Friday, March 20, 2015

Examining the Greats: Noir Classic Sunset Boulevard Offers a Critique of Fame That Holds Up Today

Author's Note: Hey guys, so, I wrote this post because a friend specifically requested a review of this movie (and because, you know, it's a really good film). There are so many movies and so many TV shows out there which I have a lot of opinions on, and when there's all that stuff to write about, I end up getting overwhelmed and not writing about them at all. So, when someone specifically says "Hey, write a post about this," then it makes it really easy for me to do so. So, please enjoy this discussion of Sunset Boulevard, an absolute classic that is currently on Netflix for those who haven't seen it. And be sure to let me know if you have any requests and want to know my thoughts about either films or television or theater or what have you. It could be great, it could be terrible, it could be anything. Maybe you want me to do a top ten list on a certain subject. If you have an idea for a post, definitely let me know!

TLDR: I not only welcome suggestions, I encourage them. And now, enjoy this discussion of
Sunset Boulevard. -Miles

Hey, that's the name of the movie!
One of the most fascinating genres out there is that of Film Noir. Defined as "a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace," Film Noir is equal parts vague and distinct. It's vague in that something like "mood" is really not quantifiable and can be difficult to indentify. But it's also distinct in that, like pornography, you know it when you see it. While writing this post, I tried to think of a more precise definition of Film Noir, but failed to do so. Really, it is all about the mood. And it's a mood that's going somewhat out of style. Recent crime films like Brick or last year's underrated A Walk Among the Tombstones, or even The Big Lebowski often have allusions to film noir, but are never quite able to mimic the style. It's a filmmaking style that is so identifiable with a certain era that recent films are unable to truly capture it. The Film Noir style at once dates a film and preserves it as a classic. Even as these films are no longer getting made, Film Noir remains a recognizable and popular genre, and it always will be.

Sunset Boulevard epitomizes Film Noir. Even more so than films like The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard has the feel of timelessness. Watching it now, it still feels innovative, new, and exciting, at once showcasing the qualities and techniques of the era and advancing them further into unknown and groundbreaking territory. Director Billy Wilder is masterful, balancing several plates in the air at once. Let's go back to that definition: "marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace." All three are present in Sunset Boulevard, but its forte is definitely "menace." From its camera work to its pacing to its fantastic Oscar-winning score, everything is designed to keep its audience on the edge of their seats, even in the more lighthearted moments of comedy and romance. This menace is present from the very first scene, where a voiceover narration tells us about a man who we see floating in a swimming pool, dead. If that opening image wasn't striking enough, we then find out that our narrator IS in fact our drowned victim, and the film is a flashback told from his perspective. The story being, of course, how he ends up where he is. If you know a better way to lay the groundwork for suspense then I'd like to hear it. As the film goes on that opening image of our narrator (a Hollywood screenwriter named Joe, played by William Holden) is always fresh in our minds, and the underlying threat of his inevitable death is an impossible menace to shake.

He dead.
But even with such a great opening shot, the film would have no menace without a great villain. And this film's villain comes from a fairly unlikely source: Norma Desmond, an aging actress played by Gloria Swanson. Desmond is a brilliant character. Even if you have not seen the film, you know the character by two of her most recognizable quotes. A former silent film star who has not worked in years, in her very first scene, she rejects the notion that she's no longer famous. "I am big! It's the pictures that got small," she famously exclaims. This tells you everything you need to know about the character: her inflated sense of self-worth, yes, but also her denial, and her inability to accept her own obscurity.

It's a great performance, but not exactly a subtle one.
After Joe stumbles upon her estate, he begins assisting Norma as she attempts to write a screenplay for what she feels will be her big comeback movie. Provided with a rent-free room and extravagant gifts and all the amenities he could ask for, Joe stays with Norma despite her lack of writing talent and her clear obsession with him. Through Joe's eyes, we get a glimpse at Norma's post-stardom life, and it is an incredible depiction of the morbid fascination we have with the concept of fame, and the difficulty some have to live up to the scrutiny of the limelight. Everything about the film is well done, but it is this examination of fame that most contributes to Sunset Boulevard's sense of timelessness. As long as there are celebrities, this movie will have relevance. It is always devastating to consider the cruelty with which we sometimes treat those who have achieved success in the arts, and it covers a wide range. When people find stardom in their youth, their tendency to "crash and burn" is reported on by the news circuit with an undeniably malicious relish. Consider how every action made by Britney Spears was torn apart only a few years ago--her notoriously troubled divorce after only 55 hours of marriage was reported on with glee. Consider how once promising actresses like Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes are now better known for their behavior than for their talent (there was actually a really great letter written by, of all people, Nick Cannon addressing this--it's definitely worth a read). Looking at the current celebrity landscape, it feels like the person most ripe for a fall is Miley Cyrus, with eye-grabbing titles painting her as a "bad girl," in a desperate attempt to rob her of her Disney image. I will admit that I'm not a fan of Miley Cyrus--I don't think she's a good singer and there are things she's done and said that I don't agree with. But it is clear that the tabloid reports of her are way out of control. Whenever she and a boyfriend break up (like her well-reported relationship with Liam Hemsworth) it's treated as scandal when, in fact, I know many 22 year olds who go in and out of relationships all the time. There has been a lot of discussion on her alleged use of marijuana with pictures of Cyrus and a bong causing massive uproar across the pages of TMZ. Even if you don't feel marijuana should be this really the worst offense? Considering there are celebrities battling much stronger demons, pot seems to be not as big of a deal as so many make it out to be. And, besides, there are plenty of celebrities who freely talk about their marijuana use. But when Seth Rogen talks about how much pot he smokes (hint: much more than Miley Cyrus does) it's not a scandal. Only when it's someone like Miley Cyrus.

Pictured: Miley Cyrus.

You may notice that all of the tabloid names I've mentioned are women. Specifically young, attractive women who are painted as sex symbols at an incredibly young age. And this sexism is not lost on Sunset Boulevard (which hey, remember, that's what this post is about!) Norma Desmond was a young Hollywood star who was cast aside after silent films go out of fashion. Norma is not only not working, but she is no longer beloved as she once was. As Joe tells her, "There's nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25." But she denies her aging, and pushes herself on Joe with an air of desperation. She wants to feel young again, she wants to feel important again, and she wants to feel attractive again. Swanson is brilliant here. She captures Norma's pleading sadness with tragic aplomb. As a villain, nothing she does is out of malice, it is all out of the basic need to regain her former glory. She manipulates Joe, cunningly, and brilliantly, offering him gifts and money and lodging and everything he dreams of. "I always wanted a pool," he dryly says in narration. All so that he'll stay and shower her with adoration. But her manipulation comes out of self-imposed delusion. Because of this, it is never clear just how aware she is. Does she know Joe does not love her, and only stays for the money? Possibly. Probably, even. But does she care? This time, the answer is "probably not." The character is hard to feel bad for--she has the wealth, after all, to be able to put up a pretty convincing facade for herself, and she literally murders the one person who gets in her way of maintaining that facade. But Swanson finds Norma's crucial humanity. She is pitiful. You do feel sorry for her. It becomes clear immediately that she will be responsible for Joe's eventual death, so I don't think I'm really giving anything away by saying that at the end of the film, she is led away by the police. This final scene is at once heartbreaking and creepy. As she is led away, she becomes convinced that the reporters are there because she's in a film again. The police, in her eyes, are simply her fans. This is not real, this is just part of another film, and she's in the starring role. Even those who haven't seen the film knows her famous line "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," but I don't think everyone realizes that she speaks the line as she is being carted off to jail. She's just happy to be in front of the camera again.

It's fucking heartbreaking.

What's brilliant about Swanson's performance is the respectability she gives the character. She's pathetic in so many way, but we understand why she was once a star. There is a grandness to her as well as a menace. Remember, this entire film is narrated by Joe, who is now dead because of her. And yet, he does not consider her with anger, he considers her with sympathy and awe. And Wilder does the same with his direction.

Joe reacting coolly to Norma's advances.

Joe is, of course, not the only one feeding into her delusion. While Norma Desmond is the breakout character of the picture, I was also fascinated by the character of Max von Mayerling, her butler, played by Erich von Stroheim. At first seen as simply a doting butler, once his background was revealed, it was a genuinely shocking moment (and, if you haven't seen the film, you might want to skip ahead to the next paragraph and avoid the spoiler). Max is not just a butler, but a former film director, one who directed Norma constantly. Joe is aghast that an artist of such prestige is now performing the duties of a servant, but Max has another surprise: not only did he used to be a director, he is Norma's ex-husband, and he continues to dote on her out of his love for her both as a person, and as a star. He does not want to see her get hurt, and tries his best to shield her from the reality of her own obscurity. He even writes her letters from imaginary friends. Max is an interesting one--I'm tempted to think that his actions are destructive and only contribute to Norma's own fragile state of denial. But, look what happens when Joe confronts her with the truth? She kills him and seems to revert into an even worse state. Max knows Norma better than anyone else. He knows that feeding her delusion is the best way to help her cope (and, as I already mentioned, she has the means to keep such a delusion going). He's a fascinating character: one part servant, one part lover, one part artist, one part fan.

Erich von Stroheim as the butler, Max

Max is, by the way, played by Erich von Stroheim who was himself a silent film star and who later had a successful directing career. And Gloria Swanson was herself a silent film star (which is what she was best known for until this film launched a bit of a comeback for her and became her most recognizable role). The casting choices throughout the film are pretty brilliant, and especially at the time of its release, would have been identifiable. At one point, Norma and Joe watch one of Norma's old films and the clip that they watch is actually from a film that Gloria Swanson was in, and which Erich von Stroheim directed. These little in-jokes were very intentional on Wilder's part, and he strives to make the film sound as realistic as possible. Although Norma Desmond is a fictional character, everything else about the film is real. The other films and other actors mentioned were all stars at the time, and plenty of silent film stars (most notably Buster Keaton) cameo as themselves. But the most impressive cameo is the director Cecil B. DeMille as himself, who actually plays a fairly prominent role. In talking about her glory days, Norma always bring up DeMille, and a turning point in the film is when DeMille meets with her. Once again, the casting here is pretty powerful. DeMille is authentic and believable because he IS this great director, not just an actor playing one. And, more than that, he had worked with Gloria Swanson and is credited with bringing Swanson to stardom. In the film, he refers to Norma by the affectionate pet name "young fella," which he reportedly used to call Swanson herself. The casting actually reminded me a lot of the recent Best Picture winner Birdman in how it used its casting choices so effectively to manipulate our impressions of the film.

Cecil B. DeMille fawns over Norma

But all of these observations could simply come down to being fun facts. Whether you know of DeMille's works or of Gloria Swanson's reputation, the film still works. And why? Because it's entertaining. It's a well-told story through the writing, directing, and acting (it's one of the few films to be nominated for an Oscar in all four acting categories). Looking through the catalog of old films, it's remarkable how many don't hold up despite critical acclaim at the time. But it's also remarkable how many still work today. Despite the difference in time and the difference in society, a good story just works. And that's what Sunset Boulevard is.

As the credits rolled on Sunset Boulevard I found myself thinking about the title. Sunset Boulevard is, of course, an actual street in Los Angeles, and it's where Norma Desmond lives in the film. But on the surface it seems like an odd choice for a title. After all, Norma could have lived on any street in L.A., so why was this one chosen as not only her home, but as the film's title. It made me think of what a sunset is really. When we watch a sunset, we are watching a giant star as it fades from our view. As the sun sets, some of its brilliant light lingers, and then eventually it is gone. In a short time, another identical star will rise. The day, like stardom, is fleeting. It is admired, and then forgotten. Norma Desmond is a sun who is setting. The film is her desperately giving off her last bursts of light, hoping to get one last "ooh and aah" from the spectators. It is a tragic story. But, like a sunset, it is a beautiful one to watch unfold on the screen.

Norma, ready for her close up at last, being taken away.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Adventures in Cinematic Failure: Why Interstellar is a Mess of Cosmic Proportions

Author's Note: Here it is guys. My write-up for Interstellar. I've been promising this for months and have been writing bits and pieces of it every so often ever since I saw it several months ago. I am sorry it took so long but, as you can see, I had a lot to say on the matter. Considering how long it took me to write this, I apologize if it ever comes across as disjointed or rambly, but I hope you enjoy my thoughts on the film anyway. Here they are: my thoughts on Interstellar and why it is, no joke, my choice for the worst film of 2014.

This movie is not alright alright alright.
Before its release, it was already impossible to not be a little bit intrigued by Interstellar. Writer and director Christopher Nolan has a deserved reputation as one of the most innovative filmmakers working today. With his breakout hit Memento in 2000, Nolan cemented himself as a filmmaker with a unique vision and distinct visual style. His acclaimed Batman trilogy has its critics (I personally was really not a fan of The Dark Knight Rises in particular) but even its harshest detractors will admit that it is a solid series which completely redefined the genre (for better or for worse). And The Dark Knight is awesome. While the Batman trilogy was obviously based on previously existing source material, with Inception, Nolan proved that Memento was not a fluke--he was still full of interesting original ideas. Nolan is a master of scope and ambition--he attempts things that others would not. I would argue that this is probably his greatest skill as a director, and something that makes me admire his artistic voice. 

Even more than some of his other projects, Interstellar seemed like a very personal project for Nolan. This was a film that he so clearly wanted to make, and he had a $165 million dollar budget to make it. Tackling a subject as grand as the entire universe, Interstellar was one of the most highly anticipated films of the year. And when it came out, some really liked it. Many critics (mostly online critics) have hailed it as one of the best films of the year, and it appeared on its share of Top Ten Lists. But for the most part, the reviews were mixed. There were some positive reviews that were a bit more tepid, praising parts of the film while feeling it wasn't quite as good as it could have been. And then there was a section of viewers that were much harsher. They were a small group, but there were viewers who felt that Interstellar was a mess from beginning to end. That it was one of the stupidest films they'd seen in recent memory. Beyond that, they felt it was painful to watch. That every minute of watching the film felt like a terrible court-ordered prison sentence, as if all of the terrible things they'd done had brought them to this movie theater, and that having to endure the film before them was a punishment to atone for their horrible crimes.

Where did I line up on this spectrum of responses to Interstellar? Well, given the title of this post, no one will be surprised that I would place myself in the latter group.

This is McConaughey's "surprised face"

I hated this film. While there were certainly worse films made last year--the usual Michael Bay trash comes to mind--I don't seek those out, and can say with conviction that Interstellar was the absolute worst film I saw in 2014. Yes. That makes it worse than Winter's Tale in my eyes. Winter's Tale was terrible, but at least I enjoyed watching it. Interstellar made me wish I could remove my brain from my body.

Before I go any further, I do want to say that I don't mean to offend those who enjoyed Interstellar, as I know many did. The beauty of art is that it is subjective. There has never been any creative project that everyone has loved, and that's how art should be. I know that, as a film buff, there are plenty of acclaimed films that I am not necessarily a fan of. The one that comes to mind is the Martin Scorsese masterpiece Taxi Driver. Considered one of the best films ever made, I simply do not get its appeal or why it merits the reputation it has (which I mentioned in my review of Nightcrawler). And then, of course, there's another Scorsese film, The Wolf of Wall Street, which I have a well-known distaste for. But despite my personal feelings for these films, I understand why they are so well-regarded. I can see things in each film that people would respond to and enjoy. Most of the time when I'm in the minority in regards to a film (whether I like it when no one else does or I hate when no one else does) I can understand where the other side is coming from. And I am capable to separate my opinions from the film with its objective quality.

But Interstellar is different. I truly cannot understand how anyone could enjoy this film. When people--including people whose opinions I value and respect--have stated that they liked the movie, I am genuinely shocked. Because, for me, Interstellar's flaws actually make it objectively bad. It is not well written, it is not well made, it is simply not a good movie. And that's what I'd like to discuss in this post. I could ramble about how much I disliked Interstellar for pages and pages (regular readers of this blog or those who have ever had a conversation with me about anything know how wordy I often get) but I am going to try and not just point out the things that I didn't like, but the faults that I feel make it a textbook example of bad filmmaking. In other words, not just why I didn't like it, but why I think it's bad, which actually are different ideas. Just because it's based on 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn't make it 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Like this film? I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave.

First, I'd like to address one of the things that people talk about most when praising the film: its adherence to the rules of science. In a world where sci-fi seems to be delving into weirder and weirder synopses (Snowpiercer, my favorite sci-fi film of the year was about humans escaping an ice age by living on a train that comes complete with a rave room for no reason) the goal to strive for scientific accuracy is certainly an admirable one. And Interstellar does get space right, probably more than any other film to date. An authority no less than Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave it a scientific seal of approval. The film's attention to detail was so great that the filmmakers actually made a scientific discovery about black holes while doing research for the film. And this is one of the things that had me most excited about Interstellar going into it. So I was shocked by how the science was simply not explained or made accessible. In Snowpiercer, the premise might have been ridiculous, but it wasn't meant to be plausible. The rules of the world are well-explained to us and made accessible. Would it work in real life? No. But was I able to suspend my disbelief and accept the rules of the film? Absolutely. And once those rules were set up, the film stuck to them and had continuity within itself. I feel like Interstellar, on the other hand, might have chosen to rest on its laurels--by putting too much focus on the science itself, Nolan forgot that his audience are not rocket scientists. I don't care if it all scientifically made sense because I had absolutely no idea what was going on. And I don't think it's because of my own stupidity--it's not like the film provided an explanation that I just didn't understand. The film didn't even attempt to explain how certain crucial things were happening. When a morse code message is sent through time which saves the entire human race, the only explanation offered is "because gravity." Honestly, that explanation is used for various things throughout the film. If the film Gravity hadn't been released last year, I'm pretty sure that would have been this film's title.

And no matter how much of the space science is actually realistic, there is a gaping scientific inaccuracy in the film that I cannot believe no one is talking about. The film takes place at a time where Earth's climate does not allow crops to grow. Pretty much the only crop that has not died out is corn, which is why there are multiple shots of huge, expansive cornfields. But...those cornfields look really healthy. Even if corn is surviving, there's no way it would be thriving. And those cornstalks are HUGE. How? How is this one plant doing so well in a climate where no other flora can exist? I'd ordinarily be fine with accepting this, but when so much has been made about its scientific realism, I found it pretty distracting and am surprised the film hasn't been criticized more for this.

Murphy and Cooper stand in front of fields and fields of clearly dying plants.

How Nolan decides our society will react to this food shortage is also unrealistic. In an early scene, our main character Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) meets with his children's teachers. They imply that most everyone in this society becomes a farmer, the reasoning being that with the food shortage, farming was a priority. But this is, for some reason, given greater importance over being a scientist. When humanity is clearly on its last legs, why has the general public made its mind up to simply give up on science, the one field that might be able to find a solution to their problems long-term? Surely they can spare a few farmers for that. When McConaughey accidentally stumbles upon NASA's secret headquarters (which is really lucky for NASA, since before they were really in need of a pilot to command their giant rocket into space for their mission to save all of humankind and a guy with astronaut experience who knew the head of the program just sorta happened to kinda show up) he mentions he thought that NASA was defunct and it's revealed they've been operating in secret. How?! And why?! If you have a rocket that might be able to colonize in outer space and, again, SAVE ALL OF HUMANKIND, why are you keeping this secret? Certainly people would want to know about this? And perhaps you could find some talented people to help you work on this project. Maybe that way, society would actually encourage people to be scientists. But, even if I were to accept that this was the world's collective reaction to all of Earth's impending problems, the movie still falls apart. When Cooper meets with the teachers and they tell him that his son probably won't go to college since it's no longer necessary, Cooper gets really indignant. He shouldn't be surprised by this. The teachers make it sound like colleges as a concept don't really exist anymore except for a few. Nolan wants his audience to agree with Cooper. "Yeah, he's right," Nolan wants us to say. "His son should be able to go to college and learn things!" It's meant to be commentary, but this commentary isn't relevant to our society. We live in a time where education may be underfunded, but it's still encouraged. His critique is on a fictional society that he has created, and which are unrealistic. We don't need McConaughey as a rallying point. And so his indignation serves only to illuminate how unrealistic a world Nolan has set up, as his own main character finds the rules of the world ridiculous.

One of the teachers is played by David Oyelowo, who really deserves a better movie than this.

But that speaks to the broader problems that the film has. No matter how scientifically accurate, Interstellar's faults tend to be on the human level. If there is one criticism that I think is truly Interstellar's Achilles' Heel, it lies in the characters, and that's what I'm going to focus on for the majority of this review. These characters are simply not defined in any way. I did not care about a single one, and I cannot believe that anyone else did either.

Let's consider Cooper. He's our main character, but what do we actually know about him? That he's a loving father, that he's a brilliant pilot, that his wife died. These are all circumstances, they are facts, but they are not qualities of personality. This isn't entirely Matthew McConaughey's fault, it's simply how the character is written. There's a moment that really sums up McConaughey's performance for me. At one point, McConaughey watches some videos from home. 23 years have passed on Earth since Cooper has seen any of these videos (I'll explain why in a bit). He watches all of them in succession and, in doing so, watches his son and daughter grow up. Basically, he's watching Boyhood. He sees his son grow and get married and have a child of his own. He learns that John Lithgow died (oh yeah, John Lithgow is in this film as Cooper's father-in-law who provides absolutely nothing to the film's plot or development). And as he watches, tears stream down his face. It is what I consider the strongest moment in the film, and the time I came closest to feeling emotional involvement. But, why exactly was it emotional? Well, it was emotional because of circumstance. The idea of a father watching his son grow while he was away is a powerful one, and that provides an emotional connection. But the connection has nothing to do with the characters themselves. The son (played by Casey Affleck) is hardly a character at all and the bits of footage we see here show the typical milestones in his life, but reveal nothing about his character. Cooper watches as his son becomes a father, but is given nothing to indicate whether his son is a good father or not. McConaughey acts the hell out of this scene, tears stream down his face--it's raw and it's heartfelt. In this scene, and in the film as a whole, I give McConaughey an A for effort. He is acting so hard. But it's in the aid of superficial moments as opposed to great character building. When he cries watching the videos, I'm not sure why. Does he miss his children? Does he regret not being on Earth for this time? Is he proud of his son? Is he moved by the love shown in these videos? Is he simply overwhelmed by it all? Any of these could be a valid explanation for his tears. But none of these reasons are conveyed to us, either by the writing or by the performance. We never get a glimpse into Cooper's mind, and we never understand what really drives him. What makes this guy tick? What makes him interesting?

To backtrack a bit, despite him being a major character in the first third of the film, this was the only picture from the movie I could find with John Lithgow in it.

This is not new for a Nolan protagonist. His protagonists are almost all white guys with dead wives. Don't believe me? Memento is about a guy seeking revenge on the man who killed his wife. Inception is about a guy who struggles so much with the loss of his dead wife that her memory invades his dreams and tries to kill him. Even in the Batman series, which is adapted material, he kills off Batman's love interest in the second film. And, of course, in Interstellar Cooper's wife is dead. There are problems with this trend, but the biggest problem is that Nolan seems to think that having a dead wife is the same thing as having a personality. It obviously isn't. Nolan likes to give his characters tragic backstories because in his mind that will make us sympathize with them or make them more interesting, but his characters end up not being fully realized because backstory does not make the character. I love Inception but can you honestly say that Cobb is a good character? Memento and Interstellar succeed because of their premises, not because of their characters. There's a reason that the only truly standout performance in all of Nolan's filmography is Heath Ledger's Joker, a performance that can very much be attributed to Ledger's own brilliance, crafted outside of Nolan's influence.

Cooper's blandness extends to the rest of the cast. I already mentioned how John Lithgow had no reason to be in the film, but he's hardly the only one. Cooper's fellow astronauts hardly have character traits at all. With Cooper on his humanity-saving starship are Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi). From now on, I will refer to Doyle as "Wes Bentley" because I don't think anyone would have remembered that his name was Doyle after they left the theater. I will refer to Romilly as "the black guy" because his name is similarly forgettable, but David Gyasi is not as recognizable as an actor. Also, he really is "the black guy," because except for David Oyelowo's tiny part at the beginning, he's the only person of color in this incredibly white futuristic universe. Also on the ship is a robot named TARS, voiced by Bill Irwin. These should have been incredibly important characters. When these astronauts accept this mission, they know that it is possible that they might not return to Earth again. And if they do return, many years will have past, practically a lifetime. These four astronauts are the only other people that they will ever see, probably for the rest of their lives, or at least for most of the rest of their lives. And yet we never see them interact, save for sciencey and official discussions about their mission. Amelia and Cooper talk privately, but at no point do the four of them sit down and have a conversation. Not once do they simply talk. We never find out what they enjoy, what sets them off, what do they have in common. In every other space movie, this is standard, and with good reason. When a crew is in outer space, the relations between them are crucial. And those relations don't arise from how they interact as scientists, they arise from how they interact as people. One of the most famous movie scenes in sci-fi history is the dinner scene from Alien. Granted, it's famous because at the end an alien bursts out of John Hurt's chest (spoiler) but before that happens, it's just the crew sitting around and acting as a family. We see them converse and we see them joke. The chestburster would have been surprising no matter what, but what makes this scene so iconic is that just seconds before, everything was so relatable. They were acting as if they were just having a Sunday dinner. This act of simply letting the characters have a conversation is sci-fi 101. Hell, it's storytelling 101. And it's absolutely missing from the film. In an almost three hour film, surely there was time for a single conversation between these four people who have to live together for the rest of their lives.

Cooper, Amelia, and the black guy discuss something about space because they don't talk about anything else ever.

At one point the crew checks out a planet where, due to gravity (again, "because gravity" serves as the film's best explanation) one hour on the planet's surface is the same as seven years on Earth or on the ship. I'm convinced that this is a metaphor, since every hour of watching this film felt like it took seven years off my life. It is decided that Cooper, Amelia, and Wes Bentley will go to check out the planet. When they land, they discover the planet is inhospitably covered with water and Wes Bentley is killed by a giant tidal wave (that wave is the film's best of its Oscar-winning visual effects). Hardly any time is spent mourning Wes Bentley. Cooper and Amelia start bickering about what one of them did wrong, before finally making up and returning to the ship. When they arrive, the black guy looks mildly surprised to see them and informs them they have been gone for 23 years. After they talk for a little bit, he goes "Where's Wes Bentley?" and Amelia and Cooper just kinda shake their heads. No one cries for Wes Bentley's loss.

"Wait, is that Wes Bentley? What's he doing here? He's not in this film, is he?" --Anne Hathaway

These reactions are absurd. Wes Bentley is, again, one of only four people that any of them will ever see for the entirety of their lives. And his passing is hardly commented on at all. They're sad, sure, but they should be DEVASTATED. Imagine if one third of the people in your life were suddenly killed in front of your eyes. The characters in Interstellar recover from such a trauma with remarkable ease. And then there's the black guy. I want to know what he's been up to for 23 years! He has spent 23 years alone, waiting for people who he says he gave up on returning long ago. He should be completely insane by now. When they return, his reaction should not be faint shock. He should be rushing up to hug them. The person-to-person interactions were downright weird. They were unrealistic, they were off-putting, and they were absolutely not thought out. And when these things are not thought out, the characters suffer. And when the characters suffer, we cannot relate to them, and that is the easiest way to destroy a film's success in my eyes.

The other characters don't fare much better. We have the robot, TARS, who actually has a kind of cool design (other detractors of the film have criticized it, but at least it was original) but an interesting design is not what makes a robot character work. We don't love characters like C-3PO or R2-D2 because of their design, it's for their personalities. TARS is, I think meant to be comedic. But we never see him actually do anything. Much like the other astronauts, TARS is never part of a conversation with the rest of the crew. At no point do we see his relation to Cooper. Is TARS a presence he relies on? He's an empty character whose potential is never met.

TARS is the monolith thing on the right. Buy your action figures now, kids!

Back on Earth there's Cooper's children. I've already mentioned his son, Casey Affleck, who never really has a personality but seems to suddenly and inexplicably turn evil towards the end of the film? I'm not sure. And then there's Murphy, Cooper's daughter, who is CLEARLY his favorite child. Her name comes from Murphy's Law. and I want to nitpick here. At one point, the following conversation happens.

MURPHY: Dad, why did you and mom name me after something that's bad?
COOPER: Well, we didn't.
MURPHY: Murphy's law?
COOPER: Murphy's law doesn't mean that something bad will happen. It means that whatever can happen, will happen.

Okay, this is nitpicking, and I know I promised that I wouldn't nitpick and would stick to broader problems but...THAT IS NOT WHAT MURPHY'S LAW MEANS. Murphy's Law means that anything bad that can happen will. It is an incredible pessimistic outlook on life which basically says to never expect anything good because the worst possible outcomes are always inevitable. So, Murphy is right. Naming her after Murphy's Law is really poor parenting. It doesn't just mean that "whatever can happen, will happen." That is stupid. Sorry, I just had to say that because it really bothered me. Although it does sum up my thoughts on this film: everything that could go wrong did.

It's a shame that her character's name is so stupid because the child actress who plays Murphy, Mackenzie Foy, actually gives what I think is the best performance of the film. Score one for child actors! She's engaging and she displays actual emotion which rises convincingly from what her character is going through. The only believable character interactions in the film are those between Cooper and Young Murphy, and I think this is because of Foy. She clearly paints Murphy as an intelligent child who loves her father, and who feels realistically hurt and confused at his choice to, in her eyes, abandon her. Unfortunately, she grows into Jessica Chastain who gives an incredibly phoned in performance. There's no spark of intelligence that we saw in Foy. Her irritation at her father as an adult doesn't come across as vulnerable, it now comes across as petty. The now adult Murphy is meant to be a brilliant scientist, and is ultimately the one who saves all of humankind. But we only know this because we are told by the film how brilliant she is. A chief NASA scientist played by Michael Caine, and another scientist played inexplicably by Topher Grace, praise how smart she is and how important the work she's doing is, but that's the only indication we get. Once again, it's just Nolan throwing more exposition and background at us rather than writing anything to showcase Murphy's intellect for us to see.

Cooper talks to Murphy, back when she was a fully-realized character.

But the character who is most under-served by the script is Amelia. I'm a big fan of Anne Hathaway--I think she's incredibly talented and am always excited to see her work. I have never understood the odd hatred people supposedly have towards her. Anyway, that said, like with Matthew McConaughey, I give her an A for effort in this film. She tries. And, unlike with characters such as Wes Bentley and the black guy, the script tries with her too. She's given motivations and she's given characterization probably more than anyone else, including Cooper. But then she's given a big scene where she delivers a monologue about love and it is one of the stupidest things I've ever heard and completely ruins the character. It's one of the most polarizing moments in the films and of course I found it completely ridiculous; during the speech, Amelia blatantly states what I believe was one of Nolan's central theses for the film, that the undefinable quality of love transcends time and space and even if it cannot be quantified or understood it is still an integral part of what makes us human. But, immediately after her speech, the notion is dismissed by Cooper and, here's the worst part, Amelia backs down. She backs down! The once strong-willed character completely deflates. And so both the point Nolan was trying to make and the character of Amelia are completely undermined and forgotten by the film.

Anne Hathaway, in a better movie.

My point here is that Nolan does not actually care about his characters. In Interstellar the characters are there to serve his philosophical ramblings and his giant premise, but as characters themselves, are considered to be of secondary importance. And that right there is the essence of bad storytelling. No matter how good a premise, your story fails if you don't have strong characters to back it up. A few weeks after I saw Interstellar I saw the film Mr. Turner, which had absolutely no plot at all but succeeded entirely because of the character study which held the film together. Nolan does not care for such things. I maintain that in this film Nolan does not give his characters the respect they deserve. And to prove this point, I want to talk about one of the film's greatest technical flaws: its sound mixing.

I have previously ranted about how this film's sound mixing sucks. And I've spoken to people who have laughed at how angry I am at this film's sound mixing (which was INEXPLICABLY NOMINATED FOR AN OSCAR AND I'M STILL NOT OVER IT). But it's important to talk about because the use of sound can really make or break a film. When the film was presented in theaters, people began to complain because parts of the film felt too loud, and other parts were barely audible. During several scenes where rockets were taking off, or the ship was crashing into asteroids, the ambient noise was so loud that audience members could not hear the dialogue the actors were saying. It was so bad that movie theaters began checking their equipment to see if the fault lay with them. When they realized their equipment was fine, they checked with the distributor to see if they were sent an incorrect copy. They weren't. This is how Christopher Nolan wanted his sound to be. In what is probably the first time ever that a director has had to clarify that their sound mixing choices were not a mistake but were actually intentional, Nolan released a statement about what he was trying to accomplish. He wanted the sound to be ambient. He wanted it to create an experience.

Here's the thing...that's what GOOD SOUND MIXING DOES. One of the best uses of sound in film is in the classic war movie Apocalypse Now.

the helicopters in Apocalypse Now. Writing this keeps making me think of the many movies that are better than Interstellar. Like Citizen Kane, When Harry Met Sally, and Ishtar.

Upon its release, people in the theater were blown away by how realistic the sound was, to the point that they felt transported into the war themselves. When helicopters flew overhead, people felt like the helicopters were there, and that was due to sound mixing and sound editing. Sound, when used well, will be ambient. It will create an experience. What Nolan describes as being experimental is really just being sloppy. Because sound is mixed so well in Apocalypse Now, the softer moments are still audible. Because of how well the sound is mixed, if people are talking while planes are flying overhead, you can still hear what they're saying. Nolan seems to not care about that. And this isn't the first time he's had that problem--remember in The Dark Knight Rises when a majority of people complained they couldn't understand most of what Bane was saying? The truth is that they could have warped Tom Hardy's voice while still making his dialogue understandable, but Nolan chose not to. In Interstellar, the sound of the rockets could have been loud without drowning out the lines his characters are saying, but Nolan chose not to do this. To him, what the characters are not saying isn't important--all that's important is the atmosphere. And when your film relies entirely on mood and atmosphere to sustain it, that's a problem. Especially when it's a space movie where, by definition, there's no atmosphere. It's interesting, in his statement, Nolan talked about how proud he is of the sound in the movie. He says "We wanted to distinguish the worlds based on very intimate, recognizable sounds. The water planet was a lot of splashing. In contrast the ice planet had the crunch of the glaciers." That statement is laughable because that is the BASIC JOB OF SOUND DESIGN. Nothing about that concept is innovative. If you have a planet full of water, any sound team will put in sounds of splashing. What Nolan finds innovative is actually incredibly pedestrian. And what he finds powerful would have been more powerful even if it had been done well. I know that not everyone had as big of a problem with the sound mixing as I did. Some didn't notice a problem at all (I spoke to one person who said the sound didn't bother him, but after I mentioned the sound mixing to him watched it again and realized that, yeah, it's really bad once he actually paid attention to it) and others actually thought it was effective. Some really were swept up in the world of the film and attributed this to Nolan's, er, unconventional sound choices. Firstly, I would again argue that this same effect still could have been accomplished without covering up important dialogue, but even if not, that doesn't make the sound quality good. If this sound mixing was intentional, then that means it was Nolan's intention to have the mixing done poorly. As an artistic choice, then Nolan has a very flimsy and shaky leg to stand on. But as an objective piece of sound mixing, this film is a textbook example of what not to do.

If you still don't believe me, or don't understand what sound mixing is, watch this movie again and pay close attention to sound. Then watch Apocalypse Now and do the same thing. The difference should be clear.

Whew, that was a big chunk of text without any pictures. And about sound mixing which so few people care about. As a reward for reading all of that, here's Jessica Chastain about to set fire to some totally unhealthy corn fields!

I've already written over 5,000 words about this horrible movie, but I have one more bone to pick: the ending. Holy crap is this thing terrible. I was already bored and angry for most of the film, but this bizarre space epilogue was just jawdroppingly terrible. It was the most extraneous ending since endings 4-12 of Lord of the Rings. So, at one point, McConaughey and TARS (hey, remember TARS! What a thrilling and important character) go through a black hole which sends him into this weird land of time where he is able to send some sort of code to Murphy that will somehow save the Earth? How? I don't know, probably because of gravity. Once again, the movie doesn't bother to explain this to us at all, but Neil DeGrasse Tyson assures us it's fine. It has something to do with using time to fiddle the minute hand on her watch back and forth which somehow...I don't know. It makes no sense and it's not even the part I'm really cranky about. Anyway, he sends the message back, and with this information, is able to communicate with his daughter one last time. Murphy finally gives up her resentment and realizes her father cares for her and, with the data from his message, is able to save all of Earth! They'll be able to reverse the terrible disaster and grow crops again and the humans are saved! Murphy and the astronaut inexplicably played by Topher Grace end up together and everyone at the secret NASA lab is happy. Cooper, having completed his mission, floats out of the black hole and into space, seemingly dead, but a hero and a savior. The film made no sense, it was boring and preachy and too long and stupid, but ends on a solid ending--we know the world is safe, but Cooper's story is done. Nolan is the master of the ambiguous ending (Inception has a great one, of course) and I am sure that this is where our film is done. With our hero simply floating in space where he has called his home, content that he has finally done what he had to to keep his daughter safe.

But that is not the ending.

Because that is when Cooper wakes up on Saturn. Or a colony outside of Saturn. I'm not sure because I was too busy silently screaming.

Out of nowhere, Nolan decides to try and wrap everything up with a bow. Cooper was a character willing to do anything out of love for his daughter. He sacrificed himself...but by having him alive and safe, then he didn't actually sacrifice anything. Anyway, he wakes up and a scientist comes over and is like "Hey, you've been asleep a long time." It turns out that he is in this hospital where he has been rescued and, again, he's on Saturn or near Saturn or wherever. My main question is why. Why is he here? I thought that the message he sent in time to Murphy was meant to save Earth? If Earth is saved, why are they colonizing Saturn? And if Saturn (or something near Saturn) is able to sustain life, then WHY DID THEY HAVE TO GO TO OTHER GALAXIES?! The movie offers no explanation. It's too busy giving us the most absurd wrapped-up-in-a-bow ending I've ever seen. Murphy, who is still alive and now elderly but who is the most famous person on all of either Saturn or some colony near Saturn, meets with her father one last time, offering no real closure that was not already provided when her father sent her a message in his weird time-gravity-chamber thing. She has arranged for a scale replica of their old farm to be built. You know, the farm that Cooper HATED LIVING ON back when Earth was an apocalyptic dust desert? Why did she build this for him? Did she think it would comfort him? And then, here's the kicker, someone says "Oh, and we found this floating with you," and they point to a hunk of metal? What is it? It's TARS, of course! You know, TARS! That breakout character...the robot with no human features who did absolutely nothing and who never made an affect on us or Cooper. Why and how did TARS survive the black hole? Does Nolan think we have any attachment to this robot? Does Nolan think we have any attachment to any of these characters? If he does, he is severely misguided. The entire epilogue was pointless. This film already had a decent ending, and this other ending was just tacked on. It raised more questions than it answered, and felt like it was pandering to an audience that simply does not care about what Nolan thinks it does. All it did was add more time to a film that was already too long.

This is what I meant by "weird time-gravity-chamber thing." Granted, it was a semi-cool effect in the film, but once you have a chance to take it in...seriously wtf is this?

If people had an emotional reaction to this film, then I am honestly glad to hear it. And I truly do not mean to take away from your own enjoyment. But what I'm trying to outline here is not just what I didn't like about the film, but what I thought were instances of legitimately bad filmmaking. Despite my incredibly negative feelings towards this film, I am still a fan of Christopher Nolan, and will always be excited when he releases a film. Like I said, his ambition and sense of scope are admirable, and even in Interstellar, that is on display. With Nolan, when his films work, they work beautifully, and are truly miraculous and groundbreaking. But, the greater they are, the harder they fall, and so when Nolan fails like with Interstellar, the results are catastrophic. In being given free range to make his dream project, I believe Nolan got caught up in the idea of it all and lost track of the basics of story and characters. And that should never be encouraged.

I always welcome comments on anything that I write. And in this case especially, I want to hear from you. If you didn't like the film, tell me why! Was it for the reasons I brought up, or something else entirely (I didn't go into great detail about Matt Damon's character but I know many people other than myself found him pretty ludicrous)? If you liked the film, I want to hear from you too. What resonated with you? What am i missing? Are there points I made here that you find particularly invalid? Please comment away. But, before you do, check out a film called Moon. Released a few years ago with very little fanfare, it has since become a bit of a cult classic, and while most people still have not heard of it, I know it's gaining a decent fanbase who, like me, consider it one of the best sci-fi films ever made. Because in my eyes, Moon is Interstellar's polar opposite. Interstellar's budget was thirty-three times that of Moon's. Interstellar has an all-star cast and crew, while Moon was made by a completely unknown director (who, unrelatedly, is David Bowie's son) and pretty much the only cast member is Sam Rockwell, who is still an underrated actor but was even more unknown at the time. At only 97 minutes, Interstellar is more than an hour longer than Moon. And yet, even with so many disadvantages, Moon excels everywhere Interstellar does not. It tells a more complete story, and is filled with characters defined not by their given circumstances but by their actual personalities and emotions. It more ably creates a realistic sci-fi world, complete with a robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) who, unlike TARS, actually serves the plot and has a relationship with the human characters. It is an emotional film, one which has moments of humor and sadness, times of grief and empathy. It is a film everyone should see. And if you were a fan of Interstellar, watch Moon, and then watch Interstellar again. In my heart, I am confident that the difference will be clear.

A still-shot from a good science fiction film.