Their Frail Deeds Might Have Danced, by David Bax
Christopher Nolan will never be in the same class as the great directors he admires until he stops trying so hard to be. The man is clearly talented, as evidenced by the indelible images and sequences from his past films that have become a part of our collective memory. But what also lingers is his overreach. He repeatedly attempts to force catharsis and he usually does so by emulating a filmmaker who has been successful at doing so in the past, like Michael Mann or Stanley Kubrick. His latest film, Interstellar, smacks of the latter’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in ways both textual and superficial but, with its bald faith in the virtues of America and its grand pathos, it most closely recalls the work of Steven Spielberg. (Also, by better earning the descriptor “epic” than any of Nolan’s previous work, it also invites comparisons to David Lean, but more on that later). In the film’s early chapters, though, I was reminded less of the director of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and more of another Spielberg acolyte, M. Night Shyamalan. 2002’s Signs also featured a widower raising two children with the help of one his late wife’s relatives, all unfolding against the backdrop of a farmhouse surrounded by tall stalks of corn. Even cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s perpetual dusk is an echo of Tak Fujimoto’s work. The connection between the two films runs deeper still. Ultimately, both rely on a series of coincidences to arrive at their emotional crescendos. Shyamalan at least had the audacity to show us this serendipity and call it God. Nolan, as he did in Inception, over-justifies his contrivances until his film loses form like a water balloon being popped in slow motion.
Interstellar’s introductory section sets up the world at large – an undetermined point in the future where the planet’s food supply has collapsed and dust bowl conditions prevail – as well as the world of our main character. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut and current father roped back into what’s left of the space program to help lead a mission through a wormhole to find humanity’s next home. Cooper’s task is no subtle metaphor for a parent’s yearning to give their children a better life than he or she had and, as such, it’s important that the connection between him and his kids be felt by the audience. Thanks to McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy, who plays Coop’s young daughter, Murphy, it mostly is. In total, though, the pre-space mission part of the film drags. We tap our toes while being briefed on the particulars of this future’s past. It’s necessary but Nolan treats it like a chore.
Once we’ve slipped the surly bonds, it becomes clearer how close Nolan came to making something beautiful, if only he’d gotten out of his own way. He seems to have learned from Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff that, no matter the myriad spectacles of space travel, the dramatic meat of an astronaut’s story is what tethers her or him back to Earth. We are never allowed to forget the lives left behind by Cooper and the rest of the crew. Yet those lives and those relationships are often lazy and familiar sketches while the scientific mumbo jumbo gets full paragraphs of explanation. Perhaps this is why, of all the crew, only Anne Hathaway’s Amelia (oh, come on) gets a backstory while the characters played by Wes Bentley and David Gyasi are less interesting than the robots. When Lean made Lawrence of Arabia, arguably the greatest film epic of all time, he traveled across vast deserts and decades trying to parse Lawrence’s mind. Nolan paints Cooper’s whole character in two brief dimensions and then spends a large part of his three hour runtime drily explaining how black holes work.
Nolan often seems to misunderstand what his own strengths are. The constant expounding that weighed down Inception and the over-plotting that made The Dark Knight Rises tedious are back in full force here, more often than not getting in the way of the overwhelming beauty of the imagery and the breathlessness of the action set-pieces. Composer Hans Zimmer seems to understand what the film is actually about. His score is unapologetically emotional as well as unmistakably ecclesiastical in its use of the organ. It’s also more or less constant in a way that is gracefully reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. And if the music sometimes drowns out dialogue, the film is probably better for it. We only need to hear so many bone-dumb speeches about the need to adapt or recitations of Dylan Thomas.
Shyamalan showed conviction by ending Signs at the zenith of its preposterousness, leaving us a handful of possible interpretations to chew on. Interstellar bobs along through its endless denouement like one of the Mercury astronauts waiting in his capsule after splashdown to be pulled out of the ocean. Despite having so much to show us, it tells and tells until we start to realize it has nothing much to say.