Too Smart For Its Own Good or So Stupid That It’s Brilliant?
By Johnny Pomatto
Christopher Nolan has always been obsessed with creating stories that challeng the brain. His movies like “Memento,” “The Prestige,” and “Inception” unfold like little puzzle boxes that (one hopes) contain answers. He’s sometimes a bit less successful at working the same magic on the human heart, but he goes after both organs with the epic and stunning INTERSTELLAR. I can’t say that Nolan’s attempts at striking a balance between the head and the heart are truly successful. It’s more than a little too heady at times, and goes to every end of the sentimental spectrum with wildly mixed results, but there’s an ambition and confidence that I’m in awe of. I’m still uncertain if I really liked INTERSTELLAR, but I really enjoyed being challenged to go on its ride and it’s an experience I won’t soon be able to shake.
The film takes place in an unspecified future when Earth has all but exhausted their natural resources and all hope for the future is placed on farmers, rather than scientists. It seems that the drastic cuts to NASA’s budget had long lasting effects, as in this world they have been reduced to a joke and school textbooks have whole chapters on how the moon landing was faked. But one must never forget that the world isn’t beyond saving so long as Matthew McConaughey is still in it. The Lincoln Farmer finds himself thrust into a plan to save the human race after some strange scientific anomalies start occurring near his cornfield. Before he has the chance to build a magical baseball diamond, McConaughey is on a rocket up to space, with Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, and a wisecracking robot that looks more than a little like the Monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and no that will not be the last time that film comes up here. A wormhole has been found close to Saturn that leads to another galaxy where three of its planets are hoped to be potentially inhabitable. And although there’s mention that the appearance of this wormhole was not natural and it would have had to be placed by someone (or something…), what follows is a more cerebral journey that is less like the space adventures found in “Star Trek” or “Alien,” and more like the one found in Stanley Kubrick’s classic science fiction masterpiece… well, you know.
Although humans on earth are a few decades away from extinction, the ticking time bomb carries a bit more weight this time around, due to the time-bending physics of space. At one point the space crew lands on a planet where one hour’s worth of time is equivalent to seven years on earth. Suddenly McConaughey’s promise to return home to his children is looking less and less like a sure thing. These time-passage devices are even more effective than they were when used in Nolan’s “Inception,” and they pack quite a bit of emotional heft, which hits its zenith when McConaughey returns to his ship after a short time on terra firma, and gets the opportunity to check the messages from home that have been coming in regularly for the actual 23 years that he’s been gone. As the camera stays on his still youthful face, we see him emotionally age while learning about everything he’s missed.
Such powerful moments let Nolan capture some of the most successful emotional tones he’s ever attempted, but for every one of them, there’s a few that fall flat. Moments after I was fighting to hold back tears, Hathaway delivers a well meaning but unfortunate monologue that includes the (paraphrased) line, “Perhaps the only thing that transcends space and time… is love.” I greatly admired the restraint exhibited by my fellow theatergoers who did not erupt in giggles when this phrase was uttered, but I imagine there will be other audiences who are far less forgiving. Sentimentality might not be what an audience is looking for in a sci-fi adventure and it does occasionally pop up in scenes where it’s not wanted, but much of it feels earned, if not always necessary. I may be underestimating people’s tolerance of these heavy-handed moments, especially after the minimal backlash over the plot elements of last year’s “Gravity,” which didn’t even bother wasting time with having the characters kiss their loved ones goodbye on earth, something which takes nearly 45 minutes in this film.
When Nolan starts to undermine one side of the movie, he can’t help but damage the other. Suddenly plot elements are revealed that not only change much of what we’d been led to believe up to that point, but drastically changes the direction of where the rest of the story may go. I’m not even of the opinion that these changes are wrong for the overall experience, but after an audience shows so much faith in an outlandish premise for 90 minutes, it can be very jarring to suddenly be told to buy into something else entirely. Still, considering how ridiculous the story can get at times, it never comes off as silly. The only time I chuckled at the film’s absurdity was about the tenth time the camera cut to an impatient Topher Grace standing in front of a burning cornfield waiting for someone to come out of the farmhouse. Just go in and get her, Topher! This is the closest thing we come to a “van slowly falling off a bridge” moment.
Much of the potential missteps are held together by the gorgeous photography and cast of talented actors. Nolan’s visuals have rarely looked better, both capturing the vast quiet and emptiness of space, as well as the rich, detailed locations of the foreign planets that look otherworldly, though always familiar enough to seem plausibly capable of being a new home for humans. They look even more beautiful in 70mm/IMAX, with Nolan once again proving that the medium of film is one still worth preserving. McConaughey earnestly plays the everyman turned hero, with a sincerity that we’ve come to expect from him in recent years. Much of the rest of the supporting cast, including Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, and a crucial, mystery cameo that I won’t reveal here, all give admirable performances, even while all feeling a bit underused and short changed, given the nearly three hour running time. Strangely, one of the most compelling performances comes from Bill Irwin, as the voice of the crew’s robot and the film’s only real source of levity. What could have been an obnoxious distraction ends up feeling like one of the most human things in the entire film.
I imagine the success of the film is going to hinge on what people think of the climactic thirty minutes. Without revealing any specifics, I’ll say that things get very bizarre and if you’re not on board with thinking outside of reality, the movie will completely lose you here. It seems to me that Nolan is making a daring attempt to recapture the legendarily surreal climax of “2001,” but I believe he makes the mistake of simultaneously presenting it as a mysterious dream, as well as turning the dream into a literal situation to close out the rest of the story. Although the two tones are at odds with one another, I still found the sequence incredibly compelling and I admired Nolan for taking such a bold and gutsy approach. He must have known that a large percentage of his audience may roll their eyes at it. Nolan embraces both the science and fiction in this tale, staying grounded in the hopes and dreams that someday we might be able to scientifically achieve some of the space and time manipulation displayed in the film, while also bending the rules to show us spectacular things we could never dream of seeing in reality. Last year Neil Degrasse Tyson live-tweeted the scientific inaccuracies he found with “Gravity” and he’ll wear out his keyboard if he tries to do the same with INTERSTELLAR, but I also think that he’ll appreciate the joy and imagination that went into the story. This is a tale of what ifs and unknowns. I doubt that we’ll ever see interdimensional travel in our lifetimes, but Nolan has taken a make believe world and somehow made it feel a bit more real than it did a few hours ago.
It’s a common misconception that Keanu Reeves is a bad actor. I know there’s a lot of evidence against him but please allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Just try to forget the phrase “Devil’s Advocate,” as it’s not going to help my case. Keanu Reeves has no business playing Shakespeare, and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” was hardly an ideal showcase for his talents. But for every disastrous effort like “The Lake House,” Keanu shines in roles that are practically made for him. He’s proven his range with comedic roles, as in the Bill and Ted series and “Parenthood,” but we seem to like him best when he’s in pure ass-kicking mode. JOHN WICK is the kind of character and film that Keanu excels in. I feel like only a few weeks ago I was complaining about the pure joylessness of an action revenge film like “The Equalizer.” JOHN WICK follows the same basic formula, (“Movie star kills everybody”) but presents it in such a unique way that it’s pretty hard not to love.
We don’t know much about John Wick when the film begins, and he’s not going to be the one to tell us. Wick is a strong, silent type. The kind of role Clint Eastwood might have played 40 years ago. He seems perfectly content to lead a solitary life, driving his classic car, and spending time with his new puppy. Then, both those things are taken away from him. A young Russian punk, (played by “Game of Thrones’” Alfie Allen, looking very much like a young Malcolm McDowell), admires Wick’s car and when he refuses to sell it to him, he kills the poor little puppy. This action may seem needlessly harsh, even for an R rated movie, but I believe it to be an ingenious move. After seeing such a despicable act, (and I’m telling you, this is one cute puppy), we the audience are just as eager to see blood as John Wick is. It’s the quickest shortcut to make a villain we despise. Kill a dog, we instantly hate him.
You see, John Wick isn’t just some lonely guy with a cool car. He’s one of the greatest assassins the criminal underworld has ever known. His nickname was “The Boogeyman” and it’s so much fun to see what would usually be brutal, badass gangsters suddenly quake with fear like they’re children hiding under the covers. If all we saw was Keanu mow down a couple dozen henchman, it might be a fun but somewhat empty experience. But JOHN WICK offers much more than this, as it creates a truly original and almost fantastical world, where hundreds of assassins walk among us, and live what look to be very interesting lives. Wick sets up shop at a hotel in lower Manhattan that caters exclusively to the world’s greatest assassins, and it’s filled with colorful characters. At the front desk you’ll find “The Wire’s” Lance Reddick as the accommodating concierge who can get you everything from a wake up call to a machinegun. The owner and proprietor is Ian McShane, who doesn’t discriminate when it comes to his guests, so long as they keep their business outside of the hotel. And those guests include the likes of Willem Dafoe and a deadly Adrianne Palicki. This is the kind of rich, detailed world that most action films wouldn’t even bother attempting to create, and I would actually welcome JOHN WICK to spawn several sequels just so I can get a chance to explore it a little more.
At the center of all of this is Reeves, who may not say much, but perfectly exudes a tone of intensity that makes it difficult to take one’s eyes off of. It’s easy to phone in these kinds of performances, but Reeves never looks like he’s looking forward to getting back to his trailer. Assisting him is the directing team of David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, who have served as stunt coordinators and performers on over a hundred films between them (including “The Matrix”), so it’s no wonder why the action and violence in this film look so good, and also why they were able to call in so many favors to secure their dream cast of genre veterans. It’s easy to tell that the one thing these guys must like more than making action films, is watching action films, and they seem determined to give the fans of the genre something they haven’t necessarily seen before, while still sticking close to the beats that we all want to see.
JOHN WICK can’t quite sustain its originality through the end of the film, but by the time we got there, I was feeling pretty forgiving after about an hour of giddy fun. This isn’t the kind of prestige picture that’s going to get nominated for a bunch of awards, nor is it a brainless respite from the serious dramas of the fall movie season. It’s a perfect example of what happens when someone puts a little bit of care into a film that would already be a box office hit if it were to run on auto-pilot. It’s a rare occurrence so I suggest we all cherish the opportunity to see it.
Hear more of Johnny Pomatto’s reviews on his podcast MOVIES AND FILMS WITH JOHNNY AND FRIENDS available on iTunes