November 2014
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Colchicine

Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Interstellar (2014), directed by Christopher Nolan, sadly, was a mess. The one thing Nolan does really well is to create intricate machines that function by set rules, but here he has entered the 2001 world of shifting deus ex machina. As a result, there are moments in the movie which are Star Trek-style gibberish (you can cross vast reaches of time and space if you want to very badly!), consummate illogic and contradiction.

The worst of these I spotted, and really unworthy of Nolan: late in the movie, Matt McConaughey is in a strange, abstract structure inside a black hole, a sort of three dimensional bird-house the unseen, super-powerful aliens have built in their five dimensional world to house and comfort humans. Somehow, the slats in the walls correspond to the books in his daughter’s childhood bookcase, and McConaughey is able to see her through the gaps. She cannot hear or see him, but he can communicate with her in various other ways, such as pushing books out of the bookcase selectively to communicate in Morse Code. This is all ridiculous enough, but McConaughey, weeping and pleading, uses this talent to send the word STAY: he is asking his daughter, who gets the message, not to let his earlier self leave for space (and wind up in his current dilemma). When this effort fails (as we knew it would because earlier in the movie he did not believe his daughter’s claims about messages from the bookcase), McConaughey goes further back in time and magically manipulates the dust falling on the floor of the same room to send himself the coordinates at which he will find a secret NASA facility with a spaceship. Why? If he never sent himself the coordinates, he would have successfully changed the past and forced his younger self to stay on earth.

Great science fiction movies, which I think are vanishingly rare but I include Inception as one, establish specific rules for their strange universes and then live by them. Nothing happens merely because someone badly wants it to. Alien and Aliens, though somewhat limited in scope as horror movies, laid out a detailed alien ecosystem, and then portrayed humans trying to understand it and find clues which would allow them to fight and survive. James Cameron, left to his own devices, is a master of this kind of movie writing; The Abyss was almost a perfect science fiction movie until its disappointing, kitschy, deus ex machina ending. The scene in Abyss in which Ed Harris and Elizabeth Mastrantonio are in a failing mini-sub, with only one working escape suit, and solve the problem of how to swim back to the base is a classic of rules-based suspense. Mastrantonio, the smarter one, announces she will drown, Harris will tow her lifeless body back to the base and revive her. It is a horrifying plan, but like the reasoning of Sherlock Holmes, she has eliminated every other possibility and this is what remains. The scene in which they argue about this as the water rises, then execute her plan, and then he revives her, is an unforgettable piece of film. More recently, we have seen Cameron deliberately dumbing his work down, as he figures out that audiences may not really understand, or want, intricate puzzle-boxes of the kind Nolan favors. Cameron owned the rights to Solaris, and allowed Steven Soderbergh to make it because he knew the adaptation he himself would make would not find audiences. Avatar was a mere inverted Western (in which the Indians win) with silly science, unworthy of Cameron.

The rare great science fiction movie, like any other kind of movie, is the one that barely reminds you of anything else. The worst movies are the ones that are a mere patchwork of ideas and scenes from elsewhere. Most large budget sci fi these days seems to be a mere Frankenstein assemblage of moments from Alien, 2001 , and even Star Wars. Interstellar is no exception. McConaughey whanging around in space is reminiscent of Keir Dullea in 2001, and the abstract slatted room is similar to the hotel room in which Dullea ends his days. Wormhole and black hole effects haven’t changed since that movie, either. interstellar also melds the silly, take-it-on-faith concepts of movies like Poltergeist, and the kitschy love-across-time genre exemplified in movies like Time After Time. The grossest unacknowledged debt of Interstellar, though, is, strangely, to Madeleine L’Engle’s young adult novels, the Wrinkle in Time series from the 1960’s, in which a nerdy daughter similarly reached across space-time to save her lost scientist father. Nolan even directly steals from L’Engle an explanation of how wormholes connect two distant points, using a folded piece of paper.

I want to see more movie sci fi which is truly character-based (one of the strengths of Abyss was the failing marriage at its core). This has not been Nolan’s strong suit and he really fails here. The beginning, two complicated father-daughter relationships on a dying earth, is an intriguing set up, but Nolan and his writing partner, his brother Jonathan, grossly fail to create consistent, believable people. McConaughey, an actor I would watch in anything, goes from stony courage to weeping and pleading in mere minutes of screen time (he sacrifices himself to save Anne Hathaway in the exact way George Clooney saves Sandra Bullock in Gravity, then in the bird-house he behaves exactly like a whiny toddler when his daughter fails to keep his younger self from leaving). Anne Hathaway has the really thankless job of letting down the side of science by arguing that a woman’s heart takes precedence. Finally, in a really poorly executed ending, McConaughey, at last reunited with his daughter, who, due to relativity is much older than him and dying, seems almost emotionless as she sends him away from her deathbed to find (and presumably to love and mate with) Hathaway.

Another common problem of large science fiction extravaganzas and other suspense films is a kind of burnout that occurs when everyone’s life is in danger from huge machinery or special effects too many times in a few minutes. In the last hour of Interstellar, McConaughey dodges huge tidal waves on one planet’s surface in a small lander, literally hangs by his fingertips from a cliff’s edge as another colonist tries to kill him, must save his disabled spaceship from falling to the planet’s surface (I never thought I would say this, but how about a moratorium on the decaying orbit trope?), then figures out how to slingshot the lander around the edge of a black hole, and winds up weeping in the cosmic birdhouse.

Gone Girl (2014), directed by David Fincher, is a medium-good Hitchcock movie, not to be scorned in a time when most filmmakers don't seem even to be able to tell a coherent story (see Interstellar review above). It is a soulless story, like the Gillian Flynn novel, in which there is really no-one to root for. It is a misnomer to say that in film noir there are no heroes; if you believe that, google the Raymond Chandler quote that begins, "Down these mean streets". The protagonist may be morally compromised, but we still need to identify with someone; otherwise why buy the ticket? Another thing which bothered me: how did a woman write a story, and then a screenplay, in which an intelligent, sexy blonde woman repeatedly fakes her own rape? Does Gillian Flynn believe this happens all the time? Has she ever done it herself? I don't care about "politically correct", but something's off, as it would be if a black author composed characters talking cliched jive or I wrote a novel about money-grubbing, conspiratorial Jews.