Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Interstellar" - Overcoming the Impossible

It may be an odd connection, but after watching Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” I couldn’t get Roger Ebert’s review of “Apollo 13” (for me, a pantheon movie) out of my head (what’s really odd, I suppose, is that I would remember what Roger Ebert wrote about a film released nearly 20 years ago – but that’s me). 

Early in his four-star review, Ebert wrote:

“Like Lindbergh, who crossed the Atlantic in the first plane he could string together that might make it, we went to the moon the moment we could, with the tools that were at hand.”

And he closed with these lines:

“When I was a kid, they used to predict that by the year 2000, you’d be able to go to the moon.  Nobody ever thought to predict that you’d be able to, but nobody would bother.”

Compare what Ebert wrote back then to these lines spoken by Cooper, the former test pilot turned reluctant farmer, in “Interstellar:”

“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

“We've always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we've just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we've barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”

Anyone who grew up in the age of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo will appreciate the point that both Ebert and Cooper are making.  The astronauts who flew into space in those programs were larger than life people, accomplishing larger than life things.  For a while, we almost took them for granted.  The greatness of “Apollo 13” was rooted in that it a) showed that for every one of those larger than life characters getting their ass shot up into space, there were 5, 10, probably more back on the ground making it happen; an b) demonstrated, as Jim Lovell put it, that there was nothing easy about going to the moon.  There were reasons that the manned moon program ended, and from a political and policy standpoint, they were no doubt entirely reasonable and defensible. But what Ebert was hinting at in his review of “Apollo 13” was that we lost something when that program ended – we lost the notion that there was always a new frontier that we, as Americans, could and would conquer, for the betterment of mankind.

“Interstellar” taps into that notion by imagining a world that is now in peril, one that has essentially given up those ambitious dreams while struggling just to put food on the table for its citizens.  And the world that we see in “Interstellar” is strictly seen from the American point of view, with vistas straight out of what most would comfortably call “middle America.”  That world is threatened by dust clouds that are filmed by Nolan and Hoyte Van Hoytema, his cinematographer, in a way that immediately invokes the horrifying images of Dust Bowl American from early in the 20th Century.

Cooper is stranded in that world (a world where children are taught that the Apollo missions were a lie), caring for his son and daughter, living with them and his father-in-law in a home that, when the dust storm hits, you almost imagine will be lifted off the ground in the same manner that we saw in “The Wizard of Oz.”  But even though he has made the best of his life as a farmer, we see early on that his remains thrilled by the notions of science, space travel and technology.  An early scene where he, Tom and Murphy chase an unmanned, long forgotten drone through the cornfields in their truck is thrilling, and sets the tone for a man and daughter who continue to want more out of life than the hand that the world has dealt them.

It’s tricky to write about the movie in great detail without spoiling some of its most wonderful developments.  Suffice to say that it turns out that NASA is still around, and that for years they have been working on a secret program to find a new home for those on Earth, in another galaxy.  A mysterious wormhole near Saturn is involved, which has conveniently appeared for reasons unknown.  And thus begins the great adventure of the film, as Cooper and his fellow astronauts head through the wormhole into a galaxy where they are forced to deal with realities of science such as time and relativity.

In embarking on the journey, Cooper must make the choice to leave his children at home.  And while he tells them upon departing that, given the vagaries of time and space, he may arrive back home to find all of them approximately the same age, it is crystal clear that he always intends to go home.  Like the character of Cobb in Nolan’s “Inception,” what Cooper wants to do more than anything else is get home to be with his children.  Which makes the moment when Cooper realizes, due to a foul-up on one of the planets the crew visits in order to test for livable conditions, that his kids have aged 23 years in the span of just seven minutes (from his point of view), all the more affecting.  Matthew McConaughey plays the moment in spectacular fashion, which comes as no surprise given the roll that he’s been on for the past three years.

There are many more surprises in store, including the appearance of an unbilled cast member that had me saying “Oh my God” under my breath, and like “Inception” the way back home is fraught with peril and what amounts to a labyrinth maze that I’m still not sure I entirely understand.  But like “Inception,” I suspect that “Interstellar” is a film that will become clearer – and more powerful – upon multiple viewings.

McConaughey is joined in the cast by Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Nolan-regular Michael Caine, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, David Gyasi and Bill Irwin, among others.  There is no weak link, but special kudos are due to the young actors who play Cooper’s children as young children: Timothee Chalamet as Tom, and especially Mackenzie Foy as Murphy.

The relationship between Cooper and Murphy is the movie’s heart and soul, and that (plus the relationship’s inextricable link with the overall theme of exploration and wonder) is never made clearer than in this early exchange:

Murphy: Dad, why did you and mom name me after something that’s bad?

Cooper: Well, we didn’t.

Murphy: Murphy’s law?

Cooper: Murphy’s law doesn’t mean that something bad will happen.  It means that whatever can happen, will happen.

You could probably say the same thing about a Christopher Nolan film.  And “Interstellar” is a great one.

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