Thursday, May 28, 2015

Is Interstellar Good?

I don't mean as a movie. Interstellar is a bad movie. Not terrible, but it's blatantly intended as an IMAX movie and that means lots of Kubrick-length scenes without Kubrick-quality inspiration, disjointed pretty fluff which didn't particularly need to be legitimized as a three-hour "motion picture" but hey, if that's what the public thinks passes for respectability, the lady shall be given what she wants. My real question is: how damaging is that pandering?

Interstellar is a bad movie made by a good team. Where concessions are made, it is a conscious and measured sort of degradation. Unfortunately this describes most of its air length. There is so much of classic science fiction interspersed through this Hollywood consumable that fans of space exploration staples will find scenes echoing anything from The Martian Chronicles to Red Mars with plenty of Clarke and Asimov and even a dash of George Martin in between. Yet this describes fifteen minutes to maybe half an hour of Interstellar's hundred-and-sixty-nine minutes. The rest is human, all-too-human.

I find this commentary must include some comparison with the only good space exploration movie I've seen in recent years, Europa Report. I've previously included it as a poster-child for the old progressive SciFi outlook, largely for the reasons which make it such a good counterpoint to Interstellar. Science Fiction is primarily a realm of cold fascination and grim obsession with abstract ideals. It is damaged even more than other genres by regression to a romanticized view of sexual relations and family/tribal loyalties, by the two-dimensional primitivism of pop-culture heroism.  

Europa Report's protagonists are human. We know they left families behind and we know they are subject to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. However, this is allowed to serve as the unspoken backdrop for their transhuman intellectual pursuits, for motivations beyond animalistic protection of one's mate and progeny. Contrast this with Interstellar's two-hour tirade of "daddy's comin' home" - compare Europa Report's $125,000 U.S. gross profit to Interstellar's take of $188,000,000.

Of course, we quickly run into the issue of tails wagging dogs. However popular Interstellar's lowest-common-denominator view might be on its own, we'll never know. This particular motion pick-a-chure has received the full "made to sell" poster-and-spot treatment by Hollywood's multi-trillion-dollar advertisement industry. Reducing humans to their instinctive lowest-common-denominator is not only a means to profit but an end to secure those very same means. Reducing, circumscribing the public's expectations makes that public more predictable and easier to control, which in turn makes it more reliably swallow more and more pick-a-chures in which some hero dedicates himself to his mate and progeny (but with lasers.)

Yet still. I can't think of a rocketship lifting out of a dustbowl without remembering Bradbury, can't miss the trace of Maya Toitovna in Brand's face or the echoes of HAL9000 in CASE and TARS. As far as over-advertised Hollywood tripe goes, Interstellar is quite good and carries enough hints of better stories in it to qualify as Science Fiction. The question remains: what gets through? Can a movie like this serve as a springboard, a gateway drug into more thoughtful stories for sections of the public who would otherwise be watching Fast&Furious 17 or, after three hours of special effects, is all they'll retain the mind-numbing pablum of "love conquers all" dressed in a black hole?

A ten year old might not have the patience to imbibe Europa Report's cold-blooded, subtle density of information, but if he does he'll be on the right path. Europa Report represents, yo!
I want to know whether a ten year old who watched Interstellar this year will be reading Slide Show or The Wire Continuum or The Foundation two years from now. There is some genuine quality and thought buried under its mountain of glitzed-up lowest-common-denominator, but is it enough?

Is Interstellar a social good?

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