Produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan

Produced by Bold Films
Written and directed by Dan Gilroy
Distributed by Open Road Films

In their latest film, Interstellar, Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan have tried to revive a tired science-fiction premise about the world’s coming doom.  It seems Earth can no longer support human life.  The government—that’s the government of America, of course; who cares about other nations?—must move human beings off the planet pronto.  There’s a global blight; only corn still grows, and it’s dying out rapidly.

The film’s primary claim on our attention resides not in its astonishingly trite story, but in its spectacular images.  Reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie boasts wondrously realistic scenes of what it might look like to travel through unimaginably vast reaches of space.  It’s a special-effects marvel harnessed to a story that might have been written by a 12-year-old boy with an above-average imagination.

Interstellar is undeniably juvenile, but that, in itself, is not fatal.  Most science fiction has a childish turn to it.  (Think of the great works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Ray Bradbury.)  No, what’s wrong with Interstellar is not the immature impulse behind its vision, but the unreflective manner with which it’s been rushed onto the screen.  The film’s callow inception needed seasoning.  With more self-awareness and discipline, the Nolans might have transformed their story into a narrative capable of compelling our willing suspension of disbelief.  As it is, their tale remains so childishly uncrafted that many will find it difficult to surrender to its journey.  Still, there’s nothing cynical or cheaply manipulative about the movie.  It’s evident that the Nolans have written a script in which they believe.  They’ve attempted to remake 2001 but with the human warmth Kubrick so deliberately eschewed.  This seems to me their central mistake.  It was Kubrick’s coldness that made his film so memorably distinctive.  Add warmth, and you get an earth-bound melodrama disconcertingly played out among the stars.

It seems to me that the Nolans suffer from a pronounced oracular predilection.  They want to convey big, majestic ideas, a desire that has left them with an irony deficiency and, consequently, a notable lack of proportion.  I thought this true of their Batman films, which tried to elevate a puerilely conceived comic-book character to the heights of a salvific hero.  Batman was their Christ, willing to harrow hell to restore hope and virtue to the world, a theme too heavy for their character to bear.  As a result, the films became increasingly burdened by their own seriousness.  It was as if the Nolans wanted to put paid to the Joker’s needling question in The Dark Knight, “Why so serious?”  It’s to their credit that they internalized this critique of their own conceit.  Doing so, however, they underscored the obvious: It takes a good deal more than a mask, a cape, and big muscles to save the world.

Interstellar shares with the Batman films the fatal urge to deliver the big theme.  Once the film establishes that Earth has become a planetary dust bowl and the human race is a generation away from starvation, the plot turns to a preposterous scheme to save the species.  NASA scientist Professor Brand (Michael Caine) thinks he’s been receiving rescue signals from intelligent beings existing in the fifth dimension.  NASA, by the way, has gone underground, lest citizens become infuriated to learn that America’s bankrupt government is still supporting the costly agency’s efforts.  What’s more, a government conspiracy has erased any lingering memories that American astronauts once walked on the moon.  By order of the Department of Education, textbooks have it that the Apollo missions were faked.  If the news from the fifth dimension turns out to be wrong, officials want kids to stop searching the stars for inspiration and, instead, farm the little arable soil left under their feet.

Meanwhile, Professor Brand has located a promising wormhole near Saturn that has brought two distant parts of intergalactic space side by side.  Seemingly under the spell of e.e. cummings but without any of the cutup’s irony, Brand conjectures there’s “a helluva good universe next door” with some really cool planets just waiting for human colonization.  Indeed, at the time the story begins, Brand has already sent 12 exploratory ships through this wormhole and now plans to send a rescue space station to collect the valiant explorers and their findings.

When Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA test pilot, picks up the same signals Brand has, he finds his way to NASA’s underground headquarters with his ten-year-old daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), in tow.  Brand is Coop’s former teacher, and within minutes of their reunion, he implores his pupil to fly the mission to Saturn along with his own daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway).  Cooper agrees, of course.  He’s a widower, conveniently enough.  There’s Murph to consider, but he assures her they will meet in the future when—thanks to relativity that slows time’s passage during space flight—they’ll be the same age.  Needless to say, the girl is not consoled.  Foreshadowing, anyone?

If I said more about the plot, I’d risk giving away the film’s several surprises, at least one of which is mildly startling.  So I’ll leave it at this: The film has a salutary conservative bent.  It mocks the Department of Education and refuses to implicate global warming for Earth’s troubles.  Although silly, the movie is entertaining enough for a visit to your multiplex, especially if it has an IMAX screen.  And it’s so free of prurience you can safely bring your older kids with you, a rare bonus among today’s entertainment offerings.

On a much smaller scale, Nightcrawler, directed by Dan Gilroy, Tony’s brother, also draws on earlier movies—in particular Paddy Chayevsky’s Network—to say something familiar.  Unlike the Nolans, however, Gilroy delivers his message with so much verve and wit that I found his film at once deeply funny and utterly devastating.  If you’ve seen Network, you’ll know quite early on where Nightcrawler is going, but that won’t diminish your interest.

The narrative concerns Lou Bloom, a seemingly normal young man down on his luck.  He’s been supporting himself by scavenging and selling society’s detritus, particularly copper wire and swaths of chain-link fence, to junkyards.  His life changes, however, when he comes upon several freelance videographers recording the gory aftermath of a highway automobile accident.  These men are also scavengers, but instead of discarded metal, they collect human catastrophes, the bloodier the better, and sell them to television news stations eager for sensation.

When Bloom learns how much these fellows make, he quickly buys a video camera and a police scanner to go into business for himself.  Turns out he’s a natural.  He fully enjoys filming carnage and selling it to the highest bidder.  Soon, he meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a news director at a local television station that’s been slipping in its ratings.  Nina, a proponent of the “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” school of broadcast journalism, is desperate to lift both her ratings and her professional reputation.  As she elegantly puts it, “The perfect story is a screaming woman with her throat cut running down a street in a good neighborhood”—emphasis here on good neighborhood.  Television audiences, she reasons, aren’t interested in crime in poor neighborhoods or the sociological implications of poverty.  They want the vicarious thrill of watching criminals invade wealthy precincts, either ones like their own or neighborhoods they envy.

Lou and Nina soon find they’re made for each other.  He’s ready to satisfy her by going the extra mile.  Network scruples don’t deter him a whit.  He doesn’t hesitate to pull bodies, whether dying or dead, into photogenic positions for his eager camera.  Coming upon a home invasion in progress, he films the thugs at their work.  After they leave the scene, he films the corpses in the wealthy house.  Then he discovers a man who is still breathing.  Rather than trying to save him, Bloom circles the dying fellow, calmly filming his last seconds of life.  Bloom’s too professional to waste his time calling an ambulance; he might risk losing a televisual scoop.

Gilroy’s film is grotesque, funny, and nauseating by turn.  Bloom’s predatory ruthlessness, Gilroy implies, is what it takes to succeed not only in our media culture, but in American-style capitalism at large.  Bloom is a crazed Horatio Alger and Dale Carnegie rolled into one.  Between shots of bleeding victims, he gives pep talks to Rick (Riz Ahmed), his feckless employee.  Getting ahead in this business, Bloom advises, depends on unquestioning loyalty to him and unstinting derring-do in the pursuit of camera-worthy carnage.  (Bloom sounds remarkably like several bosses I worked for in my youth.)

Gilroy’s film is aided immeasurably by its actors.  As Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal turns in a masterly performance.  He’s dieted himself into a scrawny paparazzo, a feral, pop-eyed gargoyle of what might once have been a human being.  (Weight gain or loss has never been my index of a good performance, but I must admit Gyllenhaal’s reducing, while hardly extreme, undeniably works for the film.)  He’s become a gimlet-eyed Sammy Glick, a relentless hustler who instinctively senses that, to hustle others effectively, you must first hustle yourself.  In the cause of his entrepreneurial ethos, he believes in his own guff—up to a point.  As Nina, Rene Russo, a former fashion model, uses her aging looks and what seems her natural hauteur to good advantage.  A woman used to getting her way, Nina runs upon the shoals of her ambition in her dealings with Bloom, who, after taking her measure, plays her as if she were as predictable as the paper roll in a player piano.

Nightcrawler tells an old, old story, but tells it so very well that it becomes dazzlingly new again.  As Alexander Pope said of wit, it’s “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.”