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Five Dimensions of Sentimental Boredom: Interstellar


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By Daniel Lindvall.

At some point early on in Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic disaster film 2012 (2009) we know that 999.85 per mille of the world’s population is doomed to perish in the coming flood. We also learn that, secretly, the governments of the most powerful nations on Earth, the G8, have built nine gigantic arks, capable of carrying 900,000 persons altogether.

This 0.15 per mille of humanity, a tiny elite representing the very same ruling class that brought environmental disaster upon us in the first place (although the film blames it all on the sun), is now “our” last chance of saving “civilization.” In order for us to involve ourselves emotionally in this project to “save humanity,” and forget about the fact that we, our families, and everyone we know have been told to fuck off, Emmerich et al. throws in a few “ordinary” people; mainly the chauffeur Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) and his family, that may or may not have a chance to make it on board one of the arks. Go Jackson, go!

Call me selfish, but if less than one in ten thousand of the world’s population – selected by the US president, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and their most powerful global colleagues – are to survive, then, as far as I’m concerned I’d rather call it a day.

Much as in 2012, most of humanity has already been doomed at the beginning of Christopher Nolan’s three hour-long apocalyptic science fiction drama Interstellar. Maybe one per cent of Earth’s population is left alive. Nolan doesn’t specify this, but who cares? What matters is that, by the time our heroes start “saving humanity,” most of us are already dead.

1412800675_ChastainInterSomething – there’s no mention of global warming, but we take for granted that it is the cause – has led to extreme drought, starvation and war. The closest the film comes to giving us an explanation for the event comes in a moralistic monologue delivered by “grandpa” Donald (John Lithgow) about how, in the old days, “everybody wanted everything” (this may not be a verbatim quote, but it’s close enough). Such a statement regarding our pre-apocalyptic present, while tens of thousands of people in the heart of America are being deprived even of such a basic necessity as running water, is nothing less than obscene.

In the film’s present most of the remaining population of the USA are living as farmers (the world outside of the USA is almost completely ignored by the film, something that is actually rather unusual in the genre). On vast fields they each grow their chosen crops, according to the principles of monoculture. But one by one the remaining crop breeds are attacked by disease and die, while the oxygen level in the air gradually diminishes and mildew, rather than cockroaches, inherit the world.

And, again as in 2012, saving “humanity” means investing all available resources in a secret elite project, while most of Earth’s population are starving to death. This time the beneficiary is NASA, who is running an ultra expensive project looking for inhabitable planets in far off galaxies.

Interstellar24-578x241This is made possible by the existence of a wormhole, recently discovered in the vicinity of Saturn, which has opened up a fifth dimensional way for travelling to places otherwise much too far away. NASA has already sent a number of one-way expeditions through the wormhole, but most of them have disappeared. However, three of the missions are still transmitting signals back to Earth, ostensibly from their designated destinations, which may indicate that they have found hospitable planets for Earth’s population (apparently, they don’t have the technique to send more complex messages back to NASA, and the mission’s spaceships lack the fuel to return to Earth).

Therefore, a new expedition is planned to visit the three possible planets. However, it is uncertain whether the ship will have enough fuel to return to Earth with definitive news. For this reason, there is a Plan A (to return home and then, in case of success, ship the remains of American humanity to the new planet), and a Plan B (to stay and populate the new planet with the help of a batch of fertilized eggs that are stored on the ship).

-ef118340-ea83-469a-bf9e-58800b56e569“Ordinary” people are represented in Interstellar primarily by corn farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), his two kids, and their maternal grandpa Donald, mentioned above. In what initially looks like a coincidence, “Coop” and his young daughter stumble upon NASA’s secret research facility. But Coop is no ordinary farmer; he’s a trained engineer who used to be a NASA pilot before disaster struck. Naturally, Coop is soon made chief pilot on the new expedition, which seemingly is launched within hours of his first arrival at the facility. The “suspense” is building! Will Coop be able to save “humanity” – basically reduced to his own family – or will he have to accept that his children are doomed to die, while the new planet is populated by the yet unborn? I will leave this question unanswered for those who think it sounds exciting. Personally I couldn’t care much less for what happens, since the overwhelming majority of humanity is supposedly already dead, or swept aside by the film.

matthew-mcconaughey-in-interstellarFilms such as Interstellar and 2012 represent a pop cultural version of an extremist ruling class ideology that becomes ever more dismissive of the majority of the world’s population as we approach ecological collapse. The vast majority of Earth’s population is seen as, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, a potential threat to be contained by the always expanding security apparatus. “Humanity, that is us,” – or at least “ours to dispose of” – is the motto, not of the one per cent, but rather of the 0.1 per mille.

The key to the commercial and ideological success of films such as these is, obviously, that we – the audience – are presented with the possibility of survival, since we’re supposed to identify with Coop or Jackson Curtis and their families. We are part of the 0.1 per mille – we’ve made the cut. Never mind that this is complete fantasy. Never mind that we, as ordinary citizens, would never wind up on a modern day Noah’s ark. In this elitist fantasy, masquerading as a populist dream, we’re saved.

Of course, conservative politics and a complete absence of social criticism are to be expected in a film by Christopher Nolan (co-written with brother Jonathan). But I also expected to be seduced, or at least swept away momentarily by an epic space adventure the like of which we had not seen since 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Instead we are served a pathetic mix of the overblown, the banal and the sleazily sentimental.

There is an astonishing lack of any depth and complexity to the social vision of post-disaster rural America in Interstellar, and absolutely zero chemistry between the actors when we hit space.

o-INTERSTELLAR-TRAILER-facebookAt times the film reminds me more than anything of a maudlin television ad for a retirement home. At other times, such as in the crucial 5-D scene late in the film, I think of the 1997 Canadian low budget sci-fi thriller Cube, admittedly not a bad-looking film given its $350,000 budget. 1970s wallpaper also comes to mind during some of the meant-to-be awe-striking visions of space. All in all it’s three hours and five dimensions of boredom, which even manages to look shoddy despite the reported $165 million budget.

Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.

For more on Interstellar, see Forrest Cardamenis’ review here.

6 Comments for “Five Dimensions of Sentimental Boredom: Interstellar

  1. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Hmmnn, an “elitist fantasy masquerading as a populist dream?” We seem to be getting served up quite a lot of this of late. More apoco-tainment to soothe the masses into a brain-dead stupor– lest we rise up against the 1 per cent and/or actually do anything substantial to change our reckless course towards eco-disaster.

    Perceptive and astute analysis, Daniel! I wish I could read your many reviews in Swedish. Google translate spits out some pretty awkward translations, though I can usually grasp the general idea and tone. Thanks for this one in English!

  2. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    I didn’t want to see this before I read this review, and I want to see it even less now. Thanks, Daniel, for the warning! Great piece!

  3. A series of excellent observations that shows that there are still thoughtful critics out there looking to discuss film, and are not crippled by a habitual tendency to react rather than to contemplate.

    The trailer certainly suggests that Nolan’s latest foray into big budget filmmaking is likely to be a highly romanticised fantasy with an abundance of end of the world heroics. It’s interesting how we use entertainment to turn the ultimate human disaster into a last hoorah and a noble heroic act, whilst blatantly trying to dismiss the excessive inequality that cripples the world. It’s a very well argued point of discussion in the review that breaks through the veil of romanticism that Nolan and Nolan create to point out that for the majority Nolan’s Interstellar is the pursuit of 3 hours of hopeful wish fulfilment.

    A source of frustration I’ve felt with sci-fi recently is that genuine great works including the TV series Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), which is a complex meditation on humanity in the wake of annihilation that touches on a wide range of complex themes has wrongly been overshadowed by turgid and uninspired technical exercises; namely Avatar and Gravity. Moon was another fine example of modern sci-fi, and while it did thematically mirror Blade Runner it managed to create its own identity and contribute something of worth to the sci-fi genre.

    As the years roll on by I can’t help but think that Kubrick’s 2001 becomes more of an impressive feat. The way he was able to confront the cycle of life and death in a film that was not only technically ground-breaking, but was also narratively an immersive and hypnotic film that stands the test of time as one of the finest examples of the marriage of image and sound in cinema.

  4. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    Paul, just wanted to chime in and agree with you on the impressive achievement of 2001. When it first came out, I thought it rather obvious and shallow, and I still cringe at the rather reductionist “apes” opening, and the over-reliance on Wagner at points, but overall, 2001 remains the film to beat when it comes to science fiction, and makes more recent efforts such as the appalling Gravity seem absolutely childish in comparison.

    I regularly run 2001 in my classes, and while I am certainly no Kubrick cultist, along with Dr. Strangelove, the best film ever on the incipient possibility of nuclear apocalypse, with these two films he made two rather definitive works which have yet to be topped in their respective genres. Thanks, Paul, and thanks, Daniel.

  5. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    This from a friend of mine in the industry who saw the film in Los Angeles last night at some sort of gala screening: “Here’s the real story – Interstellar was developed for Steven Spielberg, and was supposed to be a big space epic for him, with a script by Jonathan Nolan. Eventually Christopher Nolan took it over, recommended by his brother, but it’s got all the awful over-sentimental, ponderous Spielberg touches intact: families as the center of the universe, Americana, old people crying, kids crying, families crying, endless amounts of homespun wisdom, so over the top that even the usually reliable Michael Caine can’t save it. At the end it’s a 2001 rip in which McConaughey flies through time and space and ends up without a scratch. I could go on, but you get the point – the movie is dreadful.” I still haven’t seen it, but I believe every word of this. Now I really think I’ll skip it!

  6. Well Said !

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