Horror movies rarely resemble true nightmares. It is possible for a film to be sufficiently scary with enough frightening stimuli. But to make us feel trapped and bewildered? To not simply frighten, but shake the ground beneath our feet? That is the sort of horror that I remember most a week later, when I’m awake late at night.
The Babadook is being marketed as a demonic funhouse thriller, akin to The Conjuring. The two films bear little in common, however. The Conjuring used a grab bag of old-school horror tricks to create a very scary thrill ride. It knew its audiences wanted a good time, and it delivered. The Babadook is frightening. But while The Conjuring left me giddy with post-scare endorphins, The Babadook left me trembling in its wake. Most horror gives the audience enough enough distance to remain oriented even as the protagonist is running dizzy for their life. But The Babadook puts its two protagonists; a woman named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her 6 year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman); through a brutal fight for their sanity and their lives, and it makes the audience feel every blow.
The Babadook occupies a space somewhere in between We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Exorcist. All three films are about mothers driven to their breaking points with the realization that something is unnaturally wrong with their children. The difference lies in the types of evil the films deal with. Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin is an evil person, pure and simple. Regan in The Exorcist is an innocent child who has been possessed by an evil spirit. But both films are primarily about the brutal tests their mothers endure for the children’s sakes. I think people forget that The Exorcist spends more time on Ellen Burstyn running her daughter through every medical and psychological test available than on the exorcism itself, which only comprises the final act.
Like both of these movies, The Babadook begins with a mother sapped of resolve, caring for a son whose needs seem beyond her capabilities. Whatever problems they are suffering at the beginning of the film will soon be dwarfed by the events that unfold. Where The Babadook falls on the Kevin–Exorcist scale depends on whether or not those events are caused by the evil spirit of the film’s title. I won’t spoil the film by answering that question here. More to the point, by the end of the film I was so drained it didn’t really matter.
The Babadook is surprisingly empathetic as descents into hell go. Endurance horror is usually aggressively cynical. Consider the nihilism of the French New Extreme films, like Martyrs and Inside. Both excellent movies, neither with so much as a whisper of hope. The Babadook starts off without a hint of horror at all; it is simply the story of a woman still grieving the loss of her husband and perhaps in over her head in trying to raise a son who needs more care than she can provide without support. That Amelia’s husband died in a car crash as he drove her to deliver Samuel at the hospital complicates her relationship with her son, to say the least. She has never emerged from the shadow of that day, and Samuel only now seems to realize that he has been living under it his whole life. Amelia reaches out to her sister, but gets no reciprocation. Her elderly next door neighbor loves her and Samuel, but she is frail and can only offer so much help. Amelia doesn’t seem to have any friends or deep relationships. Samuel isn’t doing too well at making friends himself. The one solace Amelia and Samuel have is their nightly bedtime reading.
This is a stage we’ve seen before. It is a versatile one. In another movie, Amelia and Samuel might make a friend or two to help them find stability. Or perhaps it would be a bittersweet story about the inherent struggles of being a single mom. This isn’t necessarily bedrock for a horror movie. Had I not known this film’s genre going in, I would have been surprised that it was a horror film. Most horror films telegraph their intent. The most common tactic is to open with a shocking sequence, to rattle the audience before beginning the plot. Consider the infamous first-person murder that opens Halloween. But there’s nothing to suggest that anything unnatural is afoot in the opening of The Babadook. This is not a happy family, but the goings-on are still firmly placed on a scale of normality. But when Samuel requests that Amelia read him a new book- titled “Mister Babadook- at bedtime, things begin to veer off the scale.
Let’s talk about the book that gives the movie its title. It provides some of the most frightening images in the movie. It is a pop-up book for the type of children who grow up into horror movie fanatics. When I was a child, I was a huge fan of Keith Moseley’s horror pop-up books (choice title: “Some Bodies In the Attic”). They were playfully gruesome but still very dark, confirming my suspicions that attics were places scary spirits and their skeleton friends gathered in their spare time. I imagine Moseley would recoil at the images within “Mister Babadook”. The book itself is crucial to setting the movie’s tone: the drawings within nudge across the line from spooky (say, Emily Carroll’s “His Face All Red”) to sinister (like Emily Carroll’s “Out Of Skin”)*
*By the way, please read all of Emily Carroll’s comics. She is brilliant.
After the first read through, Amelia considers the book to be too frightening for her son, but otherwise nothing unusual. Samuel initially reacts as children often do to frightening books, taking it completely seriously. He starts to see the demonic Mr. Babadook everywhere. His behavior worsens. He injures his cousin, throws tantrums that would test the patience of a saint. It’s the Babadook’s fault, he says. He starts bringing homemade weapons to school, and gets suspended. He needed them to protect himself and his mother from the Babadook, he says. Amelia, already at the end of her endurance when the film begins, starts to turn on her son. Understandable impatience and anger turns to shocking verbal cruelty. This could all still simply be a tale of familial woe. But we begin to wonder, just a bit, if that is too simple an answer. And that’s when the film hooks us and and refuses to let go.
The rest of the film deserves to be seen without being revealed. Writer and director Jennifer Kent is in astonishing command of this story. As darkness overtakes Amelia and Samuel’s lives, we are never sure whether or not it’s the doing of the Babadook, or simply their inevitable personal unraveling. Kent doesn’t cheat. There’s no “it was all a dream” obfuscation. She builds a completely believable world, introduces the possibility of otherworldly evil, and sets things into motion. We are in the same place as Amelia and Samuel. The possibility of the Babadook’s existence is no more frightening than the possibility that Amelia is simply falling to pieces.
Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman deserve far more plaudits than awards-givers will likely bestow on them. The movie rests on their performances, and they do far more than simply carry it. Davis finds every color on the gradient of exhaustion. I wondered how the hell she made it to the end of the movie, like a pitcher tossing a complete game on no rest. And Wiseman gives a performance of fearsome believability and energy. I grow weary of critics who dismiss child actors as simply being themselves on screen. It is a task for any actor of any age to stand up to this material and not just withstand it, but to be completely convincing.
Credit also goes to cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, production designer/art director Alex Holmes, and art director Karen Hannaford. The Babadook was filmed in sun-bathed south Australia, the film’s use of light and dark is essential to its tone. The outdoors aren’t much of a respite for Amelia and Samuel, but it’s a welcome diversion from their enclosed tomb of a home. The home becomes a character in itself. At one point, Amelia says to Samuel “we just need to get out of this house”, and I just about nodded in agreement. Without ever calling attention to the home in the usual horror movie way ( your usual dramatic exteriors and long shots down dark hallways), Kent instead slowly makes it feel claustrophobic.
The Babadook is one of the best films of this year, and yet difficult to recommend easily. You should see it if you want to see a superb movie. Just don’t expect a grand old time. It is a deeply unsettling experience, in a way that burrows deep and dies there. It is an assault on the most paranoid recesses of our minds. It wields empathy like a weapon; without such an understanding of its characters, it would not be nearly as effective. I actually hoped that Amelia and Samuel were under attack from a monster, and not simply caught in a personal death-spiral. I hoped, for their sakes.
Interstellar is far from being Christopher Nolan’s best movie, but it has stuck with me to an extent that I need to write something about it. I just didn’t know quite how to approach that task. It’s a big, at times glorious mess of a movie, and I admit that figuring out how to write about it in one piece was sort of daunting for me.
So instead, I’m going to write about it in pieces.
After seeing Interstellar, I wrote on Facebook that it felt like a film adapted from a first draft of a script. Weeks later, I still feel that way. Interstellar feels like multiple movies on stage at once, each taking hold of the mic for a moment before ceding the floor, with varying degrees of willingness.
So in lieu of a simple review, here’s my take on the different faces of Interstellar.
1. Just a bit of an Apocalypse
For a big-budget, special-effects driven spectacle, Interstellar takes a surprisingly low-fi look at the apocalypse unfolding on Earth. At no point does the film ever depict Earth beyond its unspecified American Midwestern setting. Hell, the headquarters for NASA are even conveniently located within driving distance from Cooper’s (the protagonist) house, albeit in a secret bunker. It doesn’t show much of this area beyond Cooper’s family and home. At one point he visits his daughter Murphy’s school, and is distraught to learn that in this society they teach that the moon landings were a hoax. Cooper and his daughter Murphy go to a baseball game, where the New York Yankees are barnstorming against local scrubs.
It’s an odd way to depict an apocalypse. It’s effective at getting across how things have changed for this one part of the world, but as “show don’t tell” goes, it shows us a small portion and tells us to take its word that the rest of the world is the same way. Children of Men (my favorite apocalyptic film) never ventures out of England, but in its opening sequence accomplishes more (showing the scope of the collapse of civilization, the culture that is evolving out of it, and the draconian government that has risen to control that culture) in significantly less time.
Ultimately, Interstellar‘s apocalypse is on the scale it needs to be for the movie to function. And that is fine. But as the dust continued to gather over the film’s Earthly anchor, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on beyond the farmhouse and down the road a ways.
2. Lost in Space
The vastness of space provides endless narrative possibility. Alien told us that no one could hear us scream. 2001:A Space Odyssey turned space into a nearly religious experience, a stage for the unfolding of life in a manner completely foreign to that on earth. Gravity might well have scared off a generation of potential astronauts with this shot alone.
But all too often space is shorthand for “action-adventure set in the future”: the setting is less significant than the plot. And that’s a shame. Few locations so easily evoke awe as space.
Interstellar often aims for- and achieves- reverie. The vastness of the mission is characters are going on- exploring new planets, studying black holes- is never shortchanged. Space is never Nolan’s MacGuffin, a convenient excuse to move the plot.
As much as I enjoyed the film’s take on exploring wormholes and black holes and 3-D representations of 5-D, it was actually the scene on the planet that seemed to consist entirely of tsunamis that inspired the most awe in me. Space is vast, yes, but it is also filled with extraordinary locations that are so rarely given their due in science fiction. There are too many Earth 2’s in science fiction. I love that Nolan took a familiar concept (an ocean planet) and then turned it on its head, making it incomprehensibly terrifying and foreign. Subtle alterations to things with which we are already familiar can make them deeply sinister.
After the escapade on Planet Tsunami, I wondered if Interstellar might bring to life that aspect of Mass Effect that I enjoyed: planetary exploration, with the vast possibilities of actual space as the only limits.
That turned out not to be the case: the movie features one more planetary escapade that ends up focusing more on fisticuffs than fearsome terrain. That’s not inherently criticism, but it is an example of perhaps my biggest problem with Interstellar: it has big dreams, but it lacks commitment. That can be a passing annoyance when the movie suggests that it will be Around the Worlds in 80 Minutes/26 Years. But when it tries to inject something deeper into the story and then backs off, it is significantly more disappointing.
3. Voices through a Distant Wormhole
I keep telling you about 5 Centimeters Per Second, the exquisite anime by Makoto Shinkai. However, I don’t believe I have ever mentioned his first work, a 25-minute film called Voices of a Distant Star. Its plot is simple enough: in 2047, a teenage girl is recruited to fight in a war against an invading alien race. The war will take her deep into space, separating her from her boyfriend. She sends him messages regularly, but thanks to the (for this person with an English degree) mind-boggling relationship between space and time, the messages arrive days, then months, then years apart. By the end of the film, he is an adult, still getting messages his girlfriend sent him when they were both 16.
It’s an effective enough story. It’s not as polished or perceptive as 5 Centimeters Per Second. It rests on its plot, rather than mining the characters the way 5 CM does. But the simple power of its narrative makes Voices of a Distant Star memorable. I’ve been waiting for a filmmaker this angle; the way space travel would wipe out the modern Earthly comfort of instant communication wherever you are; and really explore it.
Interstellar announces the daunting relationship between time and relativity in a Chekov’s Gun moment; as soon as Cooper descends onto Planet Tsunami, we know that Murphy will soon be played by Jessica Chastain.
Nolan grants these scenes their due significance… in parts. Matthew McConaughey is brilliant during a scene where Cooper returns from a mission that has taken just a few hours to watch 26 years of increasingly despairing messages from his children. The scene is one of the film’s best, thanks largely to Nolan’s trust in McConaughey to carry it.
But Interstellar’s time games raised a minor pet peeve of mine: when the edges of a story are more interesting than the center, and the storyteller doesn’t seem to recognize it. The narrative potential of the relationship between time and relativity is immense, but in the film it never becomes more than a plot device. As the movie’s plot unfolds, it serves its purpose and then steps aside.
Again: this isn’t necessarily a problem, but bear with me. The fourth member of the film’s planetary exploration team is named Romilly, played by David Gyasi. He stays behind on the ship while the other three members of the team head down to a planet that, thanks to its proximity to a black hole, will experience accelerated time. In other words, Romilly will age with the rest of the galaxy. He will wait for 26 years. When he greets the team with the news that so many years have passed upon their return to the ship, I was rightly astonished. That’s one hell of a narrative bomb to drop into the movie. And I wanted to know more about him. What was it like to wait in isolation for 26 years? How did he cope? What is is like for a person to go through that? And to my great disappointment, Nolan showed little interest in exploring this narrative thread. Romilly had a purpose to serve: to announce that lots of time has passed, which effects Cooper and Anne Hathaway’s Brand emotionally because they have family on Earth. Romilly’s tale is just a means to an end.
And that aggravated me. Nolan is excellent at coming up with interesting material, but he struggles on occasion to form it into the most interesting possible narrative. Interstellar didn’t necessarily have to follow every narrative thread to its end, but for a film that rarely seemed to know what its primary narrative purpose was, I would have liked for its peaks to be its most interesting aspects.
4. Boldly Go Where Many Have Gone Before
It’s been a while since this movie came out, so I feel comfortable speaking freely about Matt Damon’s surprise cameo. Damon plays Dr. Mann, a legendary scientist who led a mission to explore one of the planets NASA targeted as a potential target for colonization. The mission went awry, and Mann was forced into an emergency hibernation, hoping that someday someone would find him.
The Dr. Mann sequence of the film begins as the film’s most surprising turn and evolves into its most familiar one. Once the shock of Damon’s cameo wears off, we begin to appreciate his performance. Dr. Mann is lonely, desperate, and we sense he’s no longer all there. There’s a sinister undertone to the scenes that pay off in a strange fashion. I wasn’t upset when Mann and Cooper were suddenly grappling with one another as Dr. Mann tried to maintain a significant cover-up. At the same time, as the camera pulled back and showed two pinpricks of actors wrestling on rocky terrain, I wracked my brain to try to figure out how the hell a movie so in awe of the possibilities of the galaxy had gotten to a point where two of our biggest movie stars were wrestling in space suits.
5. Plucking the Chords of Time
The greatest pleasures of Interstellar all involve some willingness to risk coming off as silly for the sake of taking a big leap. Let’s travel right into a wormhole! Hell, let’s throw ourselves right into a black hole! Let’s make the black hole a 5th dimension that has a 3D aspect to it that turns our lifetimes into little strings of light that you can peer into an manipulate!
Good science fiction should be bold and silly, in great measures. My favorite sci-fi film is Atom Egoyan’s Dark City, in which alien worms move around in trenchcoat-wearing human cadavers and psychic powers take the form of animated beams eminating from the forehead. There comes a point in sci-fi when you inevitably venture into unknown territory. It’s fun when storytellers use this territory as a playground for their imaginations. Yes, the visual of Matthew McConaughey floating around the gigantic loom of his own life was a bit goofy and on the nose, but you know what? I appreciated that the movie didn’t back down from the challenge of its own ending. The plot raises countless questions and the ending attempts valiantly to answer them. That it does so with narrative and visual audacity should be applauded.
Interstellar didn’t leave me thrilled to my core, but there was a zeal under its surface that consistently shone through its larger shortcomings. Every once in a while, that zeal burst through. The trip through the wormhole, for example, or the tsunami sequence, or when we finally venture in to the center of a black hole. Truth be told, I don’t know of Christoper Nolan could have made a great film with this material. It was all so unwieldy. There was no underlying structure like the caper movie format for Inception, or the pre-existing comic book templates of Batman to provide support for his many ideas. Interstellar could have used that sort of backbone. It is a beautiful journey that never quite figures out where it wants to go, or how it’s going to get there.