Interstellar: Nolan goes intergalactic

INTERSTELLAR

We’ve entered a time in which certain filmmakers – directors and writers to be precise – are being afforded a fairly free license to make the films that they want to make. Films on an epic scale, but with added smarts. The thinking person’s blockbuster.

With Interstellar director Christopher Nolan has firmly left the Batman franchise behind and struck out into bold new territory. You could argue he’s been doing this sort of thing his whole career: Memento, The Prestige, Inception – they all deal, to a certain extent, with time, memory and personal identity. And each film in his filmography is a big step up from the last.

Interstellar begins on an earth ravaged by dust storms, akin to America during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The earth has had it and it’s up to former pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to fly a spaceship through a black hole in search of a better world.

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So far so epic. The setup has been done before, that’s for sure. But we’ve never seen Nolan tackle it. He starts by setting up the characters on earth, taking his time with them.

We see Cooper’s relationship with his children, particularly his daughter (expertly played by Mackenzie Foy) who seems wise beyond her years. Their relationship is key throughout, so pay attention early on. We also meet old NASA scientist (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway), also at NASA. Both attempting to solve Earth’s agriculture and environmental problems as best they can.

Once we head into space Nolan asks us to get our thinking caps on, for this story demands you give it your full attention in terms of space, quantum physics, the relativity of time and the nature of gravity.

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That’s not to say it doesn’t pack emotional punch. With the voyages through space and time families and divided, perhaps to never see each other again, and their limits are tested. This affords the likes of McConaughey some big emotional moments (which we know he can do) and keeps us in the story. Hathaway, too, gets her time to shine.

That said, space film clichés remain. With space you’re always going to have someone who’s been left on their own for years and, with no one to talk to, gone mad/insane/to the dark side. You’ll have the desperate quest to get back to earth. You’ll have a few people selflessly sacrifice themselves for the mission.

But, to rein in my cynical side for a moment, it’s a decent film. Tense, thrilling, human, heartfelt. It makes you think and it tests you. There’s a strong emotional pull throughout, although it does have a somewhat melancholy tone, but perhaps that’s in the nature of the message that Nolan is trying to deliver.

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This may seem patently obvious to say, but if you go into the cinema expecting to see Inception – or even Batman – in space, then you’ll be disappointed. However, as a cinematic experience it’s got action and thrill moments (a la Apollo 13 and Gravity), yet it also shares some ground with films like Moon, Sunshine and maybe Event Horizon – although the latter might be pushing it.

There’s a section in the final third where you think maybe Nolan has handed over the director’s chair to Darren Aranofsky, as it gets really quantum and asks the audience to take a bit of a leap of faith (or imagination). This could be considered a brave move, but Nolan is a heavyweight director these days, and more often than not, what he does works.

This could be one of those films in which you have a wholly different experience on a second viewing. Time will tell how it stands up in Nolan’s filmography. But, as far as space films go, it’s an intelligent one that asks a lot of the audience, but does so in a respectful way.

Best films of 2013: Haiku reviews

Following my first stab last year at reviewing my favourite films of the year in Haiku form, I decided to give it another go. Remember, these little Japanese poems are three lines made up of five syllables, then seven, then five.sandra-bullocks-gravity-interview

Gravity
Explosion in space
Debris flying everywhere
The will to survive

Captain Philips
Somali hijack
Capture Captain in lifeboat
Tense tale on high seas

Rush
Two F1 driversworlds-end-new-trailer
Battle it out for title
A wild, thrilling ride

The World’s End
Pubs, pints and old friends
Scrapping with weird blue aliens
Marmalade sandwich

The Place Beyond The Pines
Stunt rider has kid
Teams up with guy to rob banksdjango and candie
Fathers, sons, life, death

Cloud Atlas
Past, present, future
Kind act that ripples through time
A grand, epic tale

Django Unchained
Bounty hunter finds
slave, recruits him then hunts down
plantation ownerJosh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games Catching Fire, a review

Zero Dark Thirty
Hunt for Bin Laden
Led by obsessive lady
Finds him then kills him

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Victor of games
Girl on fire made to play nice
Starts revolution

So there we go. My attempt at Japanese poetry for this year, or at least until the mood takes me again. Hope you enjoy them. See if you can come up with your own for your favourite films of the year, it’s quite fun.

Gravity: the tale of Houston in the blind

gravity-movie-review-sandra-bullock-shiopAlfonso Cuaron drives me nuts. There I’ve said it. His films are so immersive, so real, they frequently leave you gasping for air. That’s very much the case in Gravity when our protagonist, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), is dangerously low on oxygen. In fact, there isn’t a time when she’s not in serious peril. You can see why this film wouldn’t work beyond 90 minutes, it’s exhausting.

Never have I scrunched up my toes for the duration of a film before, dammit Cuaron! What, in essence, I’m trying to say, is that Gravity is a pure sensory experience and the first – and hopefully last – time we’ll see 3D used in the way in which it was probably intended (i.e. in space with things floating around and frequently exploding). I’ve heard this film be described as something of a novelty in that sense, and I suppose it is: other directors take note, don’t make Gravity 2, please.

gravity3To backtrack a moment, plot wise it’s thin on the ground and, from what I’ve read, it’s intentionally this way. We don’t need a vast amount of backstory to sympathise with these characters. We start out with veteran space man Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) helping Bullock’s rookie astronaut, Dr. Stone, fix something. They’re quickly informed some pesky Russians have blown up one of their space stations starting a chain reaction of debris orbiting the planet. Clever plot point, as we get almost regularly timed sequences of mayhem as Stone and Kowalsky spend the rest of the film trying to make it back to earth in one piece.

To keep the experience as immersive as possible Cauron, to his credit, doesn’t cut away to earth to see what Houston are up to, he doesn’t provide flashbacks to tell us why the characters are doiGRAVITYng what they are doing, it’s obvious what they’re doing, trying to survive.

There’s also the fact that, if you avoid these little screenwriting tropes, the tension stays high. Cuaron wants us on edge, he wants us there in space with them. The 3D really helps in that sense, with blobs of liquid and other space paraphernalia occasionally hitting the camera; a nice touch by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski, a man known for staggering natural beauty in his shots.

He’s worked with Cuaron before, as well as Terence Malick, making him – along with Roger Deakins – Hollywood’s go-to guy for gorgeous scenery and sumptuous wide shots. A perfect fit for Cuaron’s vision of the vast and eerily beautiful vacuum that is space.

And if we’re talking tone, this is no Apollo 13 but perhaps closer to Duncan Jones’ Moon or J.C. Chandor’s latest All Is Lost; a film where Robert Redford makes up the entire cast and saysandra-bullocks-gravity-interviews barely a word for the duration. It also has elements of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.

That’s not a criticism, just an observation. Clearly this is a technical masterpiece and has pushed the boundaries of what 3D – and indeed cinema – is capable of achieving. Hopefully it’s a one-off, but chances are we’ll see various attempts in the next few years to replicate this sort of thing.

In short, this film is a tense and exhausting technical triumph. Praise for Cuaron is entirely justified, as it is for Bullock too. But let’s just preserve and enjoy their work and keep it as that, shall we?