes see the faces of two black characters who play key roles.  There's at least one scene where Ms. Hathaway's face is far too white, while other white characters' faces in the same scene are moderated.  It's a strange sight.

Did Mr. Nolan send letters to theater owners specifying how his film should be presented?  Or was this really how "Interstellar" was shot and how it sounded?  Hitchcock, Kubrick, Malick and others were so very conscientious about this.  Every theater owner got the memo.  Mr. Malick most recently did the same for "The Tree Of Life".

One of the most profound disappointments of Mr. Nolan's career, "Interstellar" represents a huge step down for the talented director.  As you watch the film you can sense him trying to show you things, trying to execute a big-budget production rather than just tell the stories he told so assuredly in "Following" and "Memento", which along with "The Dark Knight" are by far his three best films.  I didn't go into "Interstellar" not wanting to like it.  I near-detested it for two hours before the theater's projection and sound broke down.  When I eventually returned a day later to watch the film's final hour my thoughts did not change.  The film got worse.

There may be mystery in "Interstellar" the story but there's no mystery about "Interstellar" the film: it is far less than stellar.

(Note: "Interstellar" opened on special large format 35MM, 70MM and IMAX 70MM screens today in the U.S. and Canada.  The film opens on Friday everywhere.)

Also with: Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Ellen Burstyn, David Oyelowo, Josh Stewart.

"Interstellar" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for some intense perilous action and brief strong language.  Its running time is two hours and 49 minutes.

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