Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Jason Watches INTERSTELLAR in IMAX

I saw this last Saturday, and there are many things I liked about it--the visuals, the science, the big ideas, the science, the seeming paradox (that isn't really a paradox--more on that later,) the science, the fact that scientists are shown as normal people with families and emotional attachments instead of only bookish nerds, the science... And there were some things I didn't--the treacle, basically. I was prepared to credit Kip Thorne* with most of what I loved and pass off to Christopher Nolan (or perhaps studio meddling) the things I didn't like.

And then, over this weekend, a funny thing happened. INTERSTELLAR became one of the most polarizing films of the year. Fueled, at least in part, by lazy listicles by people who apparently saw a different movie than I did.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Film criticism is an inherently fraudulent pursuit. Fraudulent because it's based on the premise that the critic is smarter than the film--and that is practically never true. And it has ever been further from true than with INTERSTELLAR.

Whatever problems I had with INTERSTELLAR are dwarfed by the disgust I feel for these lazy listicles, and so what was originally going to be a so-so review of a movie that I liked a lot but felt drifted off the rails more than once will instead be a point-by-point defense against just one of these--the Vulture article linked above. First an obligatory warning:

MY GOD! IT'S FULL OF SPOILERS!
  1. The film has beer drinking despite wheat having been obliterated by blight. First of all, is this really your first gripe about the movie? Or are you softening us up by picking a trivial point and building up to more important points later. In any case, beer can, in fact, be made from corn.
  2. There's no army. Okay, I'm not above criticizing a movie for implausible world-making. But it was well explained in the movie that after a period of war the survivors have settled in to devote their resources to farming. A point underscored by Cooper's chase of a drone aircraft so that he can re-use its brain in a combine harvester. In fact, Cooper and Professor Brand have a conversation about how the corn crop is the highest it's ever been. There actually is enough food--for the moment. Those in the know just happen to know the blight will eventually get to it. This isn't a complaint about the world-building in the movie, but about the movie's view of human nature. It's akin to complaining about THE DARK KNIGHT because in reality the hostages on the boat would blow each other up. You can believe that, but Chris Nolan doesn't--he has through his movies had a complex but ultimately optimistic view of human nature.
  3. The government funds NASA in secret even thought they're the only hope for survival. Well, the ordinary people don't know that. In fact, they're explicitly taught to not waste massive resources on things other than farming. So much so that textbooks are rewritten to claim that the moon landings were faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union with wasteful space exploration. I don't know, maybe in this fictional world the government was taken over by anti-science nutjobs and that was part of the problem. Perhaps that's unrealistic, but once again this isn't a complaint about the movie, it's a complaint about a view of human nature.
  4. The source of government funds (for NASA) isn't sufficiently explained. I don't know, maybe it's...taxes? Perhaps people in this future dystopia complain about the government collecting taxes without ever seeing the benefit. Okay, that's clearly unrealistic, maybe the Vulture writers have a point.
  5. NASA only sends people with no family connections. Sure, on the first trips. But they're more desperate now.
  6. At the end, Cooper awakens on a Dyson sphere space station orbiting Saturn, why didn't they just build that in space instead of the whole wormhole mission? Well, if you were paying attention to the movie you'd realize that finding a habitable planet is just one plan (in particular, the genetic seeding of Plan B.) The "move everyone off Earth" plan wouldn't work unless Professor Brand (and eventually Murph) "solves" gravity, which Professor Brand never thought would happen. It simply takes to much energy to escape Earth's gravity through conventional methods--to move more weight, you need more fuel, which also increases the weight (rocket fuel is an insane amount of the launch weight of a rocket.) This is the so-called tyranny of the rocket equation. Manipulating gravity solves that.
  7. Dr. Mann's motivations are unexplained. Actually, they're pretty explicitly explained, but the Vulture writers weren't paying attention. I'll grant a little space-madness to Mann, but his motives are at least internally consistent. Remember that emotional fight between Cooper and Brand over which planet to visit second? Remember how she made a big point that they don't have enough fuel to visit both planets and return to Earth, so if he guessed wrong, he'd have to make the difficult decision between finishing the mission or seeing the daughter he left behind? Well, when they awake Dr. Mann and he says the planet is hospitable on the surface, that gives Cooper hope that he will return and see his daughter. But Mann was lying, he just kept the beacon on because he was incredibly lonely. So he knew that the only choice now was to go to the third planet and complete the genetic seeding Plan B. And he viewed Cooper--who wants to return to his daughter--as a threat to that mission. Rather than try to talk Cooper into going to the third planet, he just tried to eliminate him (that's the space madness part, IMO.)
  8. Elderly Murphy chases her young father out of her room after just a few minutes. Yeah, that actually kind of bugged me, too. I can see it as underscoring that she has made peace with her father, but I don't think he had made peace with leaving her. I would've preferred he stayed by her bedside, soaking in whatever time she has left, held her hand as she passed away, and then ventured out to meet Brand on planet 3.
  9. Why did Cooper in the black hole/tesseract spell out "Stay" to Murph? He wanted himself to stay. He was acting on emotion here, thinking it would be better to have stayed on Earth and died with his daughter rather than go through what happened. But his past self didn't act on that message, which is good, because if he had then he wouldn't be there to send the message--hence avoiding a paradox (Note: I'm jumping ahead here.)
  10. The secret to quantum gravity can be encoded in Morse code. Okay, that's a stretch, I'll grant. I would've used binary again.
  11. The Morse code is sent via ticks on the second hand of a wristwatch. Well, it was patiently explained that the only thing that can escape a black hole is gravity. No e-mail, no carrier pigeons, no carefully scrawled calligraphy...you have to encode the data into gravitational anomalies. Remember, this has to be a message from inside a black hole because it's observations on the quantum gravity of the singularity. And it has to be something that near-future humans (or at least Murph) can understand. So maybe just sucking her up into a tesseract would be a little too mind-blowing.
  12. The schools teach that the moon landing was faked. I addressed that above. You might not like it, but it's a self-consistent world. The ordinary people focus on farming, the hidden elites focus on space. I know it's unrealistic to imagine a world where "grow more corn" is more politically popular than "explore space" but that's the world Nolan created. Deal with it.
  13. Textbook companies exist, even though the New York Yankees are a small barnstorming club. I'm not even sure what the point is here. There are still schools, there is semblance of normal life (just corn-heavy and plagued by dust storms.) Why wouldn't there be textbook companies? I don't even get what this complaint is supposed to be.
  14. Who would have piloted the ship if Cooper hadn't shown up? Well, they explained that the other pilots had trained on simulators. Cooper was a better candidate because he had flown for real before. I'm beginning to think the Vulture writers were too busy jerking themselves off about how much smarter they are than INTERSTELLAR to actually watch the fucking movie.
  15. Michael Caine's character doesn't visibly age. WTF? Yes he does, you nitwits. Unless you think everyone over 60 looks the same age.
  16. Anne Hathaway's character is left to raise hundreds of babies alone? Dammit, watch the fucking movie! It's explained that a small group will be raised first, then they help raise the others and build the colony. Did you think she would grow them all at the same time?
  17. Cooper hijacks a spaceship easily near the end. Whatever, I'll give you that one.
  18. Child Murph doesn't look enough like adult Murph. Casting choices are not plot holes, goddammit! And sometimes people look different as a child then they do as an adult. I'm convinced this would not be a complaint if the writers weren't dead set on finding fault with everything in this movie.
  19. Adult Tom sounds different from teenage Tom (and in the wrong way.) Another casting choice being foisted off as a plot hole. People's voices change, especially if they're breathing dust for years.
  20. Topher Grace exists. Are you kidding me?! Three casting complaints in a row! Why not combine them into one point and just say you disagreed with the casting? (Because then you'd only be 19 things smarter than INTERSTELLAR, not 21.) And you're complaining because Topher Grace is recognizable? So is Matthew McConaughey, John Lithgow, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, and Casey Affleck. Hey, that's 7 more points. You could've complained about them and made a listicle of 28 things wrong with INTERSTELLAR. (I apologize to any "name" actors I might have overlooked.)
  21. How did the future humans get saved if they're the ones who engineered Cooper saving humanity? They were saved by Cooper, duh! This is probably the most infuriating (and interesting) complaint about INTERSTELLAR, that there's allegedly a time travel paradox. In fact there isn't. There would be a paradox if the events of the movie didn't happen. To use the chicken and egg metaphor, "chicken travels back in time and lays egg that hatches and becomes that chicken" is entirely self-consistent (if kinda trippy.) The paradox would be "chicken hatches, then doesn't travel back through time and lay the egg from which it hatches, and therefore never hatches." This is the realm of philosophers and theoretical physicists, but the answer isn't, as the Vulture writers so eloquently suggest, "love and wormholes and love and Dylan Thomas" but rather the more mundane "it is entirely self-consistent." Just because you don't understand it doesn't mean it's a paradox. 
And I'd also like to address a couple of other points that I've seen brought up elsewhere but are inexplicably missing from Vulture's list.

First, the narrative convenience that NASA was just a day's drive away from Cooper's farm in Kansas. Well, that's not necessarily true. This is Chris Nolan we're talking about, and even when he isn't explicitly fucking with our perceptions of time (as he has done through his entire career) he often disregards time in his editing. Batman didn't crawl out of a hole in the desert and appear in Gotham minutes later, although it can appear that way in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES because of Nolan's editing. But even given that and imposing a 1 day limit on that drive, Kansas is in the middle of the country and with no traffic, and minimal stops for refueling you can get practically anywhere in the contiguous United States within 1 day. You can even get to the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA in less than 24 hours (assuming no traffic.) Even faster if you speed.

Second, wouldn't Dr. Brand have aged while Cooper was in Gargantua, and be an old woman by the time he saw her again. Well, maybe. But she spent some time in that time-dilating gravity well of Gargantua, so she wouldn't have aged as much as the people on Earth. It's never specified how much time passed for her, but I like to think she aged just enough so she's of an appropriate age for him when they meet again.

I'd like to reiterate that I don't think INTERSTELLAR is a perfect movie. There are legitimate gripes. I'm kind of fond of Richard von Busack's brief review where he criticizes things such as pacing and casting (things a film critic is qualified to talk about) without trying to prove he's smarter than the movie. I searched a bit (not extensively,) but I couldn't find a negative review I liked more than that one. And I read enough maddeningly off-point negative reviews that it inspired me to write a positive review just to avoid being lumped in with the INTERSTELLAR critics.

I have a theory about the INTERSTELLAR hate. I think it's a movie that proudly displays that it is very, very, very smart. In fact, it is very likely smarter than you. And people take that as an affront and a challenge. So they write reviews (or lazy listicles) trying to prove that they are, in fact, smarter than INTERSTELLAR. But they're wrong, and in a vain effort to try to prove they're smart, they show how stupid they really are. I know I'm not smarter than INTERSTELLAR.

Running Time: 169 minutes
My Total Minutes: 373,137

*Dr. Kip Thorne was a professor at Caltech when I was there, but I never took a class from him. I knew him by reputation for two things--first, being a world-leading researcher on black holes, and second having a series of bets with Dr. Stephen Hawking over whether various astronomical observations would turn out to be black holes or not. Now, this might be an apocryphal story spread by college students, but the stake of these bets were always the same--the loser had to buy the winner a 1-year subscription to Penthouse magazine. Which, of course, raises the question of how exactly Dr. Hawking would...ummm...'make use' of Penthouse magazine. Would his nurse assist? Is there some device on his techno-chair just for that purpose? I remember one night in the Ricketts Hovse lounge brainstorming ideas for that. Perhaps THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING will answer this important question.
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