Apocalypse Pretty Soon

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

If you have not yet seen Ken Burns’s documentary about the Dust Bowl, then go, do. It’s a little shy of four hours long, but all of those hours are on Netflix, and they’re compelling in the way that only resurrected history can be. From the first moments, you see heart-stopping footage of mountain-high dust clouds terrorizing shacks that might as well be paper-mache. You see old people who somehow survived this, telling the modern audience that no one who did not live through the horror can understand it.

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled into Interstellar (at a premiere put on by Northrup Grummon, because #ThisTown) and saw… the exact same stuff Ken Burns had shown me. Christopher Nolan’s often-beautiful and just-as-often-stupid epic begins with suspense-killing survivors of a future dust bowl explaining what life used to be like. It is the year 2000-and-something, and an unspecified world crisis has destroyed the environment. The residents of an un-named, still-fertile rural area have watched the destruction of “the last okra crop ever.” Old people like John Lithgow’s Donald still remember the days when “it seemed like they were inventing something every day,” and rue how the declining food supply means wasted lives and corn for every meal.

Several stupid things happen, and Donald’s son-in-law Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) discovers that his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) may have some connection to intelligent life. Patterns in the dust on her floor, which she attributed to “a ghost,” lead him to the underground bunker where NASA is secretly trying to save humanity. Having just shown up and been recognized by an old mentor (Michael Caine), Cooper is drafted into a mission to determine whether a wormhole, near Saturn, leads to a world that can sustain the dying population of Earth. He must leave his young children and come back with salvation — though it’s optional whether he’ll come back at all.

What follows is 90-odd minutes of space opera, with some of the most striking imagery yet put in a blockbuster. Most of this imagery is recorded because Cooper and his crew (including Anne Hathaway) make stupid decisions. Three astronauts preceded them through the wormhole, and have been sending back transmissions about the wisdom of settling on the new worlds. In a plot device borrowed from Goldilocks, the astronauts strike out twice, and we only see the just-right world in an epilogue. We do see a planet that consists of nothing but water whipped into giant storms, and a planet so cold and nitrous that the recon astronaut has set up base camp on a frozen cloud. Oh, and all of the planets revolve around a black hole — don’t ask where the light and heat necessary for life come from — so some mistakes related to relative time lead the expedition to take decades, while earth grows sicker and hungrier.

I have spoiled plenty, and won’t spoil the ending, but will say that it is downright Spielbergian in its use of Arthur C. Clarke pop science to engineer a love-wins scenario. Films like these are critic-proof — who wants to hear a nerd explain that they got black holes wrong — but they should not be as boring as Interstellar occasionally gets. Between the Ken Burns world-building and a few dynamite action sequences (one, and this is very cool, entirely based on one object’s ability to rotate at the same speed as another), there’s considerable slack.

The Rover (David Michod, 2014)

I’ve taken to recapping/reviewing/rambling about two movies at a time. The gimmick is especially worthwhile this week: The nerd who so chooses can easily pretend that these movies occur in the same universe. The Rover begins a decade after some unexplained “collapse,” when grimy people of varied accents are making it by barely in the Australian outback. This is a loaded location for apocalypse drama, and the expectations grow when our hero Eric (Guy Pearce) kicks off the action by refusing to allow a group of thugs to steal his car. “Step away from the gasoline,” and all that.

Eric fails to get his car back, largely because his initial revenge plan involves chasing down three men and fighting them solo. When he recovers, he rendezvous — by pure coincidence — with Rey (Robert Pattinson), a plucky but slow-witted criminal whose brother left him for dead… in order to steal Eric’s car. The two men team up in a shambling plot of revenge and survival. It goes like you might expect.

Honestly, I struggled to follow the threads or the action. The world-building, as mentioned previously, was derivative; there’s one very evocative scene that establishes how militarized gangs seem to have the run of the post-apocalypse, but we’ve seen better in films like The Road. The motivations are dead-end, desperate, sad, but not quite compelling.