See this movie: Interstellar

Take a smart director and two of the best actors working today, and add a sweeping sci-fi plot, and you get Interstellar. While not a perfect film, it’s definitely worth the hype, and your time.

Interstellar

I’ve been a fan of writer/director Christopher Nolan since Memento, his time-twisting tale of an amnesiac. Since then, he’s gone on to mainstream success (to put it mildly). He reinvigorated the stale Batman franchise when he brought Christian Bale to play Bruce Wayne, and the final movie in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, with its timely skewering of the over-the-top Occupy Wall Street movement, was phenomenal.  With Inception, he managed to make dreams thrilling. Inception was a riveting spectacle with an ending that’s still debated on the Internet.

With Interstellar, Nolan takes on a staple of Hollywood — space travel. Interstellar is a straight-up sci-fi flick. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut turned farmer. Cooper lives in a near-future, dying Earth, somewhere in middle America with his 15-year-old son Tom and 10-year-old daughter Murph. Coop is led to a secret NASA site and soon leaves his family on a mission to save mankind by searching for inhabitable planets.

interstellar_poster_0

That’s the plot in a nutshell. And that’s basically all you need to know to get started. Of course there are twists and turns as the quartet of earthlings search for that elusive, habitable world. I won’t tell too much, because part of the fun is going along for the ride. Safe to say, it’s a bumpy ride.

So, now for the breakdown.

The good…

—Matthew McConaughey has never been better. He plays dashing action hero, committed scientist, and distraught father, all without missing a beat. He’s completely believable, and fully relatable, throughout. He’s just jumped high on my list of favorite actors.

McConaughey daughter

—Jessica Chastain plays an adult version of his daughter, Murphy. Both Chastain and the actress who plays her as a child are great. I’m a huge fan of Chastain, and she didn’t disappoint. Both McConaughey and Chastain bring a similar intensity to their roles, which is fitting, because it’s clear that the father/daughter bond they share is deep and intense.

Jessica Chastain

—The special effects are excellent. There are several tense scenes. Thanks to the solid effects, I often felt as if I was there.

—Nolan capably balances several contrasting themes. He brings high emotion with regard to the separated families. He adds humor with the robots (which I loved — you have to see Interstellar to understand), and he also paid homage to one of the greatest sci-fi classics, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey.

—While Interstellar was long — around 3 hours — there was enough movement and momentum to keep me interested the whole time. Not an easy thing.

—Nolan hired an honest-to-goodness scientist to advise him. It shows (as far as my non-physicist brain can tell).

And the not so good…

—Anne Hathaway’s character, Amelia Brand, was probably the biggest disappointment. A fellow scientist, Brand isn’t fleshed out as a three dimensional character. It was most noticeable in a pivotal scene where her emotions—and intentions—seemingly came from left field.

interstellar-matthew-mcconaughey-anne-hathaway-slice

—The first 30 minutes of Interstellar were confusing. They never explained what exactly was happening on Earth, why the planet was dying. Sometimes a little exposition was helpful. And there was an extended early scene of McConaughey chasing a drone through a cornfield. That scene was long and pointless.

—At a crucial point in Interstellar, Nolan cut back and forth between Cooper out in space and his grown-up daughter on Earth. It was choppy and distracting.

—Poor Tom, Coop’s oldest son. Murphy got all the attention, both from the writers and from Cooper himself. No one really seemed to care about Tom.

interstellar-movie-screenshot-tom

—There was a scene at the very end (I won’t reveal it), but it made no sense for me, considering the history of the two characters, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. All I’ll say is, he wouldn’t have left so quickly.

But these are minor flaws. All in all, Interstellar was a fun and intense sci-fi movie. It may not rise to classic status, but it’s definitely a great way to spend three glorious hours.

When it’s dangerous to dream

Dreams in fiction are hard — but not impossible — to pull off.

Why? Two reasons. 1) most dreams are fragmented (to ourselves) and boring (to others), and 2) a book/TV show/movie is essentially a dream: the writer is asking the reader to suspend their disbelief. To add a dream within a dream is tricky, and risks pulling the reader from the main story.

But dreams can be effective. Let’s look at the movies.

Cover of "Inception"

Cover of Inception

Inception was a great film about lucid dreamscapes. The viewer was never sure where reality ended and dreams began, even after the movie ended. Some people hated the whole movie because of this, but for me it worked.

The Nightmare on Elm Street series wasn’t just a bunch of teen slasher flicks. It was also a clever way to exploit nightmares common to all of us. Even in our worst nightmares we know on some level they are just dreams. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, this was no longer true.

And on TV?

I can’t skip over the single worst use of dreams EVER: when the writers of mega-soap Dallas passed a whole season off as a dream. Horrible. Unbelievable.

Anyway…

Restless (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Restless (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer had an episode titled Restless. It’s almost entirely dream sequences. Each of the four main characters, Willow, Xander, Giles and Buffy, experiences dreams–surreal dreams–that convey character and information vital for future episodes. It was unorthodox storytelling, and it worked. 

In Doctor Who, the episode Amy’s Choice followed Amy, Rory and the Doctor as they are forced to distinguish between reality and a dream world. They face mortal danger in both realms, and must choose to “die” in the dream in order to awaken in reality.

These all worked because the dream was integral to the story being told.

What about shorter dreams? I’ve used them in my writing, and it’s challenging. In The Last Conquistador, the main character, Randy, is awakened from a dream, and I describe fragments of it:

“It’s too early to be awake, and it’s not the sun bleeding through my curtains that wakes me. It’s the scratching. At first I think it’s the dream, the one where I’m swimming in the clear Caribbean waters when a hand pulls me under, but it’s not. Scratching, slicing, screeching. It’s not a dream. It’s coming from my window.”

The dream for Randy is part of a break from the world as we know it; as the book progresses, he will “slip” between worlds. And, it’s a short, singular image that melds waking and sleep.

In Always Mine, the main character, Danny, is targeted by an evil spirit after using a Ouija board. The entry point for this evil spirit? Dreams. He eats away at Danny through his unconscious mind. Dreams were the gateway.

Writing dreams is a tricky proposition. It usually only works if it’s an integral part of the story.