I recently had the pleasure of rewatching Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Though described on wikipedia as epic science fiction, of which I do wholeheartedly agree, I personally like to think of it, along with certain other films, as what I call a Prophetic Disaster Film. (Not to be confused with the other PDF)
Now as you might be able to guess, a PDF differs from regular disaster films like Twister and A Perfect Storm and 2012 because it is referential to the plight that we as humans are causing to our own planet. The disaster in a PDF is basically our own fault.
But you can say that about a lot of disaster flicks, you say.. Titanic was man’s own fault. Half of the zombie-apocalypse films are based on the idea of a botched cancer cure or something. What makes some films belong to your fancy new genre when others don’t?
Ahhh.. thank you for asking that excellent question. Post-apocalyptic films by and large, including zombie films, usually deal with some sort of struggle for survival where the inherent destruction and cataclysm, having already happened, serves as an interesting setting.
A Prophetic Disaster Film, on the other hand, is current or near future and involves dealing with a man-made disaster as it occurs. Since the beginnings of the global warming movement to An Inconvenient Truth and The Day After Tomorrow to films like Interstellar, the concept that we are the cancer quickly destroying our planet is ever more prevalent. And it’s that very basis in truth and irony that makes these films so very powerful.
One of the reasons why Interstellar is so very amazing is that it is both a Prophetic Disaster Film and a Science-Fiction Epic rolled into one. Seriously, I’m growing more and more of the opinion that Christopher Nolan is to film what Brandon Sanderson is to fantasy. A BAMF, that’s what.
Interstellar is so full of awesomeness and good characters and actors and plot that I’m not even sure I want to go into all the things that just work about it. You have your PDF premise that posits a Hero’s Journey plot. All Matthew McConaughey wants to do is save the world and get back home to his little girl. There are best friends with character conflicts, betrayals, villains, awesome science problems and solutions, ultimately the self-sacrificing yet still surviving hero ultimately both saves the day and is rescued by Deus Ex Machina, then somehow gets to both return to his little girl and yet “ride off into the sunset” with (/soon to be with) his love interest.
If any film qualifies as a science fiction epic, it is this one.
So what about the prophetic disaster thing then, you say? Can it be both?
Yes. The hero fulfils both major problems, and therefore enables the people still on earth to survive, thus being both.
And the warning inherent in any PDF is very much there. People are killing the planet, so you’d better not just go back to your day-to-day grind, viewer, but actually wake up tomorrow and do something about it.
Another PDF film that had almost equally brilliant potential but failed miserably, that I also watched again recently was M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening.
I don’t like to give negative reviews, and M Night Shyamalan is honestly one of my favourite auteur directors, so I’m not going to rip it to shreds or give it any sort of star rating at all, out of respect. But I will say that this film is a prime example in some ways of what not to do, and so I’m going to break down problem areas in the film to help illustrate ways that we can avoid similar problems in our own creative works.
A lot of what he tried to do was good in theory. He began with an “ice-monster prologue” as Dan Wells calls it, in which inexplicable havoc and mayhem are occurring in New York City before jumping to our protagonist in their beginning state.
This is where there the problems start.
And I honestly can’t decide whether it’s the actors or director to blame. I know he usually likes a degree of oddness or quirk in his characters, but either he had a far too rigid idea of who the characters were and how they would act and respond in certain situations, and the actors just couldn’t hold up to that standard..? Or they just really happened to all somehow suck in this.
I think there were big problems with characterisation and character development. And the foreshadowing was way too subtle in both of those areas, yet too obvious in the main mystery plot.
Because the mystery plot is introduced in the prologue, it’s the driving question behind the film. But somehow, in effort to legitimise it a seemingly viable answer, it’s overshadowed and not nearly enough other options are entertained, which leaves this whole film completely twistless, which, for a Shyamalan film that otherwise fits his cult paradigm, is a betrayal of Joffreyan proportions.
The acting does get better throughout the film, but the hollowness established in the beginning has already lost them to the audience, therefore making whether or not they survive the happening of relatively small significance to us.
Moreover, this lack of significance completely undercuts the import of the underlying message that would otherwise give the film the PDF kicker. I think the lack of good characters that we care about may have all been intentional to help us focus on the prophetic disaster, but nope. That’s not how it works, M Night.
You needed to make us care about them all a heck of a lot more, keep the little father around twice as long so we think he’ll survive and then kill him off just before the ending so we care, but still establish the vicarious mother-daughter relationship in other ways and make some big gesture between them when the father dies. Then their survival would have been that mich more meaningful.
Despite the failing that this film was, you couldn’t begin to understand just how super psyched for The Visit (aka Shyamalan’s Return) this September.
So in short, Interstellar is a brilliant example of what to do in an epic prophetic disaster film, and The Happening isn’t. In fairness, Interstellar is twice as long and can do so much more by way of foreshadowing in that time, but honestly, I think we all expected more..
I would still recommend both films to those wanting to study for themselves the difference in both foreshadowing and plot development in both of these Prophetic Disaster Films.
Interstellar I’m giving four and a half broken watches out of five, because there was one crucial moment where Murphy figures it all out, but it’s just too much of a stretch, again because of lack of sufficient foreshadowing. As I’ve said before, we want twists of which we as readers never conceived or saw coming, but in hindsight seem complete logic and sense given the turn of events.
So tell me, what’s your favourite director’s worst film?