Interstellar (2014)

Christopher Nolan’s big space epic tries to fly too close to the sun and fails to live up to expectations.

InterstellarUSA
3*

Director:
Christopher Nolan

Screenwriters:
Jonathan Nolan
Christopher Nolan
Director of Photography:
Hoyte van Hoytema

Running time: 170 minutes

Interstellar takes us farther than we’ve ever been before, but it doesn’t take the medium of film quite as far as this production’s marketing department would like to have us believe. Director Christopher Nolan breaks through the final frontier – not space, but time – and delivers a product that has a couple of moments of genius but is bloated and saddled with too much dialogue, not to mention a family drama right out of a freshman course on Steven Spielberg.

The film opens with an image we don’t yet understand: a close-up of a row of dusty book spines. This is followed by interviews with a few elderly individuals reminiscing about their childhood on farms, and then we get to see one of them: a corn field stretching as far as the eye can see. Perhaps this is a sly wink at Superman’s early years on the Kent family farm in Smallville (an indication that great things lie ahead), but there are no firm geographical markers. That doesn’t matter, anyway, because the film has its sights set much farther afield than the United States.

Primarily a science-fiction film preoccupied with stars, planets, worm and black holes, Interstellar is built on the very credible premise that, one day in the near future, the Earth runs dry, for reasons not explicitly stated, and mankind has to start looking elsewhere for its continued survival. With the help of his scientifically curious daughter, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an engineer who is making a living as a farmer, locates the headquarters of NASA, which ceased operations a long time ago because the country no longer saw the need to invest in science and space exploration.

The agency asks him to go into space and find a suitable planet whither humanity can be transported or where he could restart civilisation with a few hundred fertilised eggs. He gamely takes up the challenge and is accompanied on the journey by Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of his former science teacher, while his own daughter throws a hissy fit because she cannot see the bigger picture and believes her father is abandoning her.

Compare this girl’s tantrums with the quiet determination of the budding scientist in Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 hit Contact, which incidentally also starred McConaughey, and it quickly becomes clear how little experience Nolan has directing children. The dialogue in general is also either overly explanatory or superfluous. In one scene, Cooper is told that the last thing people see before they die is their children’s faces, because it gives them a reason to hold on to life, and Nolan wastes no time in getting to us that point: Within five minutes, we have the scene we visualised just moments earlier, and the director doesn’t realise it would have been infinitely more powerful without the setup.

In one of its most effective tactics to speak to our emotions, Interstellar creates a time bomb: The exploration of space has to occur within a specific amount of time, lest Cooper never sees his children again because they would have aged too much. Here, at least, Nolan deploys the different time worlds of his film to great effect by adding a very human dimension to which the viewer can relate. However, why only one of Cooper’s children, and not both, is prioritised will leave many a viewer puzzled, especially when the daughter, Murphy, only has one bag of emotions.

What has been a major topic of discussion has been the film’s imagery, in particular the way in which a black hole is rendered, and Nolan and director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema certainly deserve kudos for their work in this regard. More than one-third of the film was shot on IMAX cameras, and when displayed on an IMAX screen, the size of the frame changes between widescreen (2.40:1) and IMAX’s full-screen (1.43:1) aspect ratios.

Following the example of his imaginative 2010 film Inception, Nolan continues to make visible his fascination with spherical images, as we see here in the worm hole scene and another interesting construction towards the end of the film. However, Nolan’s vision of space is melancholic, and we get nothing that can be compared to the beauty of a 2001: A Space Odyssey Stargate sequence.

On the contrary, the planets the crew finds are desolate, uninhabitable, inhospitable wastelands of nothingness, and it would be up to mankind to make these places home. That is a surprisingly arrogant perspective, but one to which the film constantly returns. If there is any beauty in space, we cannot see it, because Nolan keeps hitting us over the head with talk of man’s indomitable spirit to survive and to explore and to thrive wherever he goes or whatever he faces. This is all mighty close to humanist propaganda.

Furthermore, the story makes some enormous, unexplained jumps across narrative chasms. When Murphy spots tiny dunes on the floorboards in her room after a sandstorm, her father goes to work and finds the sequence corresponds to numbers in code. He somehow immediately realises the numbers refer to latitude and longitude coordinates, and he sets off to the mysterious location. How he makes this deduction, and with such certainty, especially after he had rejected Murphy’s apparently airy-fairy belief that there is a ghost in her room, is completely ignored by the screenplay.

Hans Zimmer’s score relies heavily on the sounds made by the organ, and at times the music is visceral and moving as it conveys a spiritual dimension equal to the grandeur and the mystery of the night sky. However, the silence that was so useful to Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is often missing from or spoiled by Interstellar, and at one point Nolan makes the unforgivable mistake of invasively adding some of McConaughey’s dialogue to an otherwise deadly silent shot of the outside of his module floating in outer space.

A particularly annoying aspect of the heavy talk that permeates the film is on full display in a scene in which Dr. Brand gushes about the need for love, as a way of exonerating herself and explaining her selfish decision to pursue a less scientific approach to the mission, which may very well lead to the deaths of her entire crew. This scene is absolutely cringeworthy, even though Nolan is using it to anticipate and perhaps even justify Cooper’s own behaviour in the last act.

Interstellar is no Gravity, and it doesn’t come close to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening interviews remove all suspense from the story by implying it all ends well, and the soppy, uninvolving family angle damages our ability to empathise fully with all the main characters. This may very well be a novel perspective on our place in the universe and our shared ability to survive no matter what, but just because Nolan can literally bend light to suit his needs does not mean his work is done.

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2012)

The famed science-fiction franchise is firmly on track to having a long life full of prosperity under the direction of J.J. Abrams.

star-trek-2012USA
4*

Director:
J.J. Abrams

Screenwriters:
Roberto Orci

Alex Kurtzman
Damon Lindelof
Director of Photography:
Dan Mindel

Running time: 130 minutes

Although the freshness of the Star Trek reboot may have worn off a little, its second instalment, titled Star Trek Into Darkness, is every bit as majestic and engaging as the first one that was released in 2009.

Only two films in, director J.J. Abrams has our complete confidence he has brought the franchise back from near-oblivion with films that invigorate the viewer and may even shape a new generation of fans seeking to travel to distant lands scattered among the galaxies. Abrams’s risky decision to include a few bouts of sentimentality is handled with extreme care and pays off in the end, proving this director is strong where it counts.

The major character arc involves the spontaneous, sometimes rebellious, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), who showed his mettle in the first film, despite his rivalry with Spock (Zachary Quinto), the most intelligent officer on the ship and the one with whom he clashed with most often.

In the opening moments, Kirk and Spock are outrunning primitive beings on the planet Nibiru before Spock is catapulted into a volcano that threatens to destroy the entire civilisation before it has even had a chance to develop. Although their presence is mostly unexplained, except for a suggestion they had an urge to save the planet, even though there was no vested interested in taking such dangerous action, this sequence is important because it establishes Kirk’s nascent feelings of friendship for Spock. Flaunting Starfleet regulations and potentially altering the course of history, he reveals the ship to the spear-wielding populace in order to save Spock from certain death.

It is an act the pointy-eared Vulcan doesn’t quite grasp, but by the end of the film his half-human heart will have come round, and we will realise how much the two opposites have shaped each other’s behaviour. Abrams walks a very treacherous road by reminding us of Spock’s loss of his mother and his entire planet in the previous film and Kirk’s loss of his father. At times, it seems like the film is headed straight for primal territory where passionate reactions are only possible when the past is dug up, but luckily the characters are complex enough for us to assume these past incidents are part of their makeup and do not dominate their actions.

But Kirk’s proclivity for adventure leads him into a sticky situation at the heart of the film, which involves one of the series’s most notorious figures: the genetically enhanced Khan Singh, also known as John Harrison. That Khan is played by the pale Benedict Cumberbatch may come as a shock to Trekkies, but the actor’s depiction of the ominous character, whose intellect rivals that of Spock and whose cells have the ability to regenerate at warp speed, is effective because he is soft-spoken but firm, very persuasive and ultimately terrifyingly cold-blooded.

If you are a diehard Star Trek fan, you may relish the opportunity to practise your Klingon, as this is the first time the language of this warrior race appears in the new series. The relatively short scene features expert “xenolinguist” Uhura (a constantly weepy and emotional Zoe Saldana, whose character is the weakest in an otherwise very strong cast) producing the guttural language during negotiations with jittery fighters.

The storyline isn’t as clear as it was in the first film, and it does not generate the same kind of awe at the magnitude of space travel until the very last scene, but much of the interest lies in the development and exploration of personality, as even a relatively small character like Lieutenant Sulu (John Cho) is given room to grow in a visible, memorable and satisfying way.

Into Darkness is by no means a film that can only be appreciated by the Trekkies, but it ought to offer committed fans of the franchise a smooth viewing experience as well. It is popcorn science-fiction entertainment writ large that focuses on human stories (or human feelings, as in the case of Spock, who still pines for the planet he lost in the previous film) rather than grand ideas or scientific minutiae. Michael Giacchino’s sweeping pieces for orchestra, sometimes boosted by a choir, accompany large sections of the film in a rousing way.

We will have to wait until the next instalment to assess whether Abrams can break the curse of the “bad odd-numbered Star Trek film”, as he did with his 2009 motion picture, but for now, the voyages of the USS Enterprise and its crew will continue to enthrall even the sceptics of science fiction.

Her (2013)

Romantic drama inside a colourful science-fiction framework puts its finger on the reasons why people stay together and/or grow apart.

her-spike-jonzeUSA
4.5*

Director:
Spike Jonze

Screenwriter:
Spike Jonze

Director of Photography:
Hoyte van Hoytema

Running time: 125 minutes

It can be a constant battle for those in a relationship to remain together even as the two individuals grow in their own direction. Whatever sparked that initial euphoria may soon become nothing but a memory of two people meeting each other at a point in their lives that now seems vastly different from where they find themselves today.

This is but one very astute insight from Spike Jonze’s romantic drama Her, one of the most perceptive films about people and relationships since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry’s work of art that perfectly welded intelligence, emotion and comedy back in 2004. Her is similarly accomplished, as it takes a situation where a happy ending appears to be inherently impossible and makes us experience not just the emotional but also the intellectual fluctuations of its evolution by plumbing the depths of the human soul.

Set in a Los Angeles of the near future, the film examines the consequences of a decision made by the recently separated Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) to upgrade to a new operating system. Like most people, his current OS is functional but rather impersonal, and his physical and emotional isolation, along with the late-night porn, indicate that he needs more intimate interaction in his life.

The new OS, which he speaks to and which speaks back to him in a way that is cosy and understanding and with a sense of humour, has a name, and even though it doesn’t have a body, it resembles a person in most other ways. It is “Samantha”.

One of the best casting choices for this film was the voice of Samantha. It is important that we can visualise her, and that many in the audience will feel an attraction to her. The moment she starts speaking, we know it is Scarlett Johansson, and we can “see” her just as well as Theodore thinks he knows her.

In no time, it becomes obvious that this is not just going to be an OS to read back Theodore’s e-mails and proofread his online documents, but that Samantha will be an operating system for his soul – one that fills the void that was created when his wife left him. From the very first moment, we know Theodore will fall in love with Samantha. We also know that a relationship that is purely virtual, in which the couple can’t touch each other or be touched by a facial expression, is unlikely to last very long.

And yet, Her goes about its subject with the utmost understanding for why people come together, stay together or grow apart. It doesn’t frighten us with unnecessary drama, as it could so easily have done by transforming Samantha into a hysterical, mayhem-spreading virus that blackmails him to satisfy her own needs. On the contrary, Samantha remains a mostly level-headed being that is aware of its own development and is unsure how to handle the impact of change on a relationship she obviously cares about.

But while she has the world’s knowledge at the tips of her cables, she doesn’t have the same experience as Theodore when it comes to actual social interaction. No relationship is easy, but when you are used to interacting with a physical person and now you suddenly switch gears and expect the other person’s voice and intellect alone to keep the two of you together, it is going to be particularly tough. “What’s it like to be alive?” Samantha asks him.

Interestingly, as if to make herself believe that she is as real as Theodore, Samantha often uses the word “actually” in her speech. She is an artificially intelligent organism that can use its interactions and experiences to develop and adapt, and she is obviously unlike anyone Theodore has ever dated before, but the relationship can only grow to a certain point before her invisibility becomes a serious obstacle. Her artificial origins also raise questions such as whether her feelings are “real” or programmed, and whether it matters, since many of our emotions are also responses based on conditioning or context.

One of Her’s highlights is a scene in which an escort, who has been hired by Samantha to be the body while she provides the voice, arrives at Theodore’s apartment to be a surrogate for his virtual girlfriend. All at once, the problems of the relationship are crystallised, as Theodore suddenly has to confront the fact that his girlfriend will always remain just beyond his grasp.

This disconnect is visible in other ways in film, as we see busy streets and corridors filled with people, all of whom are talking to the operating systems plugged into their ears, but almost no one is talking to anyone else.

Throughout the film, the rich and deeply resonant score by Arcade Fire enriches our experience by seemingly channelling exactly what the characters are feeling with its gentle, wordless numbers. And the product is a glorious mix – just as one would expect given the theme of the story – of sounds and images, that moreover has understanding for the maturing of a relationship, from two people sharing a laugh to them meeting and getting along with each other’s friends, to making sure the other person feels like they are being heard, listened to and understood.

This emotionally intelligent film, a love story for the 21st century, marks a return for Jonze to the world of entertaining think pieces, such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, after his disappointing previous project, Where the Wild Things Are.

Lucy (2014)

Luc Besson’s fantastical, mad rush of a movie reminds us that the cinema is capable of wonderful things.

lucy-luc-besson-posterFrance/USA
4*

Director:
Luc Besson

Screenwriter:
Luc Besson

Director of Photography:
Thierry Arbogast

Running time: 90 minutes

Effortlessly referencing films as disparate as Nymphomaniac, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Transcendencealthough with a deliberate lack of seriousness, Luc Besson’s Lucy is a breathless combination of visual effects and sympathetic fantasy like only the cinema can deliver. It never strives for anything more than pure entertainment and even sidesteps issues of power in favour of showing us unexpected domination, often by very gentle means, but the result is a thrilling ride you won’t want to miss.

The central (widely debunked) idea is one that most people have heard about at school or at college: Humans use a very small amount of their brain, and there is no telling what deeds we may be capable of if we used more. The screenplay hypothesises what would happen in a scenario where someone absorbed large quantities of CPH4, which is supposedly formed in the bodies of pregnant women to help the fetus grow, thereby rendering the individual almost infinitely brilliant.

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, the girlfriend of a smalltime drug dealer in Taiwan, who is kidnapped and forced to be a drug mule carrying CPH4, hidden in a bag stitched into her stomach. But when one of her kidnappers tries to fondle her and she fights back, she also gets kicked in the stomach, and the CPH4 bursts into her veins, filling her with immense power and boosting her mental capacity into the higher double-digits.

The person who gives meaning and a measure of credibility to her rapid development is the brain researcher, Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman, who provides the fantastical plot with the right measure of gravitas it needs while also linking the material with that of Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, a similar but far inferior movie in which he played a very similar part). Norman has written volumes on the potential of the human brain, but most of it is pure conjecture. That is, until Lucy contacts him. She has just read all his work in a matter of minutes and tells him he is on the right track. However, she has only about 24 hours left on Earth as her mind will expand to the point where her body cannot contain her any longer.

And so the clock starts ticking while director Luc Besson points us in strange but thoroughly entertaining directions. The first half of the film is unexpectedly closely tied to Lars von Trier’s two-part Nymphomaniac films, as simplistic metaphors are made very vivid, although the effect is at times laughable, such as when Lucy is in danger and there is a sudden cut to an antelope being chased by a cheetah. These references culminate with Besson’s use of Mozart’s “Requiem”, which Von Trier also used in his film.

But while the film’s loose structure enables Besson to incorporate references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, in particular the stargate sequence but also the unforgettable monkey, obviously played by someone in an ape suit, with which both Kubrick’s and Besson’s films open. By the time we meet up with the monkey again towards the end of Lucy, having gone through something of a magical ride on a time machine that conjures up haunting images, we realise that Besson is attracting us on a primal level, through memories and desires to see moments from the past in a way only made possible by the technology of the present.

The film is not entirely successful, however, as it suffers from a few dialogues that don’t come across as particularly believable, such as the overly descriptive telephone conversation between Lucy and her mother, and a faux stargate sequence that simply cannot compete with the one that came 45 years earlier in one of Kubrick’s masterpieces.

A few details are also missing, such as an explanation for her ability to learn languages without any significant exposure to them, or her inability to notice her car being tailed when her level of brain use is nearing 99 percent. But in general, the plot is very easy to follow and while the film never appears to be pretentious, it certainly strikes a very able balance between amusement and intelligence, inasmuch as the one is constrained by the other in a form of mass entertainment like this one.

This may seem at times like a dumbed-down version of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, but while there is enough to keep the popcorn gallery entertained, Lucy also shows us the wonders the cinema can make us a witness to by recreating time in its almost unimaginable richness. Words cannot adequately describe the sense of awe we feel seeing the world going in reverse in fast motion, and while these sequences are also slightly comical, they remind us what movies can make us see and feel that we can never experience in the world outside the theater.

The Martian (2015)

Sentimental and sloppy, this depiction of Mars may well be more realistic than its predecessors but has a long way to go to catch up to the focused brilliance of Gravity.

the-martianUSA
2.5*

Director:
Ridley Scott

Screenwriter:
Drew Goddard

Director of Photography:
Dariusz Wolski

Running time: 140 minutes

On a planet more orange than red, a botanist is reduced to eating vegetables grown in his and his former crew members’ excrement. That sounds a little icky, but the premise is obviously fascinating. One man has to survive the elements, including a lack of the two most crucial elements for human existence — oxygen and water — and wait it out until a rescue team can locate him and bring him back.

Matt Damon stars as said botanist, Mark Watney, who is left behind for dead by his five fellow astronauts during an evacuation from Mars, where they had been stationed for close to three weeks as part of the Ares 3 mission. Thanks to a bit of luck, which in this film always arrives just at the right time, and with remarkable frequency, Watney survives, but has to combat extreme loneliness and a decreasing supply of food and water.

Fortunately, the botanist has an oxygenator and enough hydrogen (thanks to the copious amount of fuel) for him to make water, which he subsequently uses to irrigate his newly cultivated nursery inside the mission’s space habitat. He is mighty creative, and it seems like everything he puts his mind to turns out to be a complete success.

That is certainly one of the film’s major dramatic issues. Despite the fundamental fact that this is a man alone on an entire planet with very few resources and, at least initially, no contact with the (outside) world, his psyche does not seem particularly affected nor do we see him struggle to accomplish any tasks. Granted, astronauts do receive an extraordinary amount of training prior to lift-off, but the sheer effortlessness of Watney’s actions here makes it seem like this whole survival business is a cinch, which serves absolutely no dramatic purpose for the viewer.

The only major challenge for Watney comes in the second half, mere seconds after the director of NASA tells his colleagues their plan to rescue him will work only on the assumption that everything on Mars keeps going well. Without so much as a breather, the film cuts to a giant explosion on the Red Planet that all but eliminates Watney’s chances of survival in the long term.

This is one of two unbelievable low points in the film. The other comes during the rescue at the end, when multiple problems, including speed and altitude, make it appear there is no way for the team to extricate Watney from the planet’s atmosphere. But lo and behold, as if by the hand of God, Watney inexplicably manages to steer himself right up to the spacecraft with minimal effort.

Compare this scene with the opening of Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning Gravity, in which we get a real appreciation of the smallness of man and the near-futility of his actions in an environment as unfathomably extensive as outer space. In Gravity, things often go wrong, and when they do, the character responds with emotion-fuelled but not emotion-driven reactions while putting all her scientific knowledge to use. In The Martian, Watney is clearly intelligent, but his intelligence and creativity are a simplistic solution to the screenplay’s lack of desire to develop any of the obstacles he has to overcome.

This is not where the film’s problems end, however, as the cinematography is an absolute disaster, too. Consider the shot that re-introduces us to the Martian landscape following the calamitous wind storm that sent the crew members off into space and left Watney to fend for himself. Instead of calmly presenting us with the spectre of one man on the planet, Scott decides to fly over the landscape like a majestic eagle looking for prey. In the words, exactly at the moment when the director should be conveying the desolation of his main character, he opts for a point of view that suggests some being floating right above him.

At another point, there is an absurd camera movement when the camera, clearly hand-held, rushes towards Watney at a particular action-packed moment inside the habitat. Scott, who is known as a serious director because of films he made more than 20 — some would say more than 30 — years ago, should now throw in the towel. While one may admire his above-average devotion to creating a more-or-less realistic depiction of life on Mars, the screenplay also combines the sentimentality of an Independence Day with the mind-numbing verbosity of Cast Away.

In the latter film, which Robert Zemeckis directed in 2000, Tom Hanks spent most of the film on a deserted island and spent most of the time speaking out loud to a basketball, “Wilson”. In The Martian, even though we get many different points of view (a conventional but deeply alienating way of providing a God’s-eye panorama of events), Watney makes continuous video logs, which ensures that not a minute of silence intrudes on the film’s generally chaotic propulsion.  

Down on here, there is plain confusion among some of the most intelligent minds in the world. Teddy Sanders, the director of NASA, is played by an expressionless Jeff Daniels; Chiwetel Ejiofor channels a frustrated head of Mars missions whose every effort is stymied by Sanders; NASA’s director of media relations always discovers important information right as it is made public, and she never know what to do; and astrodynamicist Rich Purnell acts like a stoned college student rather than the genius behind the execution of the final act.

The film is divided into too many points of view, from Watney on Mars and his team on the Hermes spacecraft to astronomers at NASA in Houston, the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Purnell in what appears to be a dorm room rather than at office, and even the Chinese National Space Agency, which comes to the aid of its American counterparts out of sheer, unadulterated big-heartedness. Clearly, Scott was scared to bog us down with a two-hour close-up of his main character’s actions all alone on Mars, but if J.C. Chandor could tackle this problem head-on in All is Lost, with unrelenting success, why did Scott have to be such a coward?

The Martian is focused on box-office success like a laser as it tries to inject humour (mostly via the disco music that the mission commander, Melissa Lewis, left behind upon evacuation to Watney’s great dismay) into the goings-on. But we cannot take events very seriously when everything keeps going rights, every time. Sure, there is a missile misfire and an explosion on Mars, but these issues are resolved within a scene or two and without any major time spent on the development of these solutions. Scenes such as Apollo 13’s brainstorming sessions to “invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole” are sadly missing here, as we only get an abridged final presentation of the solution played for laughs, which detracts from the hours of overtime spent coming up with a plan that makes sure the person being saved doesn’t die in the process.

Although entertaining, the film loses focus and skips over important stages on Mars by padding itself with scenes of comedy played on Earth. Scott does very little to distinguish his film from similarly conventional fare, especially insofar as (the lack of) character development is concerned, and delivers a film far less intelligent and creative than its main character supposedly is.