Sunday, April 12, 2015

Thematic Wanderings: Interstellar (2014)

Few major studio filmmakers require viewers to unpack with a vengeance quite like Christopher Nolan.

As far back as Following(1998), it has been imperative that those who are witnesses to the stories he shares, make a more concerted effort than usual to ruminate and discuss what they have just witnessed. And while scrutiny often poses the occasional question of logic, it's always good to remember the goal, and not so much how the shooter made it. Especially considering the narrative gymnastics that a Nolan film often requires of his audience. Even when he and brother Jonathan do their damndest to paint in broad strokes, they are often in the service of inviting others to play more complex thematic games than many are accustomed to. It isn't always successful, but it never ceases to be ambitious. And this is why I suppose I keep going back to his works. They often work like puzzles, or very dense books just shotgunned into our brains over the course of several hours, only to leave us dizzy with the hows, when our eyes should be more poised toward the why.

So when audiences found themselves a little colder than usual (for Nolan films) with his latest, it became a little more crucial for me to mine it once home video became an option. In my review, I came after the film for failing to better deliver a successful dramatic punch than it seemed to so badly want. With a film that features Matthew McCounaghey at his most earnest as a most vulnerable hero, the performance feels at times hindered by the at-times daunting balancing act between working within hard science and the surprisingly warm proposal at the heart of the film. The balance doesn't always work in its favor, especially in the last hour. And yet, there is something happening here that for me, made the finale dovetail in ways that it really shouldn't have in other hands.

In the first reel, while we are given a hard-pedaled peek into the film's worries by way of envisioning a humanity that has become so panicked by the global blight, that they frown upon our history of space travel, as well as nurturing such interests. While it is a forced sentiment, it is a potent shorthand for a world that has turned its back on risky solutions in the name of maintaining all that remains on the ground. And this is a trend that is echoed throughout the film. This is also displayed largely later in the film when Cooper's grown son refuses to leave the farm despite the impending death of another child due to ever more desperate air quality. A reminder that we are often incapable of letting go of the present, no matter how bad it may look from a macro perspective.

The film even opens with Cooper and his kids, chasing a lost Indian drone that eventually downs itself.

Upon examining the abandoned machine, this exchange occurs:


                                                  What are you going to do with it?

                                 I'm going to give it something socially responsible to do.


                                       Can't we just let it go? It's not harming anyone.


                        This thing needs to learn how to adapt, Murph. Like the rest of us.

Right from the start, the philosophical divide between Cooper and Murph becomes the prime vessel for the film's main conflict. It's always important to keep in mind that the best premises are often stand-ins for more human dilemma, and in the case of Interstellar, it is largely focused on our will to understand others in a life trajectory that has largely been that of utility. It's complicated even further when in the face of shared undertaking, everyone has their own reasons to invest in changing the course of fate. When young Murph sees the fork in the road between her and her father, naturally she sees his leaving as something of a betrayal. With the linkage of her "ghost" further ingraining these feelings, which eventually must be reconciled with as light years separate them.

Taking humanity's last chance for salvation into the hands of a select group of scientists on a secret deep space mission to find a possible new home, already offers up a glimpse into the film's bigger concerns. Revelations are established early that the now-thought defunct NASA had at one point been asked to drop bombs onto thousands of poor and starving as blight overtook much of the planet. This was an answer until the government took to heart Dr. Brand, Sr.'s alternate plan based upon the discovery of a newly placed wormhole just outside of Saturn. A clandestine journey of several scientists through the hole, only to discover several potential planets for possible human inhabitation. This follow-up to the Lazarus Mission, with its implications of a newly risen humanity, turns out to largely be a terrifying bait and switch. Simply because its authors saw the human race as largely incapable of grasping the reality that despite the proposal of two plans, B was the only viable option. (Plan B, involving fertilized human embryos encased in a "population bomb"- as what remains of the human race dies out on Earth.) Upon reaching these planets, it becomes horrifically clear that chances of our kind to find a truly hospitable home for the rest of us, seems near to impossible. Giving truth to the hidden revelation that quite often in realms of discovery, the truth of any major undertaking is often engraved with caveats to human sentiment, rather than overtures to actual faith between beings.

So what ensues between the prospective planets, is a discussion regarding our inability to trust others with harsh truths, and what the heart has longed for since the first true human connection. These diverging aims are further illustrated by way of two vital scenes around the film's midpoint, when Brand Jr. (Anne Hathaway) admits to preferring to travel to the furthest planet because of her feelings for the Lazarus scientist, Edmunds, who she admits to being in love with.  In no uncertain (and perhaps far too blunt) terms, she defends her irrational feelings of loss and worry over one person overrides a more convenient stop at the Mann planet, which is much closer on the Endurance trajectory. The other scene follows her choice being overruled, and upon meeting the long admired pioneer, Mann, who confirms the terrible truth about the mission. The mission being based largely upon a lie in order to instill a sense of hope for the people of Earth, and in turn, to convince Cooper to leave the earthly nest in hopes of saving his family. The exploitation of human sentiment being the ultimate gambit for success.

So to take in the film's view of discovery under pressure, can be a distressing one to say the least. But it does feel far more honest than films of this scale tend to display. Such lies, and action under assumption has pretty much been a fundamental part of our culture for as long as a more masculine dominator society has been a primary axiom to live by. It is also not an accident, that the film sees the women of the film (most notably Murph & Brand Jr.) as misunderstood fibers in a larger societal fabric. Perhaps something that has been neglected to the point that it has come to a near complete apocalypse as a result. Rendering much of Interstellar to be a challenge to humanity, A pivot point where not only cooperation is required to avert disaster, but to consider the possibility that human empathy is indeed something science and rigor has yet to crack. The gap of faithlessness that often permeates any culture bereft of any clear answers. It's far easier for us to disqualify that which we do not understand, rather than see another viable equation worth exploring.

And while to some, this and the film's ultimate revelation may seem trite. But there is certainly something to ruminate upon as so many discoveries of the last several decades have begun to pierce the unseen with explorations of the quantum, and an unerring quest to understand what many once saw as mere abstractions not to long ago. And while Cooper's voyage indeed brings him face to face with his own assumptions about love and discovery, there is again an overture to faith in those closest to us  and beyond to continue the voyage. To be transparent in the face of adversity. And to allow for community based upon more balanced, pluralistic principles. Which has possibly been what we were always meant to be heading toward, but neglecting for generations too many.  

And while many can continue to debate over whether or not Nolan and company were successful in their shared mission, the notions explored in this film remain worthy of discussion. It remains an ambitious, grand, and humanly flawed dive into what our current and future concerns have been. It paints a painful, yet hopeful picture of what it is we are, and what we could be, no matter the legacy we have long worn on our shoulders - and that's worth talking about.

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