Impossible But Necessary

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“That’s impossible!” “But necessary.” — a very exciting exchange in Christopher & Jonathan Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR.

It reminded me of seeing SON OF PALEFACE as a kid — did I mention this before — a decisive moment in my young life — Bob Hope has to support a jalopy with a missing wheel, holding it up with a lasso rope round the axle WHILE STANDING IN IT as they drive through the prairie. As Roy Rogers rides off to retrieve the rogue wheel, Hope calls after him — “Hurry up, this is impossible!”

I swear, prairie-like vistas opened up for me, universes of possibility. If you can make a joke out of the impossibility of the story your telling, surely you can do anything?

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There aren’t jokes of that kind in INTERSTELLAR — in fact, one of the discredited tropes the film insists on using is a comedy relief robot who has been programmed to be funny. Comedy relief characters in general are a discredited trope since nearly everybody is funny sometimes and nobody is always funny — having a wisecracking droid is just inviting me to question why the Nolan gestalt didn’t program some humour into the human characters, even though that wouldn’t quite be fair because if you have Matthew McConaughey you’re going to get a little wit sneaking in somewhere.

So, no world-changing jokes, but plenty of impossibility, which is par for the course in this kind of thing, and there’s arguably nothing sillier than GRAVITY’s inescapable cloud of debris a planet wide, which I forgave fairly readily. This movie didn’t wow me like GRAVITY but it has lots of impressive spectacle, ideas, actors, plot twists…

The impossibility bothers me a bit — intimations of mortality — when we make films about saving the Earth, we seem compelled to make them absurdly unrealistic. I loved WALL-E, but the human race returns from space at the first appearance of a little sprout, which grows in an upturned refrigerator in defiance of all photosynthesis and sense, and somehow the arrival of thousands of fat people is supposed to make things BETTER? I guess that’s covered by a line in INTERSTELLAR about not telling little kids that the world is ending, but I would be more cheered by hopeful fables that have some element of plausibility. The Bokononist subtext of all these reassuring fantasies seems to be that we’re all fucked.

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We didn’t see INTERSTELLAR in IMAX, alas — exchanging the free tickets we got after an interrupted screening of THE BABADOOK, I got us seats near the front because close = big, but Fiona then made me move back a few rows (early screening, lots of spare seats). After DARK KNIGHT RISES I was looking forward to seeing Michael Caine blubbering on a screen the size of a football pitch — when that bottom lip starts to wobble, you really need Sensurround for the full magnitude — but we settled for booming sound — Nolan follows the Kubrick-Cuaron model, no FX in space, but Hans Zimmer booms away to fill most of the silences.It’s one of those scores where you can hear the temp track filtering through, but quite effective.

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Some have suggested that the movie shows that Nolan is not, as has been argued, a cold director — I think it shows that he still has some way to go if he wants to be either Kubrick on the one hand or Spielberg on the other. Teenager Mackenzie Foy deserves a miniature Oscar for providing the film’s emotional core, which has to be passed on, relay-fashion, to a succession of other actors as her character grows up — a trick the movie manages surprisingly well with megawatt starpower casting and flashbacks and… other sequences which prevent us from losing sight of Foy altogether. Weirdly, though, the ending, which should be gigantically moving, is fobbed off onto another character altogether, and then NOT DELIVERED. The big emotional scenes don’t happen. I think the Nolans see this as British restraint, but it feels it’s more a discomfort with demonstrations of emotion — which is odd, since we get some more blubbering from Caine. There are plenty of emotional scenes, but insufficient PAY-OFF to a fantastically powerful and protracted drama about a father separated from his children.

Speaking of explaining things — the movie has a really intriguing start, foregrounding the best actors (though it’s nice when Hathaway and then Damon turn up later — Nolan may have actually noticed that AH was the best thing in his third BATMAN — a breath of lightness amid th suffocating clouds of noxious testosterone and doominess), but once we get to space stuff, the authors have apparently given up on any desire to have exposition emerge dramatically and plausibly. There isn’t too much “as you know” dialogue where one character patiently outlines information already familiar to the other, who inexplicably doesn’t say SHUT UP YOU BORING FOOL — but there is a hell of a lot of “As you should know” dialogue, with astronaut McConaughey, for instance, inquiring what will happen if an airlock malfunctions — I think that would have been covered in basic training. Justifiably reticent to infodump the science around a boardroom table, the writers parcel it out in digestible bundles in order to let you grasp vital facts just as they become relevant to the unfolding events, but it’s hard not to notice that our hero must be a remarkably incurious man to have traveled in space for two years to reach a wormhole without knowing what a wormhole is, and that’s only one of the least egregious examples.

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But I wouldn’t want to put you off seeing it — it has a giant talking Kit-Kat biscuit, some lovely space visuals and sound, and a bit where MM reaches out to push a button, and we see, reflected in his space helmet visor, his gloved hand apparently reach forth and touch his nose. It’s a lovely, silly moment that seems to happen by accident — Nolan in no way intended this to be funny — a glimpse of goofy natural chaos in an otherwise predetermined game.

 

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18 Responses to “Impossible But Necessary”

  1. I enjoyed Gravity as a lady-in-distress thriller, but I’ve pretty much had it with outer space. What seemed like a limitless vista in 2001 has quite severe visual limits. It’s just a big black screen with things dangling in front of it, IMO.

  2. It depends what’s dangling though — just like in real life.

  3. “a comedy relief robot who has been programmed to be funny”
    But a comedy relief robot who has been programmed to be funny but isn’t or doesn’t want to be- Marvin Mk. II, perhaps- could be funny.
    As for impossibility, I agree with whoever said “I don’t mind the impossible but I won’t put up with the preposterous.”

  4. Some of the robot’s lines were good — there’s a genuinely amusing one very near the end — but giving almost all the comedy to one character suggests a limited understanding of humour.

    I do like the idea of a character compelled by programming to be funny — it’s a little like what I was getting at in my clown film, where a character has to try to be serious, and literally can’t to save his life.

  5. hummm but David is it worth £9? Have you seen Mr Turner yet? i’d like your take on it. i am still wondering where those 8 hours went

  6. It’s worth £9 if you like space epics.

    Still to see Mr Turner — it looked as if my fond memories of Topsy Turvy would help me overcome my Mike Leigh phobia, but this has not yet been borne out by actual cinema-going.

  7. it does provide acting opportunities to at least 3 cats but I think I’d like a debate about whether it is actually film ….or a varying set with farrow and ball colours with good accessories and a lot of grunting. I think i’m on the fence about space epics I may give this a miss.

  8. For me this was chiefly about driving and parking. Lots of sliding into car seats, reversing and shouting at other people to pull levers. Like leaving a supermarket on Christmas Eve.

    Even when trying to soothe his ten year old daughter, MM refuses to push out of Threatening Petrol Attendant mode.

    And the ‘love changes everything’ ruse – there may only have been three of us at the screening but the mutual embarrassment was palpable.

  9. I guess the former stuff is appropriate to a film about the stresses of travel. The latter reminds me of a conversation with our mutual friend Dylan where he bet me I’d never guess in a million years what the fifth element in The Fifth Element was.

    “Is it love?”

    Less embarrassing in a piece of dayglo Gallic fluff than in a self-serious pomp-awe-bloater like the Nolans’ latest, I suppose.

  10. “Mr. Turner” is rather enjoyable.

  11. Yeah, I think I’ll probably like it. Something about Leigh in period drag is pleasurable — some dismal quality is neutralised. You still couldn’t pay me to sit through Vera Drake, but other than that the rule may hold.

  12. i await with interest your take on Mr Turner!

  13. Lawrence Chadbourne Says:

    Hi David: The correct line is “That’s not possible.” I liked Interstellar more than you but then I saw it in IMAX.

  14. Thanks! I realized when I came to write about it I’d have to paraphrase a bit, even though the line impressed me at the time.

  15. I like space epics, so I liked this one well enough, although I had many of the same problems with it that you did. I saw it in IMAX, by the way, and I thought the scenes on Earth looked almost literally like shit. The space and alien planet stuff looked terrific. Maybe this was a visual metaphor for the film’s themes (Earth is death?), but I couldn’t see how making the faces too dark to read was an intended effect. Could have been the theater I saw it in (real IMAX), which I just heard is scheduled to be remodeled.

  16. David – my pleasure at watching INTERSTELLAR was increased exponentially by Shadowplay. Not from your actual INTERSTELLAR post here, but from your post on THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, back in October. Imagine my delight when I realized that Matthew McCaunaughey was going to save the human race from the impossible backside of Peter Lorre’s bookcase. The only thing that could have delighted me more would have been the sight, after McCaunaughey knocked out a few books, of Lorre’s limpid peepers staring back at him over the shelf. A scenario that I am sure exists in an alternate cut in a parallel universe two wormholes over.

  17. Certainly needs to exist as a fan edit! Thanks.

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