Sound & Fury, Signifying Little:
Oddly enough, I only picked up John Steinbeck’s masterful 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath recently. For the first time in years.
Now there’s a book. I hadn’t read it since I was a teenager, but what I found was that it is possibly as relevant today as it was when it was written. You’ve got your characters living in the dustbowl depression before heading off to what they hope is the Promised Land; you have the sheer and utter soullessness of the Big Banks as they take away and repossess everything that a family has; and that corporate entity is completely heartless when it comes to crushing their dreams in every way possible. It is utterly wonderful and I found myself pondering why it hasn’t been remade for today. Not to take anything from John Ford’s classic adaptation starring Henry Fonda, but this is one work that is crying out to be presented to a new audience.
Here I was, going to the movies to see what I expected to be a hardcore science fiction film. And instead, for the first fifty or so minutes of director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar we pretty much get that remake. OK, sure, we replace the banking lowlifes with the supposed cruelty of Nature, but it is a solid piece of storytelling that Nolan and his brother Jonathan are giving us here. The dialogue is spot on; and even later we will get Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway in a completely blank and charmless portrayal) question Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, excellent as usual) on whether or not Nature can be considered cruel. Well, she wins that argument in my opinion—it can’t, it can be indifferent a la Lovecraft—but she definitely lost both of us when she started on the metaphysics of Love. And she a scientist. Tch.
That opening fifty minutes, though: oh my, it just rang my bells, with its government who are rewriting history to the extent that the moon landing was fabricated in order to make those pesky Russians bankrupt themselves by trying to catch up with the now-disparaged NASA space programme. And those wonderful scenes of a dust-choked landscape where our own planet has turned against us as coldly and with as much indifference as the environment in an early JG Ballard novel.
Then, alas, we take off into the void in search of another planet that will sustain the almost-extinct human race, a new Promised Land –you know, the bit that I had actually come for— and suddenly we have a film that moved me not at all. Instead of the grandeur and incomprehensible enormity of outer space and black holes, we keep cutting back to Earth, a device which negates any feeling I might have had of just how bleakly isolated these would-be saviors of the planet really are.
As is becoming usual for one of his increasingly self-important films, Christopher Nolan seems almost afraid to have even a moment of silence. Instead, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is turned up to pointlessly screeching level, with no hope of escape or even chance to think for ourselves. Nolan seems more than happy to let entire sections of the dialogue be lost in a wail of noise that the Velvet Underground in their White Light, White Heat album could only listen to and envy.
Interstellar is an annoying film: not just because the climax appears to be half-a-dozen climax’s that go on forever —and not in a good way, heh—but because there is so much that is great and makes us wonder what could have been. Look at those jaw-droppingly enormous waves on the Solaris-type world or the breathtaking ice clouds of Mann’s planet. These images are what we go to the cinema for, something that you can’t get at home no matter how large a screen you have.
Still, it is likely one of those movies that is bulletproof. Nolan has gathered a fan base around him that will hear no criticism of the man, even mild and well-intentioned ones. And he is gathering a stock company around him. As well as Hathaway, Michael Cain is here as her dad, Professor Brand. Jessica Chastain plays the adult Murphy Cooper.
If it does anything it makes me realise what a towering achievement 2001: A Space Odyssey really was all of fifty years ago; but you don’t have to go back that far. For a movie with a tiny budget that far better shows the isolation of deep space, take a look at last year’s extraordinary Europa Report; and for the awe that we feel when we wonder what just might be out there, try Robert Zemickis’s 1997 Contact (also with McConaughey), a brilliant film that manages to effortlessly play around with science and religion.
As to Nolan’s long-winded determination to tug at our heart-strings over the time discrepancies that leave characters with such age differences…well, he takes forever to do unsuccessfully what James Cameron did perfectly with about 30 seconds of screen time when Ripley in Aliens looked at the photo of her little girl, now older than she herself is. Now that was moving.
If you simply must go to see Interstellar in the cinema, however, take along the earplugs because they are in for a bloody hammering!