Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Great Job/Shitty Job -- a Breakdown of the Good and the Bad of Interstellar

And now a word from from the always insightful and entertaining Levin Menekse!

Hello everyone,

This is the first post in a series of posts where I'm going to take a look at movies which I think are either underwhelming or messy and find out what we can learn from them, both good AND bad. The idea is to specifically analyze screenplays written by talented writers but, for some reason or the other, don't quite work on the same level as the rest of their work. We all love great screenplays and most of us can tell a train wreck from miles away, but this is hopefully going to be a fresh take on this whole "Let's talk about X movie!" idea because I'm going to focus on the interesting middle ground.

So, for example, Shyamalan's shitty output will not be here. It's easy to mock The Happening because it has Mark Wahlberg pleading with a plant for safe passage, only to discover the plant is plastic and mutter: "Plastic... I'm talking to a plastic plant..." That's an easy target. I would not do that. But, for example, I might take a look at Prometheus (messy) or The Lovely Bones (underwhelming) or Wild At Heart (messy and underwhelming).

Okay, this is the one and only time I'm making fun of The Happening.

So, Interstellar. Yes. Let's take a look at Nolan's latest Magnum Opus:

#1: Great Job, Interstellar -- "Make Your Characters Suffer For Real"

When we sit down to watch a movie, we want to see characters at their most extreme, defining moments of their lives. Whatever is the worst thing that can happen to them -- we want to see that. Now, most movies give at least a lip service to the idea in the form of that "All is lost!" moment. You see it again and again in the movies -- characters "almost die" in the final act.

Not to say that almost losing your life isn't a dramatic moment, but that's dramatic for everyone. What you want to do is to make that moment especially dramatic for this specific character. Case in point; in Interstellar, Cooper skirts death a dozen of times. He's almost crushed by giant waves or strangled by an insane astronaut, but the most painful moments of his life are when he has to leave his daughter behind or see her struggle to grow up without him being there.

Nolan milks those moments for all their worth. The climax expertly interweaves the emotional stakes and the objective stakes of the story. Cooper not only gets to save the Human Race, but he also gets to achieve emotional closure with his daughter.

So, the lesson is to make sure that your characters suffer in all the ways that they can. Make sure they meet their worst enemy, whether if that is themselves or a Death Star... or a tree.


#2: Shitty Job, Interstellar -- Respect Your Audience

Look, when you ask for someone to sit down and watch your movie, you're asking them to give two hours of their life to you. Let's not even mention the money and how they had to call up a babysitter to come to the movie theater. So, here are a few ways how not to piss off your audience:

Don't give them pointless scenes of exposition or set up things that don't even matter.

For example, we have a scene in the first act of Interstellar when Cooper gets really pissed off that his son isn't going to go to college... Followed by scenes where it's revealed his son wouldn't want to go to college anyway and he's perfectly happy tending to the farm. Or there's a whole sequence of Cooper hacking a drone flying over his farm... what does that have to do with anything? Yes, it's a nice father-daughter bonding moment, but when you're writing a movie like Interstellar, you're looking for moments that will BOTH advance the story AND the character. Otherwise you're going to end up with a movie that is 170 minutes long that could have easily been shorter.

Don't be lazy. At least try.

So there's a moment in Interstellar when Cooper and Murphy find a secret NASA base through "supernatural" clues given to them by a "ghost" living in their attic. They get captured... and the next thing you know, the guy who runs the NASA facility is asking Cooper to commandeer their last remaining ship because "he's the best man for the job." He says that he couldn't find Cooper before because everyone thought he was dead. (What?)

In the 2008 draft of the script, there is no "ghost". Cooper finds a drone, brings it back to the NASA base and helps them fix something they didn't know was fixable. As a result, they are impressed and enlist him on the mission as an engineer who can fix things under pressure. This makes sense. In the movie, this part is cropped out and a bullshit explanation is fitted in.

And it's only just another bullshit explanation in a movie rife with bullshit explanations. Another glaring ridiculous bullshit explanation is the whole deal with Doctor Mann, who decides to kill Cooper because...? He wants to save Humanity -- after, mind you, it's established that they can't. If he wants to go back to Earth, then why does he... Anyway, the point being, please, if you feel like you have a cool idea that doesn't make sense, at least try to make it work. Don't insult your audience.

This is especially true if the other parts of your movie is trying really, really hard to be scientifically accurate with characters talking in an opaque jargon we're supposed to take seriously.

"We can't go there because the relativity of the neutron star doesn't work with the quantum theory! This isn't some cheesy Science Fiction movie, people! QUANTUM THEORY! NEUTRON STAR!" 

#3: Great Job, Interstellar -- "Fortunately/Unfortunately and Escalation"

We need both wins and losses for a movie to work. We need a roller-coaster ride of emotions, monotony is our greatest enemy. And, in addition to that, every new obstacle needs to raise the stakes.

Interstellar does this beautifully. Yes, the world is shit, but, fortunately, we have a plan to colonize these other planets. Unfortunately, the planet we end up going to turns out to be periodically besieged by giant waves and our astronauts almost die. Fortunately, TARS is a bad ass who saves them. Unfortunately, Cooper realizes he just missed twenty years of his daughter's life. Fortunately, there is another new planet they can go to and they find Matt Damon! Unfortunately Matt Damon is bonkers... You see where I'm going with this. Nolan tightens the screws and raises the stakes until things are just unbearably bad.

As opposed to a certain M. Night Shyamalan movie that starts off with people gouging their eyeballs out and hanging themselves en masse in a catastrophic frenzy... only to present a climactic act where the final antagonist is an old lady facing against Mark Wahlberg.

No, seriously. This is the final antagonist of The Happening.

#4: Shitty Job, Interstellar -- "Tough Choices For Your Characters"

Now, this is some tricky territory we're entering because Interstellar does pose some palpable choices for the characters -- the problem is that those choices are either made in the first half of the movie, or they're made off-screen. For example, it's a great dilemma Cooper faces in the first Act: Either stay on this desolate Earth and spend his last years with his family, or try to save the Human Race by finding a new planet but leaving his family behind. Another great dilemma is the one Mann faces: Either die alone in a desolate planet or lie and doom the mission, so that he might be rescued.

These choices work because both options suck. Remember:

A choice is only a choice if both options are great or both are terrible.

However, Cooper's choices dry up as the story goes on. His final choice is between sacrificing himself and... dying? What is Mann's choice after he's rescued? What is Murphy's choice in the movie? Of course she's going to believe her father once she figures out what's going on. Of course he's going to try his best to communicate with her.

In the climactic scene, neither character makes a strong choice. 
And it hurts the movie.

Because, without a strong choice, how do we know how our characters changed? Here is a good question to ask yourself: "If faced with two similar situations, would my protagonist make a different choice at the end of the movie than he did at the beginning of the movie?" If we pose this question to Cooper... The answer is no. He started the movie just as he ended it.

There are more things I want to say, like how there is no relationship in the movie other than the one between Cooper and Murphy, or how TARS is one of the best robots ever, but I don't want to end up writing a dissertation.

"We all know I'm the best part of this movie. Watch me strut like the badass I am."
So, I hope you enjoyed this brief analysis of Interstellar. Let me know if you enjoyed it or wanted me to write about another problematic movie by a brilliant mind.

Levin, signing out.


Anonymous said...

Yea for middle ground. Excellent break down, looking forward to the next one.

Matt said...

After that read, I'm questioning if you actually watched the movie...

Anonymous said...

I get what you're saying about the supernatural "ghost", but it wasn't suppose to be a ghost, it was suppose to be Cooper. Technically, it wasn't supernatural.

Levin Menekse said...

Matt, no snark or judgement, which parts made you feel that way? It's a complicated movie, so I'd like to know if I was wrong about anything -- which is certainly possible.

David said...

Good write up, but isn't the "ghost" suppose to be Copper in the fourth dimension? Not sure if it's a bullshit explanation since the 4th act plot line kind of depends on it. It's more of a attempt at combining foreshadowing and a plant/payoff.

Levin Menekse said...

About the "ghost" -- Yes, it's Cooper from the final act. That's not the bullshit part.

The bullshit part, in my humble opinion, is how they short-hand the "You're the best damn pilot we got... but... uhh... we didn't look for you because we thought you were dead!"

If he was the best, then why didn't they look for him? Was Cooper hiding? Why would they not be able to find him? This is the part that bumped for me colossally.