Saturday, November 08, 2014

Munchausen Weekend


Spoilers, I guess? If you care? I don't think the shelf life for discussing this movie is going to be very long, if that matters.

If you don't like Christopher Nolan, this isn't the film that's going to change your mind. Take me for example: I don't really like Christopher Nolan. He learned all the wrong lessons from Stanley Kubrick and makes films that look great from straight-on but are revealed to be resoundingly hollow the moment you change your perspective. With Interstellar he succeeded in making a film that I really wanted to like despite all my past experiences with the man, but which let me down because it ultimately refused to cohere as anything other than a Christopher Nolan film.

I wish I could remember where I saw this . . . an interview? One of his afterwards? There's a great bit from Stephen King where he talks about themes in stories. He says that you should never put themes in stories, but that the themes should arise naturally from the story you're trying to tell. That is fantastic advice. Obviously not always completely applicable, but, it's a bit of advice that more screenwriters could stand to learn. Because Interstellar? You know this was a story that began theme-first. You know it did. The reason you know it did is that, as with every other movie Nolan has ever made, the theme is the only truly legible thing about it, even if it makes no sense (more on that in a minute). As with Inception, as with all his Batman movies - they're great at establishing and developing themes, completely terrible at every other part of telling a story. He's a great, fantastic, filmmaker but an awful storyteller. And if he hasn't yet figured out the difference yet, having made a number of the most successful movies ever, he may never.

Which may partly explain why, time and again, given the most interesting subject matter with which to play around, he unerringly finds the least interesting part of whatever subject matter he has at his disposable. Given Batman, he gravitates towards a dull brown and steel gray palette, gives us a gritty urban Batman set in freakin' Pittsburgh, and figures out the precise way to make all his villains as surly and mundane as possible. Bane's voice was the best part of The Dark Knight Rises because it was the only part that felt remotely fun and interesting. Inception was awful because, given the opportunity to make a movie about dreams, he made a dream movie about a heist movie with all the visual appeal of a Pierce Brosnan-era Bond flick. Nolan has yet to meet a fantasy genre he cannot somehow drag through the mud of oblivious banality, and you can now say the same for space opera.

Tell me you are making a film about space travel and the first thing I want to know is, how much time are you going to spend hanging out with farmers? Because the amount of time you spend hanging out with farmers is going to be inversely proportionate to the amount of time the movie spends doing interesting things. Someone at some point told Nolan and his screenwriting bros that all movies need to begin by establishing the human stakes of any narrative, and that requires spending a half hour to forty five minutes telling us about dust and famine and dumb ass crackers. The movie is about space ships. I can see the script wheels turning: we need to establish our characters. We need to establish our setting. We need to establish our conflict. We need to do all of these things as methodically as possible. Because, you know, the audience just will not know who to root for if we don't spend all this time telling them about the main guy's family and hardship and all that stuff. We're going to mistakenly start rooting for the robots because we haven't been given enough reason to think that Matthew McConaughey is interesting or important enough. Well, guess what: I rooted for the robots anyway because every motivation in your entire movie was as boring and predictable as the proper indentation on your screenwriting software. The robots, at least, were interesting, something I really hadn't seen before. Give me a whole movie about those awesome robots.

This belief that the human story is the most important element of whatever story you're trying to tell is erroneous and deadly. The audience doesn't need a human stake. The audience can figure out what the stakes are by seeing the characters do thing - not by seeing the movie spend 45 minutes running in place telling the audience what the stakes are. The audience isn't stupid enough that they need to be told that Matthew McConaughey is a human being with real feelings. You could cut out a great deal of the Matthew McConaughey Is Sad and Frustrated preamble and be left with a lot more than you think. Setting up your human characters with such painstaking and tedious emotional exposition is simply condescending to an audience you do not believe to be smart enough to understand the movie. And yet everyone does it.

Also while we're on the subject of what everyone is doing (so why can't we?), everyone is so far comparing this film to 2001. OK. If you want to play that game, it's not a game that works in Nolan's favor. How much time does Kubrick spend establishing Dr. Bowman's motivation? He goes right from a monkey throwing a bone to a spaceship flying through Earth orbit. Any contemporary screenwriter would tell you that you needed to spend twenty minutes establishing David Bowman's family life and relationship with his wife or girlfriend, and a relationship with some kind of father figure who relates some kind of wise koan whose meaning will only be understood in the film's final moments. (2010 does a little bit of this, it should be noted. Another unfair comparison.) Spending so much time giving us so much of Matthew McConaughey's motivations has the perverse effect of making him seem undermotivated: his motivations, such as they are, are actually kind of stupid. Drilling them into our heads again and again doesn't make them any less stupid. Maybe they're "relatable" in Hollywood-speak. But they're stupid.

(This makes for a great point of comparison with Transformers 4. That movie spent a little bit of time on Mark Wahlberg's motivation, but really, just enough to get you going. And the fact that Wahlberg's motivations stayed precisely the same throughout the entire running time of the film despite the fact that the fate of the world was at stake was awesome, and an attention to detail of the kind that Nolan can only hope to conjure. I have to stand by any movie that makes sure to tell us that the main human character is more concerned with his daughter losing her virginity than the fate of the world. It works better than all of everyone's motivation in Interstellar because it at least doesn't ask us to voluntarily lower our IQ in order to believe that real people might ever in a million years have emotions like these.)

What I've seen discussed less than Kubrick is the obvious debt Interstellar owes to Terrance Malick. There are scenes straight out of Days of Heaven - I mean, really, if you're going to burn a field, you better know people are going to pick up on that one. It's hard to imagine what this movie would have been - whether it could have been anything - in a world without Tree of Life. It's not just the presence of Jessica Chastain that drives that one home. Every time Nolan brings the music up, lowers the sound on the dialogue, and slides into a montage - particularly on Earth - you can't help but see, immediately, the seams of Nolan's construction. The themes in Interstellar have been carried over lock, stock, and barrel from Tree of Life.

Part of the problem is that, philosophically speaking, the movie doesn't have a brain cell in its head. Malick is a heady filmmaker in part because he is a philosopher. When he uses Heidegger to structure a film like Tree of Life, it makes sense because it's coming from a place of deep understanding. The problem with Interestellar is that, while Nolan pays a great deal of attention to his themes, he doesn't really understand them. He papers over his lack of understanding with some trite bullshit about the power of love, and that just doesn't cut it.

Early in the film Matthew McConaughey explains to his daughter the meaning of the phrase Murphy's Law:
Murphy's law doesn't mean that something bad will happen. It means that whatever can happen, will happen.
This would appear to gesture towards the establishment within the film of a Humean world of absolute contingency. But in practice, the film - supposedly about the limitless possibilities of space travel - devolves into a closed-loop time travel narrative, an intricate structure of precise causality monitored by fifth-dimensional beings unhindered by our concept of time. Nolan as a filmmaker is unable to move past the closed loop: despite every opportunity to the contrary, he is unable to break free from the gravity of necessary causation. He is addicted to symmetry, and his movies suffer. His world remains doggedly, persistently Kantian. The frustration at the heart of the narrative - the inability and unwillingness to break free from necessity - could have been fixed by a copy of After Finitude.

Where is this radical contingency, the sensation that "whatever can happen, will happen"? Nowhere to be found in Nolan's film. The visual effects, while nice and occasionally breathtaking, are still nothing particularly new. Instead of grasping the opportunity to give us something new, Nolan gives us a brief flight through subspace, a handful of monoclimate planets, and finally a trip into the heart of a black hole. Maybe I'm jaded, maybe I should have approached the film from the perspective of someone who had never seen a sci-fi film before. Because that is unfortunately necessary in order to accept that this is at all visually interesting. My immediate takeaway from the film was that Nolan is a filmmaker who loves making sci-fi movies but dislikes sci-fi, and the lack of imagination on display here - a water planet with big waves! an ice planet with glaciers! - speaks to a larger lack of motivation. It all makes sense for the story, yes, that these are useless planets with no appeal, but that brings us back to Nolan's motivation at the heart of the movie - with all the resources of the most technologically advanced movie-making apparatus in history at your disposal, this is what you choose to show us? Ice Planet? Planet Waves?

I understand that some attempt was made to keep much of the film's science close to something we could reasonably call "hard sci-fi." In practice what this often (not always) means is that they take all the fun stuff out of the genre in exchange for people explaining why they can't do things. The film gets some play out of the divide here (in another echo of 2001), establishing that humans are limited more or less by the capabilities of real-world science, while the mysterious beings who give Earth the wormhole are not bound by the same laws. What we get is the hand-wave that the fifth-dimensional beings who set the plot in motion are able to do things - such as play with the laws of space-time as if they were taffy - that otherwise are impossible according to the laws of the universe. But after we establish that, the movie should obviously be heading towards some kind of revelation regarding these mysterious beings. 2001 gets around having to explain what the monoliths are and who built them by giving us instead more deeply intriguing questions, until finally ending the movie on a note of supremely satisfying mystery. There's no mystery in Nolan's universe: the question of who the mysterious beings are is answered by Matthew McConaughey in a toss-off line, with no real explanation as to how he came to that conclusion. Nolan can imagine blasting off to distant galaxies, but he can't imagine finding anything to look at more interesting than a mirror, and no mysteries more bewildering than the human heart.

For point of comparison, look at Contact, a movie that only gets better with every passing year. There was a movie with a startlingly similar premise that stubbornly refused to wrap everything up in a neat package. It also had Matthew McConaughey, which proves again that even though I get older, these actors stay the same age.

Maybe that's what some people want to hear. Maybe the fact that the movie essentially ends by reiterating that "the fifth dimension is love!" is a great way to end a movie in 2014, reassuring the viewing audience that regardless of how scary the universe may be we can stay grounded by sticking close to our good old fashioned down home values. I do like the fact that Anne Hathaway gives a big stupid speech about the power of love right before being shot down by the more pragmatic Matthew McConaughey - even if she is later revealed to be right because love will keep us together. No matter how big space is . . . and while we're on the subject, why did the put the wormhole next to Saturn? If they wanted humanity to use the wormhole to save civilization, why not put it somewhere closer? Like, say, anywhere closer than Saturn?

Also: the twist about halfway through the movie is the exact same twist as was in Saving Private Ryan. It's like all the filmmakers in the world looked into the heart of America and decided that the thing we most wanted out of our movies was surprise cameos by Matt Damon. I did warn you there'd be spoilers.

1 comment :

j said...

I assumed they put the wormhole by Saturn because the movie wasn't enough like 2001 yet.