A long time ago I picked up a film called Memento on a whim, through some vaguely remembered word of mouth perhaps or a glimpse of it in a glossy mag somewhere. It had three discs so it must be good right? I still remember what a big surprise it was, and it remains my personal favourite in what is now Christopher Nolan's back catalogue of movies (although I would say The Prestige is his best work). What's striking about these projects is how they always remain a little surprising, mixing human drama with magic, neurological conditions and comic heroes. My initial worry was that the excess of The Dark Knight Rises in terms of lengthy and unfocused plotting signaled a turning point for what was a very good run for the director, with a film that contained greatness but was not excellent overall. Things seemed like a step down from its predecessor and too many little problems cropped up - even if I didn't mind the sound mix. On top of that there was all the noise from mixed reactions after the release of his space adventure story. Thankfully this one has far more going for it in terms of what works, and delivers a high caliber science fiction movie in spite of some minor flaws along the way.
With its heart on its sleeve, this is a story that gives out big vibes reflecting the influences of 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the fantastic score hints at church organ sounds of Thus Spake Zarathustra (though it seems heavily taken from Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi) the overall tone of venturing into the unknown mixes elements from Stanley Kubrick without over feeling too derivative, and hey why not take those ideas and build something in a time when films of this scale are pretty rare. Though it's a shame they didn't once reference the Daft Punk animation Interstella 5555 just for kicks.
Other things are what keep it fresh. The plot has a large number of ideas from current science in terms of how space travel might happen and how it could effect the astronauts - for those not watching Carl Sagan or knowing about relativity... just think of the time warp in Planet of the Apes some decades prior to all this. That is still plausible from what is known about gravity, and they make good use of really interesting ideas having hired scientist Kip Thorne to oversee some of this as a producer. I'm not sure they needed to copy the pen and paper wormhole explanation from Event Horizon but it still works to simplify that idea. Other sequences involving black holes and huge waves caused by tidal forces push these theories beyond reality but make for some amazing visual sequences. The design work is also excellent from space vehicles to robots, the latter having a look that takes function over form to the extreme but is still great.
They could have done with some slower shots of outer space and less talk in some cases to soak in the view, but they keep the pace constantly moving. It's not all technical effects work and physics though, as this is also a solid character drama with performances that get to deal with a range of themes from family drama, moral dilemmas and space madness. The third act does have a few problems that might be considered corny or ridiculous, but these are fleeting and at least they keep throwing ideas out there instead of relying in spectacle alone (looking at you Gravity). Human emotions are a central theme even if they go to places that might be a little far fetched despite it being a story about trying to survive our own extinction. They're certainly not moments which derail the whole narrative or bring down the rest of the movie which is generally more focused. But it is a long haul, and while they have some great world building scenes that highlight the problems Earth has in the future in terms of food shortages and society on the brink, those segments could be tighter to allow a stronger sense of the journey itself with less distractions. But that journey remains impressive nonetheless.
BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)
Toby Jones stars in this psychological thriller about a shy and humble sound technician from England who travels to Italy to do post production on a film called 'The Equestrian Vortex'. He's someone that is worrying about his expenses and his mother just as much as his work making sound effects. Unfortunately for him he soon finds out this is a violent giallo film about witch hunts and nothing to do with horse riding. The film making aspects are focused on quite regularly, and while the movie he is working on never gets shown (you see his reactions only) all of the mixing and foley work a lot of fun as they record screaming actors and chop vegetables to get all the gory sounds. As things progress it becomes clear that this is all taking it's toll on him and reality becomes blurred. But beyond the drama generated from his unhelpful colleagues and the unpleasant images he is made to work with, the horror aspects are very low key and things go awry quite late into the film leaving it feeling anticlimactic. The acting is all great and the atmosphere of being quite alone in a foreign country is built up very well, but they would have done better adding just a few more minutes of real madness to give things a proper payoff.