Monday, November 17, 2014

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014); Death in Heaven (Doctor Who, Rachel Talalay, 2014)

Far out

(WARNING: story and narrative twists discussed in detail)

Christopher Nolan's Interstellar starts out very Grapes of Wrath and ends up a little Book of Genesis. Along the way you see the influence of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (of course); design bits from Alien and Star Wars; story details from (though I don't see Nolan ever confirming this) Marooned, Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars and (guessing he'd rather die than admit it) Field of Dreams; imagery from The Right Stuff (see above photo) and (this Nolan does admit--it's a much tonier source) Tarkovsky's The Mirror

I also sense borrowings from both fantasy and science fiction literature, particularly Frederick Pohl's Gateway, C.S. Lewis The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and (for the finale) a cross between Robert Heinlein's short story "--And He Built A Crooked House--" and Gregory Benford's novel Timescape (either that or Nolan's been sneaking quick peeks at John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness).  A hodgepodge of influences Nolan stuffs into an all-inclusive science-fiction extravaganza almost three hours long.  

Give him credit for doing two things right: the science is mostly accurate, thanks to executive producer/theoretical physicist Kip Thorne; and the effects are impressively rendered--mostly non-digital far as these inexpert eyes can see, with the kind of crisp imagery usually found in analog, on-camera effects. 

I wouldn't go so far as to call Interstellar great science fiction, mainly a competently contrived adventure marred by an excess of what Kubrick once called "spacesuit melodrama"--stuff Kubrick stripped from his own 2001 by dropping most of the dialogue and all expository narration. With fanatically researched and designed costumes, sets, and effects Kubrick creates a hyperrealistic world against which he presents a mystery: that the universe, so carefully crafted and photographed, is so unknowable.*

* An even greater mystery: that Kubrick managed to produce such a slow-moving enigma and still make a killing (albeit not immediately). I'm sure there are contextual reasons (a more adventurous zeitgeist, an audience receptive to mindtrips (with accompanying recreational hallucinogen of choice), fact of the matter remains: first weekend figures have Interstellar being edged out by an animated marshmallow stuffed into too-tight armor. Kubrick must have done something right.

Matt Damon's 'past sell-by date' character demonstrates how a touch less explanation goes further in excusing a nonsensical villain than a touch too much. When HAL 9000 finally loses it and extends spacepod clamps towards Frank Poole we're hardly surprised; if anything HAL confirms fears established long before we stepped inside the movie theater (that HAL speaks in Douglas Rains' faultless velvet voice goes a long way to stoking those fears). But that was Kubrick's genius: he realized that if he withheld details he could literally get away with murder (several in fact); when Nolan tries something similar you still see outlines of the Syd Field* paradigm: three acts with rising action, a climax, and clear motivations for all involved (as for Damon's Froot Loops spaceman, of course he's got a clear motivation: he's crazy)  

* Nolan can't ever seem to escape that three-act structure--Memento was basically Syd Field done backwards; Inception was Syd Field nested inside Syd Field nested inside Syd Field nested inside; the Dark Knight movies were Syd Field in a Dracula cape; this picture is Syd Field in space. 

Interstellar has its moments--the waterlogged planet radiates an aura of undefined menace (when the wave hits the fan all our fears prove entirely founded--are inadequate, if anything). The frozen planet did serve up one sharp Pythonesque wink--the ship gliding elegantly past cloud banks, only to gouge a chunk off a nearby billow. Have to admit it's a shock, especially to non-Nolan fans--did the man suddenly acquire a (gasp!) sense of humor? A surrealist urge? Have we misjudged him all this time? For a minute (but only a minute) our smug skepticism is plunged into doubt

I'm being unfair of course; Interstellar's sense of humor is personified by TARS, an automated steel cabinet with simian gait and attitude to match. TARS though feels like a last-minute attempt at comic seasoning, a token comic figure; dark irony on the other hand isn't just a major element of 2001, it's integral to Kubrick's vision of man's evolutionary progress, from distant past to near future (hominids invent the tool-weapon, split neighbor's skull open with it; hurl tons of steel into orbit then fill said structure with bored passengers spouting transit-lounge inanities; respond to an extraterrestrial challenge with a nuclear-powered exploration vessel complete with giant centrifuge and artificial intelligence--and never once suspect that aforementioned intelligence is more responsively demonstrably human than anyone else in the ship). 

Nolan does pause in his nonstop litany of sacrifice and redemption to grant us a quick glimpse into the folly of the anti-science crowd--namely a scene where Matthew McConaughey's Cooper confronts a schoolteacher who flat-out tells him that the Apollo space program was a hoax meant to bankrupt the Russians. 

Several thoughts on that: 1) A hoax? Hoaxers have been working for years to sell their theories, which haven't gained much traction, much less acceptance (the charge that the space program is a waste of funding is harder to shake off, though); 2) it's a well-written scene, and horrific in its way, but presented so earnestly that you're not sure you're meant to laugh; and 3) Cooper's reply is so dead-serious indignant, he wraps himself so tightly in his higher-moral-ground cape that you don't feel like laughing at all. Nolan needs to lighten up, seriously.

It's a matter of sensibility, of course: boiled down to its essence Nolan's view of science and its champions is unabashedly romantic, something even Neil deGrasse Tyson might approve of. Kubrick's view of science is  more complicated--for every two steps forward, he seems to think, Man takes a stumble back. Kubrick's sentiments are persuasive; they tie in with what we know of history, and of the trustworthiness of scientists in general. Don't get me wrong though; Kubrick believed in scientists, loved technology--it's just that his love and faith wasn't unthinkingly unqualified. 

Happy for Nolan--he's aimed for a specific career, gone after it with drive and determination, hit his target with admirable precision. Interstellar is presumably the film he's always dreamed of doing and finally realized--I'd say his best work ever, the first feature from him I could actually watch from beginning to end without too much fidgeting. More power to him (somewhat); may he make more (mildly) nutty productions like this, for years (not too many!) to come.



Doctor who?

(WARNING: story and narrative twists discussed in detail)

Doctor Who Series 8 has the twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) asking his companion Clara (Jenna Coleman): "Am I a good man?" It's a key question, as Moffat spins out the answering of that deceptively simple query into the series' grand story arc.

Call it the story arc of Moffat's career--he's always sought to define his characters, especially his adapted-from-literature characters, from autobiographical Steve Taylor (single man becomes father) to Mr. Hyde ("Hyde is love, and love is a psychopath.") to Sherlock Holmes ("I'm a high-functioning sociopath") to the Doctor himself (The Man Who Regrets, The Man Who Forgets)

The question is asked in the season opener, Deep Breath (you might need to take one, as the answer isn't immediately forthcoming). The question is worried over again and again during the course of several adventures; there's even urgency to the asking, especially in the premiere episode's climax (did The Half-Faced Man jump or was he pushed? Is this Doctor capable of murder? You can believe Capaldi's Doctor capable of acting either way)

Excellent way of defining a hero is through his villains; certainly the Daleks have tried, time after time. They've called him "The Oncoming Storm;" they've said he would "make a good Da-lek." In second episode Into the Dalek Rusty looks into the Doctor's heart and finds hate; between them both he is pleased to see little difference (the Doctor would beg to differ--or would he? Is his resentment for Clara's benefit, perhaps?).

It's not just the villains; the Doctor chooses his Companions, so their personal qualities--the tenor of their interactions--say much. Clara was teased about Eleven; with Twelve there really isn't much attraction--if anything she's constantly being abandoned by Twelve, from Deep Breath (where he leaves her to face cyborg automatons) to Time Heist (where she and the Doctor lose their immediate memories, and they try figure out who's Architect of the heist) to Kill the Moon (where she finally loses it and tells the Doctor to "clear off"). The defining is mutual, though; if her growing frustration marks him as a less-than-lovable Doctor, his tendency to leave her in the lurch teaches her independence and confidence, to the point that she assumes his identity (Flatline). The episode comes to a full circle when Clara flips the Doctor's question towards herself: was she a good Doctor? The Doctor's reply is perceptive, and not a little prescient: "You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. Goodness had nothing to do with it." 

The question of identity acquires pointed significance in Mummy in the Orient Express, where the eponymous creature--invisible to everyone except its intended victim--kills in the space of sixty-six seconds. The Doctor, unable to see, declares in frustration: "one minute with me and this thing, and it would be over!" Their final confrontation--where the Doctor becomes the mummy's target--is the equivalent of a nervy a game of charades, with the Doctor struggling to identify his opponent while facing a literal deadline.
              
Listen may be Moffat's most revealing episode yet, and most profoundly troubling. If a classic episode like Blink unsettled because it dealt with something as basic as what an audience does or does not see, Listen disturbed because of what the audience does see: the Doctor for all his alien experience and intelligence is at heart a shivering child, frightened of what might be hiding under his bed. 

There's plenty hidden in Dark Water (a naturally hidey sort of substance, a nicely evocative title) from the true nature of Missy (Michelle Gomez, hilariously unhinged) to the true nature of Heaven to the true nature of all those skeletons literally stowed away in in watery closets. Moffat goes for the jugular here; what's perturbing about Danny Pink's passing (Samuel Anderson, excellent actor who on occasion suffers a more than passing resemblance to a petulant teddy bear) is how sudden and everyday it is, how totally out of keeping with the way things are usually done in Who, and hence how startlingly real.

If Clara defines the Doctor who also helps redefine Clara (from cheerful nanny figure to troubled and complex mother figure), so does Danny do his share of defining--more than his share, actually. He pegs the Doctor for Clara early on (like the Doctor he's a speed charades player): he's an officer (despite the Doctor's loudly announced contempt for the type) who wears authority as if born to it, and wields it with characteristic ruthlessness. Danny even pinpoints the Doctor's most dangerous quality: he inspires people to be better than they can be, and said folk are at times too inspired to protect themselves, or even want to (I've met one or two people like that, and it's true--you're left wide open that way). If that's not the definition (and danger) of a great officer, what is?

I'm guessing Missy has known all along, so what's her ultimate plan to destroy the Doctor as revealed in Death in Heaven? To give the Doctor more power than he has ever known: an army of Cybermen, all within reach of his fingertips.

How's that again?

I think it's a genius idea--power, with all its attendant ability to corrupt, presented in  absolute form.* The Doctor is looking for Missy to destroy him or injure him in some way; he isn't looking for her to strengthen him beyond all reason and sanity, making him more Doctor than he has ever been (again, that identity issue), so he's caught completely off-guard (has she been reading up on Sun Tzu?). If anything at all manages to pull him back from the brink of that temptation, it's this: the sight of a young girl and her mournful cyborg lover standing in one corner of a cemetery, quietly defining each other in defiance of Missy's orders

*Kudos by the way to how Moffat and finale director Rachel Talalay point up the parallels between Cyberman and the walking dead (If a Dalek is horrifying because it's all about hate, Cybermen are horrifying because they're all about the human form corrupted, or as they themselves would put it, 'upgraded'). And just why haven't we seen Cybermen wandering cemeteries before this? Because it's brilliant imagery: spooky and funny and totally bonkers.

So the Doctor does another thing any good-to-great officer will do: he delegates (Sidesteps the issue? Maybe but as he himself points out command, or being the Doctor, isn't about ethical issues). Cyber Danny, acknowledging the tossed-off mandate, doesn't hesitate; he isn't some officer commanding grunts, he's a fellow grunt, laying out the situation for them (grunts don't lie to their colleagues; that's a commander thing), what they need to do. And they do it--brief pause before beloved to say farewell. If that's not a defining moment, for the Doctor and the series as a whole, then what is?
 
I'll go on and add that I've never been happy with the way Russell T. Davies handled the Cybermen. Oh on occasion he'll tug at a heartstring--some beloved character unjustly converted--but the Cybermen under his watch were wimpy versions of the Daleks ("You are superior in one respect!" "What is that?" "You are better at dying!" Daleks are wittier, apparently). Moffat upgraded their menace in The Pandorica Opens by suggesting some of the more gruesome possibilities of using body parts, and Neil Gaiman upped the ante by redefining the meaning (and attendant chills) of the term 'upgrade in progress.' With this episode Moffat redefines them yet again, makes you feel some of the Cybermen's pain (Danny Pink, Col. Lethbridge-Stewart dolefully bowing their heads)--they're basically human beings with the best part of themselves switched off

Peter Capaldi handily gives us Moffat's latest take on the Doctor: "an idiot with a box and a screwdriver, passing through, helping out, learning." No it isn't about being 'good' or 'bad' because those qualities limit the Doctor, weigh him down with endless moral quandaries; it's about keeping loose and real and limber (with all attendant dangers, chief of which is morally losing oneself in the thicket) enough for the occasional run. It's about avoiding the big ideas, or at least not allowing them to paralyze you with their size--said concepts (good, bad) not so much guiding forces as resources, to be used the best way you can think of. The crucial word in all that being 'best'--so how do you define that? Has Moffat brilliantly kicked the can further down the road? Interesting, interesting question, could be key to the whole thing--but that's for another season.


5 comments:

Quentin Tarantado said...

Interstellar having lukewarm box office is merely a game of perception. In the U.S., Big Hero 6 was no. 1. Worldwide, Interstellar earned $130 million while Big Hero 6 opened in fewer countries and earned less. Currently Interstellar has global box office of $320 million. So with costs of $165 million plus another 100 million in marketing, the movie is in the black. Not a blockbuster like his others, but in the black. http://pro.boxoffice.com/news/2014-11-16-global-interstellar-posts-100m-weekend-overseas-big-hero-6-claims-top-spot-in-mexico-penguins-of-madagascar-off-to-a-hot-start-in-china

Dennis Yu said...

Interstellar is the first Nolan-directed movie that moved me. Memento was gimmicky. Inception lacked heart (I thought). The Batman movies were too brooding, serious, self-conscious. I thought Interstellar is almost a Spielberg movie, but with a toned down emotional pull. It reminded me of Danny Boyle's Sunshine, but not as bleak; and of Gattaca (the bit about swimming out to sea, not saving anything for the return, betting everything on the human spirit).

Noel Vera said...

ETB, numbers don't lie, but US boxoffice speak louder to the US, where the beans are counted. They have yet to learn to consider the full force of the international market.

That said, $200 million gross is no longer considered a hit. So I'm guessing $320 is money earned, but not that impressive in this inflationary landscape--but that's my guess. I'm not a b.o. obsessive, I use the figures as it suits me.

Dennis--you might be right. Not a fan of Nolan, but this might be his personal best. Well, there's his first feature Following--but I don't remember being especially impressed, tho I saw that it was well made.

rico said...

Noel Vera said...

Darn it, Rico, accidentally deleted your comment. To respond: you're welcome, did not spot Josey Wales or Barefoot in the Park at all, and yes, that is an intentional dig.