Is Christopher Nolan becoming the new M. Night Shyamalan?
Dust storms sweeping across the midplains are choking off civilization as crops are going extinct in a global blight. In this doomed future world, government education is pushing for more farmers while denying that science programs ever accomplished anything (ie the moon landings were faked). A frustrated once-aspiring astronaut (Matthew McConaughey) is given the chance to find a habital world for all of mankind after discovering that NASA has gone underground – and they have a plan. Unfortunately, the real problem is one of logistics, and even as one man’s hope for his family pushes him beyond our solar system, the stark reality of what he must do to save his species may be more than any human being should be asked.
Setting his bigger-than-life sights on a high-concept space genre flick, director Christopher Nolan appears to have cribbed the smarter parts of the scripted Lost in Space movie before retrofitting it with The Hand of God. If you can get past this bit of Looper-esque science fiction, the movie isn’t bad so much as it’s overlong. Triumph of the human spirit, survival at any cost, and more end-of-humanity drama than you can shake a stick at is underwhelmed by running time and jumps in the narrative almost as confusing as jumps in space-time continuity. If you thought Inception was tough to follow through layers of dreams, try keeping up with when “now” is from beginning to end.
A few of the science fiction elements manage to stand out, particularly the robots who outshine many of the biological characters in sheer humanity. The spacecraft designs feel quasi-NASA-esque, even though the actual US space program seems to be moving away from space planes and back toward reusable capsule/module designs. One of the most important settings from the film looks and feels like a shelved concept (wink wink) from Inception, practically a dream sequence but certainly inspired by Stanley Kubick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; that film seems to be a blueprint for this movie, substituting similar visuals while even the robots resemble one-by-three-by-nine obelisks.
Coincidence? Probably not, but Kubrick’s space movie left a lot to the imagination while Nolan’s film constantly overexplains things, usually with a line uttered by McConaughey sounding too much like a Lincoln car commercial. Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, and John Lithgow (as well as a not-so secret cameo) all lend their talents to the story, but many of these characters feel like single-sentence descriptions brought to life by the sheer will of the actors. Kudos to them, but that seems like a bit of a cheat if not outright wrong. John Lithgow? You’ll be playing “Farmer dad: loves son, shows support.” Anne Hathaway? You’ll be playing “Love interest: scientist, iffy on McConaughey but could come around.” Michael Caine? You’ll be playing “Scientist dad: loves daughter, shows support, talks people into crazy things.” Sigh.
Fans of science fiction and/or Christopher Nolan will want to like this film, but there are huge gaps of logic wrapped around a twist of sorts; you almost expect to see M. Night Shyamalan listed in the credits under writer, producer, or concept-by. It’s an all or nothing leap of faith that the rest of the film hinges on, but after building up the drama of personal sacrifice, it feels too much like a cheat no matter how many endings are tacked on before the credits (and there are a few). Even the biggest crowd-pleasing Hollywood-ending plot point is given a definite maybe while all the throwaway parts are borderline forgettable. How can a dramatic device this bleak hope to justify a backhanded mega-happyish ending and still feel relevant? Here’s hoping The Martian can get all of this space sorted out.
(a two skull recommendation out of four)