In talking to friends and family, it has become quite clear that Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Interstellar is rather divisive. Some find the film to be too far-reaching, with plot holes they cannot forgive. Others are willing to connect the dots and have been drawn into Nolan’s bleak, sci-fi future.

As for me, here’s where I stand: Interstellar is necessary.

Nolan’s latest is one of the few original, non-franchise science fiction films to make headway at the box office. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Star Trek movies and The Guardians of the Galaxy too, but there is something to be said for a stand alone sci-fi flick that is its own story, not based on one in another medium. And these days, American sci-fi desperately needs an injection of originality.

Interstellar is a film rooted in enough science for you to accept the premise but with enough fiction to make you believe in infinite possibilities. In fact, the film was largely inspired by the work of physicist Kip Thorne, who also acted as a consultant for the film.

When the film opens, former fighter pilot turned farmer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is struggling to make a living as a corn farmer in a future where Earth’s sustenance is drying up and dust storms can bring life to a standstill. Cooper is clearly dissatisfied and longs for the days of American exploration, but he finds solace in his kids Tom and Murph.

Murph is inquisitive, with a budding mind for science; in an era that no longer teaches the moon landing, she stands out. Murph’s insistence that there is a ghost sending messages in her room leads Cooper to discover an underground NASA facility headed up by his former boss, Professor Brand (Michael Caine). A team of scientists, including the Professor’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), insist that Murph’s “ghost” are mysterious beings guiding them to find other worlds for humanity’s survival.

When Cooper is offered the chance to fly the spaceship, he cannot get off Earth fast enough, though he is constantly thinking about getting back in time to save his children. Through the time-lapse in space, Cooper is forced to watch his children grow older through the ship’s video screen as humanity continues to struggle. Embittered by her father’s abandonment, Murph (Jessica Chastain) throws herself into the tutelage of Professor Brand, equally desperate to save humanity from the ground. Both father and daughter must race against time and fate to save the people left on Earth.

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I find it’s hard to properly summarize this film without giving too much away. But the tension-laden relationship between Cooper and Murph definitely drives the film in a major way. With every peril that Cooper, Amelia, and the team encounter on their journey there is the faint presence of the people left behind on Earth, a reminder of Murph.

There are a definite set of clues about the ending that carry through the film, but Nolan muddies the waters and spirals you off on another leg of the adventure in order to make you forget. It is only after the movie is finished and you’ve had some time to breathe that the clues might come off as heavy-handed; we trick ourselves into thinking we knew it all along.

Much of the story’s strength can be attributed to writer, Jonathan Nolan. Whenever the Nolan brothers collaborate they create stronger films than when they’re apart. Some of the best parts of the film are the feather-light touches of humor that allow you to care about the characters just a few inches more. In particular the robot characters TARS (Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart) allow for moments of odd humor and wit that lighten the mood just enough for you to be ready to plunge back into the mystery.

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As for the director, Christopher Nolan surely must be one of the greatest of our generation, in large part because he makes a 169 minute (2 hours 49 minutes) movie riveting. He manages to critique our present by presenting a desolate future. It’s a future that isn’t slick. In fact, it’s rather dingy. But the tech for this film feels tangible. All of these factors combine to create a world that might hit a little close to home, but that is also what makes it a good, relevant piece of science fiction.

The acting is strong from all fronts. McConaughey fits the role of reluctant explorer well, looking equal parts rugged and gaunt. Anne Hathaway provides one of the better speeches in the film about the importance of love that will bring tears to the eye. Jessica Chastain continues to be the go-to in Hollywood for strong, emotionally aggressive performances. And if Michael Caine could release an audio-book of him reading classic poetry, that would be fantastic. The only person whom I feel wasn’t fully utilized was Casey Affleck as the adult Tom. Though Affleck is undeniably skilled, his character wasn’t given enough of a chance to do anything more than look resigned or angry.

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There are some undeniable comparisons to Gravity (2013)–themes of rebirth, a dark-haired woman of science facing her fears, and the increasing isolation of space to name a few–but for my money, Interstellar is the more satisfying film. For one thing, though there are CGI effects in Interstellar, Nolan blatantly tries to do as much as possible with sets and does not solely rely on computer animation for world building. In the long run, I think Interstellar will age better than Gravity.

It’s equally easy to compare Interstellar to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Nolan clearly created this film as a tip of the hat to one of his favorite films, though he may have tipped his hat a bit too far in some places: I was initially afraid upon meeting TARS and CASE that we would have a HAL situation on our hands. Thankfully, Nolan is able to distinguish himself from his influences overall.

Though critics have given mixed reviews on Interstellar, it is a film undeniably worth seeing if for no other reason that to form your own opinion. For me, Interstellar earns 4 movie bubbles–A Poppable Product.

I get most excited about movies when I get inspired to teach them in a classroom, and I would love to one day teach a class on science fiction that would include Interstellar because it’s a film that forces you to think.

Thanks for popping in!

Why Gravity Keeps Me Down

With a grand total of seven Oscars this year, Gravity has been labeled the best of the best by those in the know. Believe me, when I first saw it on the big screen in 3D, I was captivated; held at the edge of my seat by a raw anticipation and chest hammering fear for Dr. Ryan Stone. The further I got from the movie theater’s glow though, the more issues I began to see with the film. There seems to be a push-pull of good and bad with Gravity that, for me at least, unbalances the film overall when I look back at the experience. Here are what I think are the central problems…

Problem #1: Gravity is a cinematic experience. At first glance that sounds like a mighty fine compliment, and if you’re sitting in a plush theater seat then it is absolutely a good thing. Here it means that the film just does not translate as well to a smaller screen. Once upon a time, movies were formulated to be seen on large screens only and then the television and home viewer markets emerged at pivotal moments in the 50’s and 80’s respectively that changed movie-watching forever. Movies now have to think about making profits on the big screen and many kinds of small screens. That glorious immense feeling of space that Gravity does so well lacks its overwhelming quality on any other screen but a theater. Unless you’re one of the lucky few that have a full size movie screen in your home, this one just won’t feel the same.

Problem # 2 Ah, ah, AHHHHHH. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that roughly 80% of the dialogue in this movie is Sandra Bullock screaming. And who can blame her? She’s drifting in space! While Sandy B (as I affectionately call her) is a phenomenal actress and makes the meager dialogue in Gravity feel like it holds emotional weight, if you think about the dialogue it is bland and sophomoric. It’s a credit to Sandra Bullock that she made such empty dialogue feel full, which leads me to…

Problem # 3 Poor story points. The father-son Cuaron duo wrote a story that is bare bones, leaving the technology to fill in the gap. I’m not really sure what Dr. Stone’s job is on Earth or why she ended up in space. There are throwaway answers to these questions given by the film but deeper answers might have connected me more to Stone’s character. She’s a little too aloof and off-putting when we first meet her and it takes a good long while for that distance to close. Then there is the random inclusion of Stone’s dead four year old daughter as a central story point, which is an obvious emotional ploy. How do we make a panicky, inept astronaut likable? We’ll give her a dead loved one. Oh, even better that loved one is a young child who died traumatically. Let me be clear: movies are made to manipulate our emotions, but when the moves are too blatant they don’t work.  As a viewer it felt like a smack in the face. Not OK.

Problem #4 It’ll look old in ten years or less. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when one places technology in one’s film, the piece is already dated. Unfortunately, this is a constant problem for movies. There are already scenes in Gravity that look too computerized and are painfully unreal. Much has been said about what Cuaron and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, have accomplished with this film, and I’m not denying that they did wonders with CGI but I don’t think this film will age well. This may be a thought for a different post but I think the Academy needs to have an award for successful use of CGI, because I’m not 100% willing to call what Cuaron and Lubezki did cinematography. Think about Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993): the tech was wondrous for its time but now looks a tad dated. Jurassic Park used CGI but did not overly depend upon it; there is still storytelling that does not need the dinos in every scene, which is why it’s still a classic. Gravity’s lack of narrative flair only emphasizes the technology, which will make the aging process more apparent.

Problem #5 Heavy thematic material makes the audience out to be stupid. Holy cow, can we hammer the theme of rebirth home any harder? Stone’s fetal position in the space station with an umbilical-like tether floating around her. Stone’s scream of “I want to live!”  And then her crawling out of the water and relearning how to walk in the end. If I’m sitting in a theater thinking about how obvious the theme is, that is not good storytelling. Let me reach for it, for goodness sake! Themes are amazing elements in stories both on the screen and on the page, and part of the fun of themes is sussing them out. Subtlety is key. Treat your audience like they’re intelligent and they’ll treat your film the same way.

All of these issues  lead me to the conclusion that Gravity is only watchable once. That is not to say that Alfonso Cuaron has not achieved something special and of the moment, merely that I do not think Gravity will stand the test of time. Perhaps I will be wrong, but we’ll have to have that conversation in another ten years or so.