Interstellar and the Art of Humanity

...but seriously, it's not that much of a spoiler.
This image may count as a spoiler. So don’t look too close…

Films that are worth talking about are worth seeing twice. Sometimes the second viewing can open up a film, revealing just how good it really is. On the other hand, it can confirm that despite all its promise, it somehow falls short of being truly great.

So far I’ve only seen Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar once, so I can’t say for certain where it falls on this scale. All I can say is that it is worth talking about. Rather than a review, this is going to be a critique, a musing on certain points, and thoughts about where Interstellar fits into the history of science fiction cinema.

Spoilers, obviously, but not too many.

With Interstellar, I made as much of an effort as I ever have to avoid learning anything about the film. It wasn’t an entirely successful effort. Thanks to Facebook and RSS feed summaries, I ended up learning about the movie’s main scientific conceit and the surprise cameo. Thankfully, neither of these are key to what the film cares about: it’s a space opera rather than hard science fiction, despite its trappings, and the cameo is, well, a little pointless.

When it comes to space-based science fiction films, two great films loom largest for me: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon. Like Interstellar, both of them focus on humanity against the background of space and science, yet they present this central obsession in different ways. 2001 universalises its humanity, to the point where Keir Dullea’s Dave Bowman becomes an everyman, no more specific than one of the apes who encounters the monolith at the start of the film. Interstellar’s debt to 2001 is everywhere, from its use of music and model work for effect to scenes that harken back to specific scenes in 2001. It’s a very high bar to aim at, but Nolan has never had a problem with ambition.

Moon, on the other hand, makes its humanity intensely personal, and in Sam Rockwell it has an actor whose agonies are always believable. It’s a much more focused film than either 2001 or Interstellar, and its use of science is limited to its setting and the twist that sets its plot in motion. Interstellar bears no specific debt to Moon, but it is as just as emotional and its science is if anything relegated even more to the role of window dressing.

The problem with Interstellar is that it falls between two stools. Despite an excess of verbiage (something neither Moon nor 2001 could be accused of), there are some fine performances here. the emotional heart of the film falls by the wayside in the second act and only really comes into focus in the third, by which point it’s too late to sell it. And in trying to restart that emotional heart, it abandons its efforts to say something all-encompassing about humanity apart from a vaguely voiced notion that we’re going to save ourselves. For Nolan, who mastered the difficult art of the closing scene in Memento and Inception, Interstellar feels like it just peters out, unsure of what it’s trying to say.

A larger problem in terms of Interstellar’s potential to become a classic of the genre is the fact that, at its heart, it’s an American film, not a universal one. The Dust Bowl theme standing in for environmental collapse is one thing, the self-mythologising tendency at its heart, the repeated moments of folksy wisdom, and the cowboy hero of the last frontier that it can’t look away from is quite another. That last one is perhaps Interstellar’s biggest problem. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is the ostensible hero, and his adventures are certainly the most cinematic and visually interesting aspect of the film, but the focus on him detracts from the role of his daughter Murph, played with equal weight by Jessica Chastain and Mackenzie Foy. Her struggle becomes incidental, when it could and perhaps should have received equal billing.

This may seem like a negative article so far, but in balance of that, remember that I had big expectations when it came to Interstellar. Nolan’s record is as good as anyone’s at the moment, and I’ve only seen it once (and my initial reaction, before I’d had a chance to think about it, was a lot more negative). On the plus side, it looks beautiful, even though there are a few points where the models look a little too model-like. Hans Zimmer’s score hits the high notes too, as ought to be expected of him by now. Now that I’ve had a chance to read a few reviews, it seems that mixed responses are the order of the day.

Bear in mind too that 2001 was met with similarly mixed responses when it first appeared and only ascended to its towering role within the genre over time. Interstellar may well have a similar path ahead of it. I doubt I’ll ever love it as much as I do Moon though. Whether it’ll improve on second viewing will depend on whether, behind all of its verbiage, there’s brain to match its heart.

Edit: So I went to see Interstellar a second time (this time in IMAX). And while I’m glad I did, it didn’t change my mind much. It’s a fascinating, ambitious, flawed film, notable as much for its tendency to hammer you over the head with its themes as for the epic sweep of its visuals. For all its focus on delivering an emotional, almost mystical experience, there’s only one point where it succeeds in truly touching the heartstrings. That particular scene though is the one part of the movie that is a classic piece of cinema, and while I won’t spoil it by describing it, I will say that it involves a countdown.

On Being Back Home Again

Storms and sunset. I like it.
There was a lot of this while I was in Chania.

 

This one is a bit delayed. A bit more than a month delayed, in fact. Apologies for that—I don’t like leaving things unfinished, and just because my Greek odyssey ended in quiet fashion was no reason to leave my audience (you’re out there, right? Is this thing even on?) hanging.

Chania, in the west of Crete, was a quietly pleasant way to wrap up my travels. Founded as Kydonia long ago in the Minoan age, it passed through the hands of multiple powers, both foreign and domestic, over the intervening centuries, all of which left their mark. No massive museums to rival those in Athens or Thessaloniki, or fortresses like those of Nafplio or Mycenae. Yet with a cafe tucked into a narrow alleyway, twisting streets filled with craft shops, the relics of Venetian fortifications, and an old church turned into a museum, with relics of the Ottoman occupation in the garden, there was more than enough to see.

It would perhaps have been nice to spend an hour or so on the beach (or preferably in the sea), but wild weather and the first hints of autumn in the air put paid to that. I got plenty of the sea in my face just by strolling along the promenade, and the main adventure of my time in Chania was had the first night, making my way all along the long, crumbling breakwater to the old lighthouse, joining a French couple in climbing over the locked gates to do a little light trespassing for the sake of a good photo.

So Chania was a place for resting and relaxing, either collecting my thoughts and resting tired limbs after more than a week of walking to and around new experiences, or steeling myself for the inevitability of a five-hour Ryanair flight and the cattle drive of the airport that preceded it. With that in mind, as well as the long gap between getting home and writing this, here are a few collected thoughts.

  • Greece is utterly worth the effort. I’d waited for years to go there, and while I didn’t get to see everything I wanted (who could, in only ten days?), I saw wonders.
  • It’s a country of two parts. The Isthmus of Corinth has divided the Greek world for millennia, and it still does. To the north and east are the two main cities of Athens and Thessaloniki, connected by the country’s main railway. To the south and west is the Peloponnese, with smaller towns and cities, truly ancient ruins and wild hills, and no working railway.
  • It’s a straight travel choice. Either travel by bus, of which there are plenty, or by car and risk Greece’s occasionally tricky roads and drivers. The risks of the latter are probably a little overstated, but then I didn’t have to deal with them. Being bus-bound wasn’t a major problem for me, but if you want to get off the beaten path, you’ll need a car.
  • Get there early. Tour buses and the hordes they disgorge are the enemy. In Delphi and Mycenae, I got there before the worst of the crowds, and in Delphi in particular the result was magical. In Knossos I didn’t, and I ended up dodging the crowds and queueing up to see some of the best bits.
  • Alternatively, get there late. The Greeks had a tendency, not uncommon in the ancient world, to build their most imposing monuments on hilltops. If you’re going there in September/October, you’ll be able to catch sunset before they close. There’s not much that improves a sunset more than ruins two thousand years old…
  • Get comfortable with waiting. Service in Greece isn’t bad, it’s just not hurried. At all. Which should give you plenty of time to chill out, enjoy the ouzo or raki, and contemplate the meaning of life.
  • Travelling with one bag? Not that I’m the first person to figure this out, but it’s perfectly doable, even when travelling for more than a week. Just make sure that you know where to find a laundrette, and be aware that bringing presents home is going to be limited, size-wise.
  • Ditching the electronics… This is the second trip I’ve had where I limited my electronics to my phone alone. Given that I prefer to write freehand when I can, and that my iPhone is pretty capable, it wasn’t much of a sacrifice. The only issue is battery life—next time I’d bring a battery case.
  • …but using the ones you have… I was flying by the seat of my pants with regard to a lot of my travel planning. Beyond my flight in and my flight out, plus my first two nights in Thessaloniki, everything was booked the day before, using Booking.com and/or Tripadvisor. It all worked pretty smoothly, but…
  • …paying attention to the details. My one big error on the trip was not realising that there would be so few ferries from Athens to Iraklio per day. I made the best of it in the end, getting to watch the close of the Ryder Cup in a Sports Bar, but the overnight trip was something I could have been better prepared for. Lesson learned—next time I’m not going to assume that everything will be convenient.