Thursday, April 23, 2015

At the Earth’s Core

At the Earth’s Core (1976)
Dir. Kevin Connor
Written by Milton Subotsky, from the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Starring Doug McClure, Peter Cushing, Caroline Monroe, Sy Grant

AT THE EARTH’S CORE is an amiable little fantasy film from Amicus, adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulpy adventure into a colorful, jaunty 89 minutes of fur loincloths and big rubber monsters. It may not be the smartest film of all time, but it has brains enough to embrace its inherent silliness and move along to the next dinosaur fight before you’ve got time to stop and think too much about what just happened. There’s honor in that. I respect it.

Basically, the premise is this: Victorian scientist Dr. Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) and his hunky American financier David Innes (Doug McClure, inspiration for The Simpsons' inimitable thespian Troy) take a test run in their gigantic tunnelling drillship which goes a little off-course, and they end up inside (or, to be more accurate, in the general vicinity of) the Earth’s Core. You would think this would make for a fairly short, grim film with a smokey finale, but it turns out that the Earth’s Core is different than you might expect, there is quite a bit of ambiguously sourced light there, for example. Also way more trees and people living there than you might imagine. And, oh, also telepathic dinosaurs with a mind-controlled army of lizard men to enforce their brutal law and worship them in some kind of primitive death cult. That’s the kind of thing you just never see coming.

Before long, of course, our intrepid heroes are running away from aggressive British kaijus, getting involved in local politics, meeting sexy cave women, the whole deal. Pretty standard stuff, but they make up for it with charm. McClure’s got a likeable earthiness as a cigar-chomping, sleeveless lug, he sort of reminds me of Lon Chaney Jr.’s luckless schlub from THE WOLFMAN (minus all the howling). But it’s Cushing that carries the day, hamming it up like I’ve never seen him as the indefatigable gentlemanly kook. He’s got a few legitimately funny lines (“You can’t mesmerize me, I’m British!”) and it’s just a hoot to see him go so over-the-top, accurately reflecting the primary-colored exaggeration of the world around him.

The world itself is pretty fun, too. OK, so the effects are not on quite on par with the next film Cushing did (look it up), but there’s a ton of cool detail work and a whole menagerie of endearing rubber monsters, mostly of the man-in-suit variety. Surprisingly effective and sophisticated sound work also really helps pull you into this world and make it seem like an immersive experience, even if it’s never a remotely believable one (not that it really intends to be, anyway). As cheesy as it all looks, they really went above and beyond to build a ton of weird and ridiculous creatures and effects, I mean its not exaggeration to say that basically every ten minutes there’s a new and unique giant monster for you to chuckle at. Henry Levin’s 1959 JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH,* a pretty close parallel, has a much more lavish production (and three times the budget, two decades earlier) but a much more limited imagination. Who cares about your lousy journey to the center of the Earth if all that’s down there are giant iguanas and big mushrooms? AT THE EARTH’S CORE says fuck that, check out this giant exploding fire-breathing frog right here. Clearly a better return on your investment.

That’s basically it, but man, if you want more in your life than legions of giant rubber monsters, Peter Cushing mugging, furry loincloths and evil dinosaur cults, well, I doubt you will ever know true happiness. It is kind of funny to think a movie this unabashedly corny and old-fashioned came out in fucking 1976. I mean, it could have been in theaters with ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 or HELTER SKELTER or THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. But that’s OK, there’s something kind of adorable about how effusively unashamed they are about this cornball premise, and how excited they are to deliver the goods. Oh, and there’s a black caveman guy here (activist and singer Sy Grant as “Ra”) who ends up getting treated with a surprising amount of dignity, pretty much as an equal partner for McClure! Granted, this was a more impressive sidenote when I first watched the movie and assumed it was from the late 50’s instead of 1976, but oh well, hooray for not being as racist as I assumed it was going to be! The women don’t get quite the same courtesy, but oh well, baby steps. Hopefully at least they got to keep the fur bikinis.

*Based on the Jules Verne novel, it stars James Mason and Pat Boone as two proud, kilt-wearing bagpipe-playing Scotsmen, and doesn’t seem to see any problem with that.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Nolan and Interstellar: The Burden of Themes

Interstellar (2014)
Dir. Christopher Nolan
Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, (one other person) and…. Topher Grace?


There’s a moment in one of my favorite movies of last year, WHIPLASH, where the maniacally driven jazz music teacher played by J. Jonah Jameson explains why he’s so unfailingly brutal to his students: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” What he means, of course, is that true greatness comes only through a constant, painful struggle to improve, and that the minute you slow that restless, relentless push and settle for merely being good, you’ll never be as great as you might had been if you has pushed on, tortured yourself practicing that one extra hour, spent one more night reworking that paragraph in your review of THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR, whatever.

There’s a truth to that, of course. True greatness is probably unattainable without true madness to accompany it, a pathological single-mindedness to refuse to accept the standards that everyone else has for success, an almost frightening need to go beyond, to break through to something else that no one could have imagined before. We might call that drive ambition. But here’s the problem: talent and ambition are not the same thing as greatness. You can start out talented, you can hone your talent, sharpen it, get better and better, but even J. Jonah Jameson had to admit that despite years of viciously pushing students to work harder, he never found one who was truly great. You can’t train yourself to be great. That’s something that can only arise from some accidental alchemy of fate and madness that unites talent with genius --that discrete and unique spark that engenders true originality, true vision-- at the right time and place. I’m sure Shakespeare worked real hard on his writing, but he was also an actor and also died at 52, and I’m gonna go ahead and guess he was getting laid pretty much on the regs, too. Not a lot of time for honing craft. I can almost guarantee that Stephen King has spent more time actually practicing writing than Shakespeare ever did, but no matter how good he gets he’ll never write a line like, “Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player (to paraphrase, yadda yadda yadda).” Blood, sweat and tears will take you a long way in art, but it can’t create something that isn’t there. There are a lot of highly intelligent, exceedingly hardworking physicists out there, but only one Einstein. Ultimately, for almost everyone, talent eventually bumps up against capacity. Mostly this is a fairly gentle end point, a gradual slowing of progress, an end to forward momentum but at a respectable and challenging high level. But sometimes, circumstances conspire to make this final collision of talent and capacity less a gradual slowing and more a full speed wreck directly into a brick wall. And when this happens, it’s inevitably because if there really are any two words more harmful than “good job,” they’ve got to be, “you’re a genius.”

Such is the unhappy circumstance of Christopher Nolan, the man who would be genius. The guy they finally ruined by convincing him that he wasn’t just talented, he was one of the greats. I mean, I feel for this poor guy, I really do. I’m gonna say some mean things about his movie here, but I really don’t think it’s entirely his fault. He has so many good qualities. Seriously, this is an enormously talented man: he makes sharp, extremely well-crafted movies which are often hugely entertaining, feature ridiculously gifted casts and consummately professional craftsmen behind the scenes. I appreciate his stark, crisp visuals and his ability to construct (and, especially, edit) simply riveting suspense sequences. And his writing (with brother Jonathan) is nothing to sneeze at either; the screenplays often boast some legitimately witty, tightly structured dialogue, which in the mouths of the talented casts he assembles can be a joy to hear.  

hold on guys I got to text my bff

But there have always been problems. His remake of INSOMNIA was the first time I noticed that while his movies look nice, his coldly vivid visual style and harsh editing don’t always lend themselves very well to atmosphere and visual poetry. And then THE PRESTIGE, which features so many amazingly fun elements, was just narratively a disaster, full of outrageous and nonsensical plot elements that fall apart at even the slightest poke of consideration. That it expects us to take seriously a world where anyone can effortlessly find their exact double with a cursory survey of the local bars is the least of its problems: it’s also packed with nonsensical character development, major characters that seem to directionlessly fade in and out of relevance, and unearned cheap twists stacked so high they teeter and collapse into incoherence. It’s still so much fun that it works, but it should have been a red flag of what was to come.

And then BATMAN happened. And the nerds on the internet who had previously been forced to deal with the indignity of their childhood obsessions being adapted to the screen more or less as they were actually presented in the comic books finally got the movie that validated their fiercely defended arrested development fixation on making things dark and gritty to prove that superheroes are serious and important. And the movies believe that. Oh, lordy, how they do believe that. Those movies were about something, god damn it. Something important. You know, issues. And just to be sure you didn’t miss them, they make sure to have several characters clearly state aloud what the issues are and describe explicitly how they’re resolved. Sure, they have a little embarrassing kiddie stuff with a guy in a bat suit but mostly they’re seriously for real grown up art about deep meaning. The fact that these “deep” themes were explicitly stated aloud in the movie only made their case stronger, because it meant they were impossible to miss. Millions of punishingly literal nerds deeply skeptical about the supposed subtext in The Scarlet Letter finally got a piece of art that they couldn’t help but understand, and they wanted to make sure that all the squares and naysayers understood just how brilliant it was.

Now, let’s be clear: I enjoy all three DARK KNIGHT movies; they all have obscenely gifted casts, engrossing and densely layered plots, and almost always a couple legitimately finely-crafted sequences (I consider the heist that opens THE DARK KNIGHT to be one of the finest and most exciting pieces of genre filmmaking of its decade). I think Nolan really is an immensely talented director, capable of doing some absolutely first-class work, particularly in crafting finely-honed and deftly-edited suspense scenarios. But from BATMAN BEGINS onward, it simply became increasingly impossible to ignore his obvious shortcomings: unfocused and overplotted narrative, over-literal visualizations, clumsy subtext, and a general desire to pile on as many ideas and gimmicks as possible without any serious interest in actually pursuing where they might lead or how they work in the overall structure of a movie. Which, hey, I wouldn’t necessarily even have a problem with, except that he’s so concerned about us taking them seriously that the the films almost seem apologetic when they’re forced to get down to the actual business of... being about superheros. You know, that thing they’re supposedly about. Ultimately, their ambition to be big and complicated and full of themes undercuts their actual functionality as effective stories.

Cut! Something about this just isn't feeling realistic enough. Anne, when you jump the motorcycle over the flying saucer while wearing your supergoggles, try and really draw on some real experience, I think the audience will respond to that authenticity.

I appreciate ambition, and moreover I think it should be obvious from my body of work here at this blog that I not only have the ability to appreciate ambitious failures, but I have a tolerance vastly higher than the average fellow. But ambition is ultimately a tool -- it’s only as good as the task you use it for. Ambition in service and pursuit of a goal is almost always going to impress me, even if that goal is not attained; ambition for its own sake, though, is something else again -- masturbatory, meaningless, self-referential. If it’s not in service of some actual artistic end, it tends to just sit there cluttering things up and impeding our view of any actual content, which is exactly what began happening to Nolan as people started hyping him more and more. And as we all distinctly recall from my epic bout with the MAN OF STEEL, success only seemed to exacerbate the problems to the point that no one could possibly miss them.

Or, so I thought. But the nerds run the world now, and they had their big serious gritty comic book movie and quickly made it one of IMDB’s top rated movies of all time.* And then people started to notice that not only were the movies about issues, but they had a distinct cinematic style, even one of those auteurial voices you always hear about. And they thought about other famous artists you could say those things about. And then they started doing the one thing that was absolutely certain to destroy the poor guy.

They started comparing him to Kubrick.

And that’s when that word “genius” started getting tossed around.

“Like Kubrick. ”No two words ever poisoned a career quite as much as that. Once people start throwing those words around, you’re finished: if you just make fun, well-crafted entertainment, they’ll be forever disappointed. But if you were going to make mind-blowing, boundary-pushing, culture-defining works of art, you would have done it already. What’s a guy to do?

It’s kind of unfair, really; it reminds me of that old Mitch Hedberg bit about how as soon you get to be a good stand-up comedian, everyone starts asking you to do other things “Alright, you’re a cook. Can you farm?” Here’s a guy that has made some real entertaining medium-concept genre movies, and suddenly just because he made a better Batman movie than Joel Schumacher, you want to tell him he’s not just a good director, he’s important. Nerds are a demanding lot. Nobody ever asked Willie Nelson to compose a baroque symphonic opera or compared him to Thelonious Monk -- they just accepted that he was already doing what he liked and was good at. And the fact that he didn’t write percussive dissonant improvisational jazz never seemed like a failing; it was just being honest about who he was and where he came from. But three self-serious but easy-to-understand Batman movies later, and this guy couldn’t just be good anymore -- he had to be the chosen one.

This is the hell that poor Nolan finds himself in. He’s a wonderful craftsman, capable of creating some real gripping cinema. But having toyed with the notion of real artistic ambition, there’s no going back now. He’s got to either produce a masterpiece or admit that he’s just an overhyped journeyman with above-average financial discipline and technical chops. Now what he has to prove has finally become more important than anything he actually has to say.


Thus, INTERSTELLAR. Perhaps the ultimate cinematic expression of the insecure triumph of ambition over actual ideas. This is the movie version of a Bruce Campbell Q-and-As where every single fucking neckbeard who ever watched EVIL DEAD 2 has to stand up and ask some inane question which has already been fully answered, and that question inevitably adopts the venerable form of the rambling personal anecdote. Why do they do this? Because the point is not to have a question answered, the point is to say something, to hear your own voice in the same room with the big guy

INTERSTELLAR is a movie which is desperate to say something big, something profound. It needs to, it only exists as a vehicle to be deep and impressive. I mean, it sure as fuck doesn’t exist for the story. But Nolan simply ain’t that profound a guy. And so the only thing he can think to do is to try and throw the kitchen sink at the problem, burying any direct view of the hollow center under a million busily working moving parts. While it can keep you distracted, it does manage to seem kind of epic: I mean, there’s that huge cast of great actors, there’s a raft of wordy hard sci-fi jibber jabber, an equally bloated compliment of soppy mawkish weepy melodrama, the future of humanity hangs in the balance, people are constantly quoting Dylan Thomas, like, all the time. There’s that massive runtime of 170 minutes, the majestic score by Hans Zimmer. There’s that 165 million bucks they spent. It’s big, no doubt. It’s just also almost totally empty of anything of more than a passing interest, and for the first time in Nolan’s career, he’s made a movie slow enough that it can’t keep you distracted from that fact all the way through. None of those parts add up to anything. They just sit there, furiously grinding away, trying to achieve greatness through sheer accumulated mass.

It doesn’t work.

allright allright allright

I’m gonna just say it: I thought a lot of this movie was straight up terrible, an absolutely embarrassing flailing of someone who’s been told they’re a genius to try and say something deep without really having the imagination to back it up. There are good things about it, of course, just as there are in every Nolan movie. There’s a handful of neat little ideas scattered around the mammoth runtime. More than a few pretty images. But not nearly enough to even remotely make up for its flaws. It’s a narrative disaster, a mess of half-sketched out characters with embarrassingly juvenile one-note motivations, or simply no motivation at all except what the plot requires in order to mechanically ape some kind of drama. It’s just so tortuously scripted, so desperate to be big and sweeping and emotional and be EPIC with all caps that it tangles itself up and never even remotely accomplishes any of those goals. Not a fucking second of this thing rings true on an emotional level, despite all the best efforts of the ridiculously talented cast. And of course not, because none of these plot points thinly disguised as characters have enough actual development for any of this to mean anything that Nolan doesn’t explicitly tell us it means.

Basically, the story is about a post-apocalyptic world wherein for some unspecified reason crops of all kinds are being affected by blight, making it increasingly impossible to grow the food mankind needs to survive. (Or anyway, it would have made it impossible before we knew about pathogens which cause blight and what to do about them. Since this isn’t 1630, it seems like with a little selective quarantine and grow-house know-how this whole problem could be easily solved, but what do I know, I’m not the genius here.) One of the last few crops which still grows for some reason is being grown by hunky single father Joseph “Coop” “Super Dooper” Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, FAILURE TO LAUNCH) who never misses an opportunity to whine that society is keeping him down by making him waste his time growing valuable food for mankind instead of being an astronaut. You might be tempted to feel a little sorry for him until an exquisitely absurd plot device directs him to NASA’s secret underground hideout, where they explain that the Earth is doomed and our only hope is to A) send a rag-tag group of scientists led by Bruce Willis Matthew McConaughey out into space to find a new blight-free planet for humanity to live on or B) Launch humanity into space in giant flying space stations (I’m not sure why they think either of these options will help with their blight situation, since I’m pretty sure humanity is still going to need food either way, but they seem pretty sure that these are the only two possibilities. One can’t help but wonder if the Department of Agriculture wouldn’t be a better place to spend the rest of Earth’s money, instead of building an interstellar spaceship. But again, I’m not the genius here).

Do not go gentle into that good acting.

Anyway, it’s a good thing that Cooper turns up, because even though these NASA eggheads (Michael Caine, THE HAND) just spent years building a massive spaceship, they realize at the last minute that they don’t have anyone to fly it, and ask if he’d be interested in the whole “saving humanity” gig. Having spent the entire movie up to this point whining that he never got to go into space and no one recognizes how awesome he is, McConaughey immediately declines because he doesn’t want to leave his kids behind on Earth. But when it’s pointed out that the kids are technically part of humanity and hence in the same general category as the group the mission is trying to save, he agrees. They’re in space about 18 seconds before he starts whining about how unfair it is that he’s now up in space and, due to the long distances and the issues of relativity, is totally going to miss a few birthday parties, a whining which will grow in intensity but not eloquence as the movie progresses for hour after painful hour. But his whining is nothing compared to his daughter Murphy’s Law Cooper,** who will gradually grow into a bitter adult Jessica Chastain (LAWLESS) who is, 30 years later, defined by the single, solitary personality trait of still being bitter at her father for leaving her to go and save all of mankind. That the movie expects this to be not just considered reasonable but sympathetic behavior should be as a good an indication as any about how familiar the Nolans are with actual human beings.

And oh, the fucking whining. Everyone in this movie is whining all the time. I think that’s the actual high concept sci-fi idea here: it’s not the blight, it’s that they’re trapped in a post-apocalyptic dystopia where mankind has been transformed into a bunch of whiny space weiners. When he’s on Earth, Coop can’t fucking stop whining about how he never got to go to space. As soon as he’s in space, he’s whining that this is taking too long and he wants to go home. Murph has exactly one emotion in the movie, and it’s petulantly whining that daddy left to save humanity. Crewmember Anne Hathaway (THE CAT RETURNS, English dub) whines they can’t take her on a booty run, one robot is always whining about the other one, a spoiler-y character they encounter later on delivers his whole role like a 6-year old who’s missed nap time. The only person who doesn’t constantly whine is Topher Grace, who seems as surprised to be there as we all are to see him turn up out of the blue in the last 20 minutes. (Side note: Is he Murph’s boyfriend or trusty manservant or something? When he’s introduced it seems like he’s just some doctor they met at the hospital, but then later he’s driving around with her taking orders, so… I don’t even really know what to make of that. Anyway, good job, Topher Grace, you manage to be less irritating than everyone else here by virtue of having even less character. But why he or anyone else can tolerate this adult woman in the midst of a 30-year-long temper tantrum at her daddy is even less explicable.)

Well, now that we've gotten out and walked around I can safely say this planet has too much water.

The subplot with Murphy on Earth is by far the movie’s most asinine, unless you want to count the tearful monologue Anne Hathaway delivers later on, an insane rambling rant about how love transcends dimensions which may be the single most embarrassing thing I’ve ever heard an A-list actor in a major movie attempt to make work. But although the rant does come up again I don’t think it qualifies as a subplot; it’s the movie’s most embarrassing moment, while Murphy retains the title of most embarrassing plot (no small feat, since there are about four movies worth of plots stuffed in here). This is the kind of movie where you have to distinguish such things in order to do the superlatives justice.

The Murphy subplot is worth suffering through, however, because ol’ Coop is totally devastated leaving her behind and constantly weeps and moans about wanting to get back to her. That’s not so funny in itself except that remember, he actually has two kids -- he has another adult son played by Casey Affleck who he openly does not give a single shit about, to the point that when his long journey is at its end, he doesn’t even ask about him. It’s so weird and out of line that it gradually becomes hilarious in an uncomfortable Tim and Eric sort of way, something you got to savor in a movie which is generally so dire. The movie inexplicably seems to share Coop’s disdain for the son, randomly turning him into a villain at the end with no explanation whatsoever except that Affleck has been consistently playing him like a serial killer all along for no apparent reason. I have no idea why this character is even here, because he serves no function even as a plot device; The Nolans give him literally zero character motivation (as opposed to the single character motivation it lavishes on Murph) making every action he takes a dada-esque exercise in baffling context-free abstraction.

Affleck’s not the only one who flounders here; despite an enviable cast, every one of these characters is just so ridiculously one-dimensional that the idea of ever actually being emotionally invested never even enters into it. Every character has --at most-- exactly one motivation that they relentlessly harp on and explicitly explain over and over and over. But it’s nothing that seems to arise naturally from their character or situation, it’s just the thing that Nolan needs them to do for there to be drama. You could probably excise every single emotional line in the movie and not really affect the main story at all. It feels so tediously calculated and grafted on that it barely seems worth it to even act it out, Nolan might as well just write it up in intertitles and save the cast the indignity of having to explain. The script needs to inelegantly spell the drama out because if they didn’t outright explain it, you’d have no possible way of ascertaining why everyone was crying all the time, since there’s not really any context for it. Of course, once you actually hear their problems, they’re so childish and ridiculous compared to the gravity of their situation that it lurches past drama into some rich, ripe camp.

Say, is that the fifth dimension I see? You know, love?

I could go on about all the ridiculous bullshit in here, for example how these scientists with years of their lives spent traveling to distant planets appear totally unable to imagine a method of determining if a planet is hospitable other than visiting it in person, or for another example that the movie ends up resolving with one of those tedious time travel paradoxes where in order for the movie to make any sense someone has to travel back in time and cause a bunch of plot devices, even though if they could actually affect the past it would make more sense to go back and just do everything differently instead of enabling the same course of events which went so poorly the first time. But whatever, in the end that’s just a bunch of nitpicking. When you find yourself nitpicking, you gotta admit that the problem isn’t really the nits you’re picking, the problem is that you’re noticing them instead of being invested in the story. If the movie was working, you wouldn’t be bothered by them because you’d be having fun. INTERSTELLAR certainly doesn’t make substantially less sense than those goofy giallos I loves so much, but those repay the suspension of disbelief with a lot more cheap thrills. I’m happy to tolerate a generous dose of ridiculousness in exchange for a fun time at the movies. Or even an interesting one. Unfortunately that’s where this whole thing really falls apart. I’ve liked and even loved movies which failed much more spectacularly on more levels than this one does; the difference is that INTERSTELLAR --by design-- bets it all on its ability to blow your mind, and that, alas, is the area it fails the most dispiritingly.

The problem is that the Nolan Brothers’ usual weakness for dialogue that spells out their intended themes finally reaches what I can only assume will be its zenith here, by fully and unabashedly divesting from the actual content of the movie it’s supposedly in. As wise old sage Mr. Majestyk pointed out in his infamous review of THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan’s achilles heel is that he doesn’t trust the tools of cinema to communicate ideas. He obsessively tells, when he should just show. That’s bad enough cinematic etiquette in itself, but the heart of the problem with INTERSTELLAR isn’t just shoddy storytelling, it’s that the things we’re told seem to inexplicably clash with the things we’re actually seeing, totally undercutting any possibility of the experience having much impact.

We’re told that humanity is on its last leg, that people are starving and crops failing. But all we actually see is an apparently happy --even kinda nostalgic-- agrarian community which by all appearances seems to still be functioning pretty well decades after Coop leaves Earth. We’re told that Anne Hathaway is in love with this one dude to the point where she’s ready to endanger the mission (and hence all of humanity) to be with him, but we never see this person or learn anything about their relationship or what it means to her. We’re told that a certain character is supposed to be a beloved genius, but we only see him acting childish and idiotic. The score and the visuals tell us that we should be filled with awe at the sci-fi spectacle we’re experiencing, yet the characters are all whining constantly about how unfair it is they have to go on this mind-bending space voyage and get more annoyed with each new place they encounter. We’re told that Murph and Michael Caine (regrettably afflicted with some kind of unusual tourette syndrome that makes him spontaneously recite the first lines from Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night every few minutes) are working to save the human race with science, but although we see them standing in front of chalkboards with numbers on them, we never see them actively working towards that goal (and in fact, are later told that, spoiler, one of them was actually not working towards that goal, and was in fact just fucking around wasting time. I knew you should have checked his showboating Globetrotter algebra!).

Most damningly of all, we’re told a bunch of self-conscious hard sci-fi trivia,*** but the film’s central conflict is resolved with a bunch of deus ex machina magic (if you’re going to say “5 dimensional superbeings saved them!” you might as well just say “Elves saved them!” it amounts to the same thing.) If there’s one thing the movie seems to unambiguously want to be, it’s serious hard sci-fi science porn; it was written with physicist Kip Thorne, who wrote a book about the science behind the screenplay and did cutting-edge mathematical calculations to make sure the time dilation was accurate, for crissakes! But then the message ends up being that the fifth element is love! For a movie with so much obsessive focus on science, it ends up being surprisingly anti-scientific: science utterly and definitively fails, and only paternal love (daughter variety only) and ultradimensional superbeings are able to save mankind! If that’s not a perfect symbol for how blatantly the Nolan bros undermines their own apparent intentions, I don’t know what is.

Going hole hog.

Bottom line: It’s a movie where the script and the direction often seem at odds with each other, sometimes running parallel and other times simply heading in opposite directions, but almost never on the same page. Fittingly, the few times when the movie does work are the ones with no dialogue. Coop’s wordless devastation upon viewing a cache of videos from his kids is the only emotional beat in the entire film which feels legitimate, even if its a bit unearned. There’s a mostly dialogue-free action sequence where Coop gets to put his piloting skills to use on an out-of-control spaceship which conjures some fitful but genuine suspense. When the crew can shut up and stop whining for a few minutes, Nolan’s practical effects can look quite stunning (in particular the rendering of a wormhole as a distorted sphere) though I must admit I have no idea how they spent 165 million bucks on a movie which looks about comparable to SILENT RUNNING (which is to say, good, but come on). And the austere majesty of the mostly real-world planetscapes is breathtaking (though, of course, since they’re actually filmed on this planet, we saw them already in that Planet Earth series, and they looked better there) until the movie remembers to return to the tedious personal drama happening there. It’s funny, because it’s obvious that these details are both where Nolan’s talents and his interests lie, and yet the movie indulges in these actual strengths only rarely, and apologetically insists on following them up with a bunch of chatty bullshit. As soon as it starts having fun, it has to collect itself and remember that it’s a very important movie quite above anything so callow as entertainment. It’s frustrating, because the movie so plainly comes to life in these scattered moment (in a way which it doesn’t for all the silly blather about love being the fifth dimensions) that it quickly becomes apparent that Nolan isn’t interested in the claptrap any more than we are, he’d rather just tell an awesome space story with a bunch of cool sci-fi gimmicks. But alas, that albatross of labels --Kubrick, genius, visionary-- has bullied him into believing that he needs to clutter things up with a bunch of faux-intellectual dramatic bullshit that he doesn’t care about and the movie doesn’t need, or else we won’t take him serious.

Obviously, there are things I liked here**** and even in the face of pretty weak results, you do sort of have to appreciate what Nolan was shooting for. How many other directors could get these resources together for a talky, science-porn 170 minute behemoth that isn’t even based on a comic book or something? (It was the only film in 2014 to crack 100 mil without being a sequel, remake, or adaptation, how’s that for a truly disheartening statistic?) I sort of gave Nolan a pass on his last effort just for that reason; you don’t get silly melodrama this scale very often, and I thought it was just barely effective enough to work as an interesting cultural novelty. But he can’t pull off the same trick this time, there’s simply not enough going on here to draw you into its world and coast on pure spectacle, nor does the drama prove anywhere close to engrossing enough to pass the time. And really, it secretly doesn’t care about those things anyways. The movie is here with the single minded purpose of impressing you and blowing your mind, but it just plain doesn’t have the goods to accomplish that goal. A light smattering of science-porn doesn’t add up to depth. And absent any mind-blowing, there turns out to be surprisingly little movie here, despite all the money and superficial busyness of the plot.

You've just taken your first step... into a larger world. No, literally this time.

Ultimately, its ambition is its undoing, sabotaging any good instincts in rabid pursuit of an utterly unearned sense of self-importance. This is a movie so desperately fearful you won’t take it seriously that it’s willing to do something as hilariously cumbersome as to NAME one of its female characters “Murphy’s Law”, just so that there won’t ever be a single second of the movie where you’re not achingly aware that it’s about ideas and stuff. But just plopping ideas down and writing a thin framework of plot around them turns out not to be enough; ideas are important, but cinema is a many-splendored thing -its about ideas, about story, about sound, about visuals, about timing, about the strange alchemical mixture of all these things. If you neglect any of those aspects, you’re really going to have to exceed in the others to balance it out, and INTERSTELLAR, despite some cursory gestures, is simply too in love with its own sense of importance to do that. For every bit of genuinely nifty sci-fi, there’s at least an equal helping of pompous overwrought lecturing which, like a black hole, quickly collapses under its own oleaginous mass and starts shrinking. Like the guy at the party who’s lived somewhere unusual, it might actually be genuinely interesting if it wasn’t so in love with the sound of its own voice that it gradually becomes first a chore, and then an irritation.

I don’t think Nolan is a genius, but he clearly has the goods to deliver top-quality cinema when properly motivated, so its a shame that the hype has done this to him. And hell, even true geniuses make mistakes; look at all the Nobel Prize winners who went on to promote embarrassing and insane ideas in fields they didn’t really understand properly. The wisest among smart people understand their limitations, as well as their strengths. There’s probably a good reason you never saw Kubrick directing a BATMAN movie: he wasn’t interested in it, and wouldn’t have been well-suited for it. And that’s OK. If Nolan has anything to learn from Kubrick, it’s probably this lesson: embrace what you’re good at, and make it fiercely your own. Real genius isn’t about being all things to all people; it’s finding a unique voice which is bolstered by your own talents. Alas, it seems like Nolan drifts further away from from this concept with every film. It wouldn’t take an interstellar odyssey to put him back on the right path, but given his recent inclination to believe every molehill needs to be a mountain, I’m not especially inclined to believe it’ll be a simple journey. In a career, as well as in a movie, sometimes it’s easy to forget that the simple and effective can be a lot more impactful than the epic and grandiose. If he can get back to that, I for one think the most constructive thing you could possibly say would be, “good job.”

And yes, I’m well aware of the irony of using 5,500 words to make that point. In space, no one can hear you read. The end.

* Currently #4, right behind SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and the two GODFATHERS, and dozens of places higher than a single Chaplin, Hitchcock, Wells or Kubrick film, let alone an Ozu or Fellini or something.

** Yes, really. Or maybe it’s just “Murphy,” I don’t think they specify her middle name, but I think it’s safe to assume.

*** My favorite being the now hilariously-familiar explanation of a wormhole via a folded piece of paper; its funny enough that two NASA scientists have to have this conversation as if it’s the first time one of them was hearing about it, but its even better because its almost an exact replica of the scene from EVENT HORIZON where Sam Neill does the same thing with a porno mag. Probably not the comparison Nolan was looking for.

**** Biggest pleasant surprise: I like the two black rectangular (ha! get it? it’s like 2001!) robots. They get all the best lines, and actually get to be funny most of the movie, something of an overlooked talent of the Nolan bros.

Hey guys, just a thought, uh, it suddenly occurs to me that going to another planet has nothing to do with fixing crop blights. So... yeah.