Tag Archives: Spectacle Movies

Interstellar and Idea-Based Spectacle Movies

[WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS FOR INTERSTELLAR AND INCEPTION, AND MAJOR SPOILERS FOR INTERSTELLAR IN ITEM #4]

I’ve talked about spectacle movies before. These are movies which either don’t have a story, have an incoherent story, or have a bare-bones generic story, but succeed through showing the audience some sort of spectacle they’ve never seen before.

Usually this spectacle is comedy, action, something visually stunning, or song-and-dance numbers. But there’s another kind of spectacle I haven’t talked about: The spectacle of interesting ideas. The ideas can be real or fictional, as long as they’re compelling concepts we haven’t really seen on film before. Some examples are 2001, Inception, Memento, and Terry Gilliam’s non-Python movies.

Interstellar tries to be an idea-based spectacle movie, but it fails. Everyone I’ve talked to about the movie, including myself, considers it somewhere between lousy and mediocre. (My own opinion is that it’s on the mediocre side of things.) I think it would be interesting to compare it to Inception, an idea-based spectacle movie by the same writer, same director, and in the same style, which ended up being much better.

Here are the reasons I think Interstellar doesn’t work while Inception does:

1. The ideas aren’t that big or interesting.

We’ve seen planetary exploration countless times, most notably in Star Trek. We’ve seen the idea of traveling through wormholes in Disney’s The Black Hole, Star Trek Voyager, and the children’s book A Wrinkle in Time. We’ve seen a world in decline in 75% of movies that take place in the future. I suppose the idea of a Magic Equation to Manipulate Gravity and Fix Everything ™ is new, but that really doesn’t play out in any visual or emotional way in the movie, so the audience can’t care about it.

Contrast this with Inception. I suppose we’ve seen the idea of dream-jumping in A Nightmare on Elm Street. But Inception did this much better, with coherent and well-explained rules that don’t rely on outright magic.

2. The core idea that the movie is trying to resolve is meaningless disconnected technobabble.

In Inception, the key problem that the hero is trying to resolve is how to go into someone’s dream to create a specific desire. We know this is extremely difficult because everyone in the movie insists it’s impossible. (Though Cobb knows it’s possible because he’s done it before, albeit with horriffic results.) The potential solution to this problem involves an intricate heist, multi-level dream journey, and lots of ass-kicking. That’s a clear, unambiguous goal, where the audience can easily understand what success and failure look like, and the journey to solve it is visually compelling.

In Interstellar, the key problem is to reconcile the gravity-whatsit equation to quantum-whoozit, in order to, uh, do something or other, maybe launch entire buildings into space or something, I guess. The potential solution to the problem involves Jessica Chastain staring at a chalkboard and being alternately sad and angry. The audience has no idea what any of that means, why it’s difficult, what success or failure looks like, or how to gauge progress toward a resolution. Which makes it impossible for us to care.

3. Inception is based on imaginary science, while Interstellar is based on real science that the movie gets wrong.

There’s no such thing as dream-jumping, and Inception wisely avoids trying to explain the science behind dream-jumping beyond “We have this machine that does it.” You might notice some logical inconsistencies, but beyond that, nobody can watch the movie and say “That’s not how dream-jumping works!” The movie is making up dream-jumping in the first place, so the rules of dream-jumping are whatever the movie says they are.

On the other hand, space travel, relativity, and basic physics are real things with real rules that exist independently of what the filmmakers make up. Which means that knowledgeable people will notice when the physics of the movie is wrong. And as I’ve said plenty of times, it’s okay for a fun silly movie to be dumb, but a movie that thinks of itself as smart cannot get away with dumb stuff.

4. The resolution to the big idea is a deus ex machina that makes no god-damned sense and has nothing to do with any of the characters’ actions throughout the movie.

[WARNING: THIS ENTRY IS A MEGA-SPOILER FOR THE END OF INTERSTELLAR. IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS, SKIP AHEAD TO THE LONG DASH]

So here’s how the big idea of the movie gets resolved, and they’re finally able to reconcile the gravity-whatsit to the quantum-whoozit: People from the future construct a magical tesseract inside a black hole, with the knowledge that Cooper will fall into that black hole, survive, and then land in the tesseract, where he will be able to send messages back in time to his daughter’s childhood bedroom, and he can translate the data that will solve the equation into morse code that he can transmit to his daughter’s watch, but he can’t send that information back in time and can only send that to the present when she revisits her childhood bedroom, which luckily is at the exact right moment. The fuh? If people In the future can do all that, why would they make it so the only means of communication was banging on a bookshelf in a little girl’s room? Why didn’t they send the necessary data further back in time? Why wait until a bunch of astronauts have died on an exploration mission that people from the future would know was pointless? For that matter, why wait until billions of people on Earth have died from the blight? Why couldn’t they just send a temporal e-mail to Michael Caine long before the movie began? Or if it’s only possible to communicate from the future by banging on things, bang on his chalkboard in morse code when he first started working on the equation.

The ending was flat-out stupid, and nonsensical even by the rules the movie sets up. Plus it made all of the action of the movie a complete waste of time. Why should we care about Cooper exploring these planets when it turns out they could just zip there using magic gravity equations? And note that in the end of the movie, old Murph suggests to Cooper that he go find Brand, who is all alone on her planet. Which means that humans didn’t even bother settling on the planets the mission was exploring.

Contrast that with Inception, where they said “We’re going to accomplish this nigh-impossible task by doing something very difficult.” Then they did it, and it resolved the problem. (Unless it was all a dream.)

Anyway, the moral to this is that if you’re going to make an idea-based spectacle movie, you need to make sure that your idea is novel, compelling, logical, and plays out on screen in a visual way that involves the characters. If you don’t do that, you’re just left with a generic or incoherent movie with no character development that is entirely forgettable.

Spectacle and Sequel

This is some screenwriting/story theory geekery here, but I think that if you like movies you’ll probably be interested in this. It’s a theory I’ve developed about why some movies work and some don’t.

There are certain movies that I call Spectacle Movies, which throw out all the craft of storytelling and instead focus on the spectacle. Either with compelling visuals, thrilling action, hilarious comedy, or engaging song and dance. If the spectacle is spectacular enough, the movie can work despite having massive logic problems and flawed, cliched, or non-existent story and character development.

Examples include the original King Kong, Marx Brothers, Raiders of the Lost Ark, most musicals, and (though I wasn’t personally a fan of these) 2001 and Avatar. These aren’t stories. They’re showcases for tangentially connected bits.

Just to be clear, I’m not using Spectacle Movies as a pejorative. Two of my all-time favorite movies are Raiders of the Lost Ark and Singin’ in the Rain, which are both horribly crafted stories if you ignore all the ways the movies are awesome. Singin’ in the Rain literally has an entire sequence that consists of someone saying “I thought of a good song and dance number,” and then it cuts to his imagination for ten minutes. But it works, because it is a really good song and dance number.

But spectacle isn’t a binary thing. It’s a continuum. With the exception of straight drama, all movies have some element of spectacle. And the more spectacle a movie has, the more story and character problems it can get away with.* For a well-crafted story, adding spectacle will make a good movie better. (We all love Jurassic Park, but who would remember that movie if we never actually saw the dinosaurs?)

I would define spectacle as “Showing something amazing that the audience hasn’t seen before.” The more a movie can do that, the better it will be. This is true regardless of the quality of the underlying story.

Now lets talk about sequels, and why sequels so often leave the audience feeling empty.

Movies that get sequels are almost always movies that have a lot of spectacle to them, whether or not they also have good storytelling. There are two reasons for these. The first and most obvious reason is that spectacle movies do well at the box office, especially internationally, and financially successful movies attract sequels. But the more subtle reason is that in a well-crafted story, the end of the story is the end of the story. The problems are resolved. The character has completed an arc, and no longer has room to undergo a completely new arc.** Whereas spectacle movies end when the bad guys are defeated and the explosions stop. But you can always find new bad guys to generate new explosions.

But remember when I said that a key element of spectacle is showing something we’ve never seen before? That presents an inherent problem with sequels, because by default the sequels are showing us exactly what we’ve seen before.

So sequels tend to lose the spectacle aspect that made people like the original. Which means that as a baseline sequels are going to be much less compelling.***

There are two ways for a sequel to overcome this: It can either ramp up/change the spectacle, or it can improve the story.

Examples of movies that ramped up or changed the spectacle, so it was still showing us something we hadn’t seen before, are Aliens, Terminator 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Avengers.

Examples of movies that improved the story are Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2, Toy Story 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Terminator 2, and The Empire Strikes Back. (T2 and Empire both ramped up the spectacle and improved the story.)

But most sequels just give us more of the same. More of the same doesn’t work for spectacle. And without a story to carry them, they’re left with nothing. Which is why most sequels are so bad. They may be commercially successful, and in fact usually are, which is why Hollywood keeps making them. People show up based on how much they liked the original.

But I judge the quality of movies based on how much the audience cares about them. By that measure most sequels fail. Which is why Transformers 4 had a hundred million dollar opening weekend but only 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. (And keep in mind the Rotten Tomatoes percentage is only from people who saw the movie. Meaning that among people who *thought* they would want to see a movie where a giant alien robot truck rides a gianter alien robot dragon while waving a huge sword, only 16% actually did enjoy it.)

* For example, the 2009 Star Trek was obviously much dumber than Looper. But Star Trek keeps you moving too fast with exciting action to think about how little sense it makes. Whereas Looper is slow and contemplative, which leaves you with time to contemplate all the story and logic problems.

** The only example I can think of of a successful sequel to a movie that didn’t rely on spectacle is The Godfather 2. And that only half-worked by focusing on flashbacks of a supporting character that didn’t have an arc in the first movie. In my opinion, the Michael half of Godfather 2 didn’t work and aside from one or two scenes was entirely forgettable.

*** One interesting point here is that perceived quality depends on the order you see a film. We all think Raiders of the Lost Ark is great and Temple of Doom is mediocre. But if we saw Temple of Doom first, would we think that was the great one? Or consider the 1964 movie A Shot in the Dark, which is a sequel to the 1963 The Pink Panther, and recycles all of the jokes from the original. If you watch The Pink Panther then Shot in the Dark, you’ll think Shot in the Dark is boring and pointless. But if you watch Shot in the Dark first, you’ll think Pink Panther is the boring and pointless one. (Or if you don’t like 1960s slapstick humor, you’ll think both are boring and pointless.)