Monday, November 10, 2014

Interstellar, Crying At Movies, & My Man-Crush On Matthew McConaughey

To write a review (it seems to me) is to imply that the reviewer believes herself capable of rational and objective - if not detached and insightful - thought about the subject she's reviewing. Let me acknowledge and dispel this belief at the outset with respect to two of the most important facets of the film Interstellar:

Firstly, Matthew McConaughey. Seriously. I'm in. I could watch his "Osiris" commercial for Lincoln on loop all day without complaint. Give me a Shiner, a plate of hot buttered tortillas, a side of guacamole, and I'll lack for nothing else. I would try to defend this, but this is the irrational bias section of the review, so, Matthew. 

While we're here, how many beer drinking scenes do you think they wrote into the script after McConaughey's agent calls and says, yes, he'll take the part? I mean, is there a person on earth who looks more cool, in-command, and like his true self drinking a beer? The man was made to drink Lonestars on porches with aviator shades and a glazed and faded semblance as he mumbles cosmic truths. Who knows, maybe the beers weren't there in the script at all - maybe Matthew insisted on drinking a beer in every front porch farmer/philosopher scene. Maybe he *always* has a cold one in tow. Maybe he's *that* cool and in-command, sidling up to a scene with a brew in his hand and everybody forgets the scene had ever been imagined any other way.

Secondly, movie plot lines with daughters. I don't watch many movies. One a month, in theaters. But the last three movies I've seen have been these: Calvary, The Skeleton Twins, and Interstellar. Among other things, and in completely different ways, they all feature daughters as heroines. As a parent whose life changed forever the day my daughter was born, I can't tell you how gratifying it is to see movies that tell compelling stories of remarkable, strong, complex, and captivating women. And, in each of these films, women as daughters - uniquely - shape a significant part of each plot.

That women - and especially women as daughters - have found a new and long-coming place as compelling lead characters in today's movie industry is a welcome reality. It is also the reality that, on account of these characters - and my own role as a dad - I cry a lot in these films. 

The scenes can (and, in the case of Interstellar, oftentimes *did*) feel clunky and thin, but it's "Murph" - some parent's daughter - and in the blink of an eye he's missed a decade of her life...


Parenthetically, with all the theory of relativity / space-time-continuum stuff elevating the viewer's awareness of the cost of every passing minute, the length of the film seemed a touch ironic. At least not very self-aware. But then the music with the tic-toc rhythm would take over a scene and you realize, "Wow! They are aware! They just think this thing's that good!" And, for large chunks, it was. Even when the film sunk to self-indulgence, it never stopped being fun.

So, to recap so far, I cried a lot. I love my daughter. Also, Matthew McConaughey.

My other thoughts are less focused. 
  • As the film opened and we were first introduced to a futuristic world in which concepts like agriculture and food supplies are nearing extinction, I confess I began fearing that the film might veer into ecological preachiness. This fear is itself a strange one, since I am a preacher who cares deeply for the environment. Still. It was my day off. Alas, I need not have feared! Once we'd landed in the credits, I found myself perplexed at how a film that had first inspired this fear seemed environmentally tone-deaf by the end. Many of the relationships depicted in Interstellar could have been deepened significantly, but none more - by way of backstory and lament - than the people's relationship to the land they were leaving.
  • The exception to the above complaint is the documentary footage we see of aged survivors of the future. This is the most evocative intermingling of futuristic and historical thematic elements I've ever seen in film. Sadly, though - again, with the lone exception of the table setting scene - the documentary scenes are thin on content, the director seemingly satisfied to have located the innovative medium.

* S P O I L E R   A L E R T * 

  • The Matt Damon hour of the film felt like a film in itself and was hugely entertaining. Anne Hathaway's Dr. Brandt gives us the set up when she tells McConaughey that, while the adventure is dangerous, there's no evil in space - any evil would have to come from the human species. Minutes later, it's Matt Damon playing his best Javier Bardem-esque sociopath. 
  • In addition to being a great and unexpected villain, Damon's character confirms the message the crew had received from McConaughey's daughter a few minutes before, namely that the mission's 'Plan A' was not viable from the start. The crew members had been duped because, says, Damon, the evolutionary instinct of each one of us makes it easier to say "yes" to missions like these when we believe that, by engaging them, we can save our own children. By so clearly exposing the self-interests of the film's heroes-in-making, Damon's character attempts to establish an atmosphere of moral ambivalence. Indeed, Damon initially makes the claim that NASA's deception and cover-up is morally justifiable before confessing to McConaughey that he gave false information about the planet on which he landed because, having landed on an uninhabitable planet, he could not imagine being left for dead.
  • Damon's character is entertaining, if not convincing, as one seeking to cloud the clear waters of McConaughey's own sense of right and wrong. What Damon accomplishes, however, is that he reestablishes the film's credibility as an exploration, itself, with no predetermined end. Where before, the viewer might have been tempted to read the film's direction as "pro-NASA," after Damon, we are left with the clear understanding that nothing is clear. Maybe the moon landing was propaganda after all! Maybe we should all be farmers. Now it is clear that nothing is being endorsed. Nothing is safe. Nothing is promised. This is Christopher Nolan at his Dark Knight existential best.
  • I watched the movie at Madison's Sundance theater with my buddy Justin. He and I both laughed unreasonably loudly at the movie's best intentional comedy moment, when a robot tells a won't-be-stopped McConaughey, "That's not possible!" to which McConaughey fires back, "No - it's necessary!" It's a ridiculousness scene - abstracted from its immediate context, the scene is a caricature of white, male privilege - and the beginning of the end, ultimately, for Interstellar as an agnostic thrill-ride of nothing-is-promised exploration. When McConaughey speaks these words of defiance, we know that he will not die, which is too bad, because such certainty undercuts the movie's haunting and compelling premise. If McConaughey's character had died at any number of key parts - especially before physical resolution with his daughter, Murphy - the film would have stayed with me in an unsatisfying, profound, and deeply disturbing way for months. Instead, by the end, we have come to think of McConaughey as all-powerful and immortal, in his own mind, a stand-in for human ingenuity and the human spirit, watching his daughter die before he slips a ship and carries on - the unencumbered, embodied spirit of progress and exploration. 
  • The near-end scene in which McConaughey's character cries out to his past self not to leave his daughter for this mission is heart-wrenchingly pure. Of course, it complicates a simple workaholic/absent dad narrative to note that he believed his work was saving the world. But, of course, imbalance of the workaholic kind often involves believing our work will save the world. The courage of Interstellar was in naming the deception such belief often involves, even if in this case, McConaughey ends up saving the world after all. How did this sound like a good ending to anyone who was involved in the film's first two and a half hours? But even the unsatisfying ending is brilliant in its own way - for, finally convinced that nothing is certain, the audience is surprised when certainty makes a last appearance at the end - overcoming our new found faith in uncertainty and disappointing us with the happy ending for which we'd long stopped hoping. Of course, when it happens, we realize we were foolish to have given up hope. 
After all, this is Matthew McConaughey.

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