Monday, November 10, 2014

Interstellar, Diplomacy


Watching "Interstellar" is like sitting through a seminar in astrophysics at the Maharishi University.

It's a mash-up of space opera and "All You Need is Love," with some memorable images lost among almost three hours of dopey pseudoscience (well debunked by, inter alia, Dr. Roberto Trotta of the Guardian at ). 

Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a former NASA astronomer recruited by his mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to find an inhabitable planet somewhere out there to which the humans of the movie's parched and dust-choked future world can decamp. His crew includes Wes Bentley, David Gyasi and Anne Hathaway as Brand's daughter. The visuals prove most potent when director Christopher Nolan mutes Hans Zimmer's score and surrounds us in silence, letting us feel the weightlessness and emptiness of outer space. I still feel, though, that "Gravity" had greater respect for the terror of space and its total indifference to humanity. That picture offered some unforgettable scenes before it turned into "Sandy Bullock Saves the World in a Sports Bra." 

McConaughey, in praise of whom I have written extensively over the past two years, gives, for the first time in that while, a mannered and uninteresting performance. Nolan and his brother Jonathan share the blame; their script gives him only Cooper's love for his kids as an emotional through line. Hathaway gets one big speech, and this time there won't be an Oscar in it for her. It's a howler about how love may be the fifth dimension, especially embarrassing for a supposed woman of science. Jessica Chastain has little to do as the adult incarnation of Cooper's daughter (each hour on one of the movie's planets equals seven years on Earth), and Casey Affleck is totally wasted as Chastain's brother. The scenes back on our planet (which, early on, also involve John Lithgow) pale beside those in space and would have been my first target in trimming the picture by at least an hour.

Nolan offers one incredible scene, very near the end, in which Cooper, lately back from a black hole, peers through time and her bookcase at his 10-year-old daughter (Mackenzie Foy), trying to communicate a message to her across one of millions of iterations. The sequence, a dazzling attempt to represent dimensions beyond those we know, marks the apogee of "Interstellar's" imagination and almost makes you forget how mush-headed it goes in the middle.

I expected more intellectual fireworks from "Diplomacy," director Volker Schlöndorff's film of Cyril Gely's play imagining a night of conversation, just before the end of World War II, between German general Von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) and the Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling (André Dussolier), in which the enigmatic latter convinces the former, the military governor of occupied Paris, not to raze the city as planned by detonating a vast sequence of bombs. A known outcome needn't prevent a movie from building suspense, but here it does, as Arestrup never convinces us Choltitz possesses the evil to effect such an epochal destruction. Schlöndorff also errs in including a few war sequences outside the general's hotel headquarters; the movie lacks the budget to make these work, and they detract from an atmosphere of claustrophobic intensity in which we might believe the unthinkable would be thought.

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