Review: “Interstellar”

The biggest question I had after “Interstellar” was “What happened to the sound mix?”  Hans Zimmer’s score was used to near-deafening effect, which is a shame, because it’s some of his best work in years.  Critical conversations were drowned out by overbearing sound.  And it wasn’t just my theater, other outlets have addressed the issue.  I don’t mean to be glib, but for a film with high-minded ambitions and so much promise in its first two acts, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” left me with nothing but a ringing in my ears.

Warning: this review contains loud noises, black holes and spoilers.

Matthew McCounaughey stars as Cooper, a former NASA pilot raising his son and daughter on a farm.  It’s the future, and Earth is losing the ability to produce food.  The human race is living on borrowed time.  McCounaughey brings an appealing “everyman” quality to the Nolan-universe.   His relationship with his willful daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), consumes the first 35+ minutes of the film, but their development isn’t enough to support a runtime that’s nearly three hours.

INTERSTELLAR

Murph is convinced their house is haunted.  A “ghost” knocks books from a shelf in her room and leaves coordinates in the dust.  Those coordinates take Cooper to a secret NASA facility, where he discovers that Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), have been working on a plan…or two…to save mankind.  Plan A: travel through a wormhole, investigate three potentially hospitable planets, and use a space station to transport Earth’s population.  Should resources run out before the mission can be completed, Plan B: populate one of three said planets with test tube babies.  Cooper accepts Brand’s offer to pilot the mission, which causes a rift between he and his daughter. “Don’t make me leave like this,” he pleads.

In space, we’re treated to some gorgeous cosmic vistas.  Cooper and his team visit a water planet where time passes more slowly.  Discovering it isn’t suitable, they return to their ship to find that 20 years has passed.  In the film’s most stirring moment, Cooper watches his son grow up over a series of transmissions.  The string of videos ends with his estranged daughter, now as old as he is (played by Jessica Chastain, very strong in the role).  In a great match cut, we watch Cooper’s monitor as Murph turns off her display and then we’re back on Earth with her.  She’s been working with Professor Brand on a way to get the human race off the planet, but on his deathbed, the professor reveals that he’s known for some time that their efforts are wasted.  He sent her father on his mission knowing Earth was doomed.

cosmic vista

The movie hits turbulence with the introduction of Matt Damon.  He plays Mann, an astronaut who was sent to survey one of the potential planets.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Damon at first — the marketing campaign kept him a secret and he’s a great actor — but his role is sorely lacking.  It’s the stock character that’s gone crazy, undone by the enormity of events.  (Reminded me of Tim Robbins in “The War of the Worlds,” a movie that also goes off the rails with his late introduction.) Though the filmmakers get some mileage out of subverting Damon’s upstanding persona, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why this actor for this nothing role?

Learning of the crew’s intentions to follow through with Plan A, Mann sabotages their mission.  He flees to the main craft that’s circling the planet.  In an unsuccessful docking attempt, Mann dies in an explosion that sends the larger vessel spiraling out of control.  Then Cooper successfully manages a docking maneuver in a moment that should be a nail-biter.  Zimmer’s score is insistent on it.  It’s like watching a sporting event and someone’s sitting next to you banging pots and pans together shouting, “Isn’t this exciting?!”  No, not anymore. The whole sequence is cross-cut with Murph trying to get back to her childhood home.  There was something about that ghost.  She runs up against her brother (a misused Casey Affleck), who’s inexplicably turned into a raging asshole.  He’s unconcerned with his family’s deteriorating health, and he’s determined to keep his sister out of the house.  Rather than create tension, we’re wondering why the brother behaves this way at all.  The answer: the plot needs him to.  You can practically hear the film groan — there’s that sound mix again — as it strains to up the ante.

Cooper and Amelia are the only remaining crew members.  While sling-shoting around a blackhole, he ejects into it, which enables Amelia to reach the final planet.  Cooper finds himself in a fifth dimension — no, not the Twilight Zone — where he’s able to view his daughter’s bedroom seemingly at any point in time.  During this sequence, we come to realize that he was her ghost.  This is clearly intended to be a big reveal, but Nolan doesn’t lay the necessary groundwork.  Murph first mentions the ghost early in the film when we’re not yet attached to these characters or invested in this world. The odd story development stands out like a sore thumb – Ghost? Isn’t this a space travel film? It’s like Nolan is a magician, and he forgets to draw our eye away from his trick.  Within minutes of young Murph declaring their house was haunted, I saw where the film was going.

Beyond that, Nolan and his co-writer/brother, Jonathan, have a serious problem with exposition.  Some of their writing passes about as well as a kidney stone.  They’ll make a point…clarify it…and then reiterate it again.  Think about the engineer at the end of “Batman Begins,” practically narrating what will happen if the microwave emitter reaches the center of Gotham.  Or the ferry passengers in “The Dark Knight.”  In both cases, the situations scarcely need explaining, and yet we suffer through these repetitions that sap the scenes of tension.  “Interstellar” is no different.  Lazarus, a Biblical story of a man brought back to life, is a recurring motif.  Waking from hibernation, Mann tells our characters:  “You have literally raised me from the dead.”  With just enough time to say to myself, “Wow, subtle,” Cooper responds, “Lazarus.”

exposition

Nolan’s propensity for over-explanation rears its head in the final climactic sequence.  Cooper tells us that the beings who made the fifth dimension are future humans, and it was created so that he could give his daughter the missing component to Brand’s work.  The wall-to-wall exposition is such an odd, demystifying choice.  So much of the best science fiction eschews explanation for its central conceit.  Why can’t women get pregnant in “Children of Men?”  Who knows.  How exactly are they erasing Jim Carrey’s memories in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?”  Who cares!  When you confine this type of film to a box, you risk — even promise — disillusionment and disappointment.  Nolan is clearly an ambitious filmmaker, but audacity is a big part of ambition.  No matter how noble your intentions or grand your vision, when you package your film in easily digestible bites, you undercut boldness and daring.

All the ambition in the world doesn’t mean much when the experience is this empty.  Loud, but empty.

What did you think of “Interstellar?”  Comment below! 

Review: “Godzilla” (a.k.a. “Gojira”)

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the original “Godzilla,” known as “Gojira” in its native Japan.  The Japanese cut of the film wasn’t available in the States until 2004, so for roughly 50 years, Americans had to make do with the U.S. edit, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters.”  It featured Raymond Burr, thanks to some…unique editing.  The biggest crime of the U.S. version wasn’t Burr’s haphazard inclusion, but the way it muted — eradicated even — the cautionary aspects of the original.

Warning: giant monsters and spoilers ahead!

Director Ishiro Honda’s film begins with a dramatization of an event that would have been fresh in the minds of Japanese citizens.  In early 1954, the S.S. Lucky Dragon 5 and the men on board were exposed to fallout from H-bomb testing.  “Godzilla” begins similarly, a group of fishermen are consumed by flames after witnessing a blinding flash of light.  Honda invites our curiosity by completely concealing the monster.  Staging the scene so obliquely, he positions the film as a haunting and even cathartic nuclear allegory.

As more ships disappear, the Japanese public demands answers.  In one of my favorite effects shots – “favorite” not to be confused with “best” — what’s clearly a model boat bursts into flames.  It floats along the surface of the water, a ghost ship, before sinking beneath the waves.  When the full nature of these disasters becomes clear, we get varying perspectives on how to deal with the problem.  Salvage ship captain Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) wants Godzilla destroyed.  It poses too great a threat.  Paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (played by Kurosawa-regular Takashi Shimura) wants to preserve the creature for study.  What is it?  How long has it been there?  How did it survive the atomic tests?  They’re linked by Emiko (Momoko Kochi), Kyohei’s daughter and Hideto’s lover.

Among the franchise’s 30 entries, this first film boasts the most compelling human drama.  Emiko’s allegiances are torn between her father, Hideto, and Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who she’d been sworn to marry despite her true affections.  Frankly, some of the romantic melodrama could go, but the human element is juiciest when it centers around Serizawa.  Unintentionally, he’s developed a weapon of mass destruction: the Oxygen Destroyer.  When guns, tanks and planes prove ineffective against Godzilla, Emiko and Hideto urge the doctor to use his device.  Only nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he’s reluctant.  “I can’t add another terrifying weapon to humanity’s arsenal.”

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The film’s special effects centerpiece is Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo, made possible by “suitmation.”  Pioneered by Eiji Tsuburaya, an actor in a monster suit storms through a miniature city.  Though the technique is dated, many shots hold up.  Honda and Tsuburaya frame Godzilla from low angles with foreground elements — buildings, power lines, and a bird aviary in one case.  This creates scale while inky cinematography hides the seams and contributes to a sense of dread.

powerline-destruction

But, in the infancy of suitmation, there are plenty of geographical inconsistencies.  Firefighters barrel through the streets only to careen off them…presumably due to Godzilla, but we never have a sense of their proximity to each other.  Still, those mishaps are easily overlooked when you consider the number of chilling moments.  A mother comforts her children as the city falls around them.  “Don’t worry, we’ll be with Daddy soon.”

So many films, post-9/11, attempt to channel the apocalyptic sense of doom from that day, but few achieve what this one does.  The morning after the attack, an eerily-calm establishing shot of Tokyo shows the city in ruins.  A young girl cries as her deceased mother is carried through a hospital corridor that’s bursting with wounded citizens.  A doctor examines a patient with a Geiger counter.  A children’s choir sings for peace.  These moments carry all the weight and immediacy of a documentary.  Despite this film having only one city-leveler — not the smorgasbord* of later installments — the stakes have never felt higher.

this-is-tokyo

The sorrowful tone is carried through to the film’s final moments.  Dr. Serizawa, seeing the aftermath of destruction, concedes to use his weapon.  In doing so, he takes his own life.  Now that the world knows of his invention, he can’t be coerced into making another.  Where many films might strike a triumphant note with the demise of the monster, this one does not.  Akira Ifukube’s mournful score recalls the choir’s prayer earlier in the film.  Like many great movie monsters, Godzilla is a victim of man’s overreach.  As Kyohei watches, the ancient creature lets out a death cry and finally succumbs.  He warns — in a bit of dialog that’s just a shade too on-the-nose — against further atomic tests.  Alongside science fiction classics like “Frankenstein” and modern classics like “Blade Runner,” “Godzilla” stands as a stirring reminder of the reckoning that follows from man’s hubris.

* – Not that I’m casting judgments.  I’m all for a smorgasbord of giant monsters!

DAM

Have you seen the Japanese cut of the original “Godzilla?”  How about the American cut?  Comment below!