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Film Review

New films: Interstellar vs. Big Hero 6

There’s a wonderful film opening this week that features society in a somewhat altered future, with advanced science, genius thinking, and travel through a dimensional wormhole – but it’s not Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” it’s Disney’s latest animated feature “Big Hero 6” directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams.

Not that “Interstellar” is bad – but it gets bogged down in its own ambition and scope. Although at 169 minutes of running time, there’s admittedly a level of luxuriousness in the amount of time it takes to tell a backstory that many films would quickly throw at an audience in a few minutes of voiceover while a rocket launches. Instead, “interstellar” gives us a rocket launch doesn’t occur until 45 minutes into the film. That’s a pace that could be a hard sell for young audiences who tend to expect several explosions and major crises to occur in that space of time. This is science-fiction for the “2001” generation and others with intact attention spans.

The film tells of a future in which large numbers of people have died off and many of the remaining people have had to turn to farming to produce enough food to overcome failing crops and widespread dustbowl conditions and blight. One of those reluctant farmers, Cooper, is played by Matthew McConaughey as an ex-engineering student and NASA pilot whose skillsets simply aren’t valued anymore. He’s a widower living with his two kids and father in law and struggling to get by, both emotionally and logistically. Meanwhile, the remnants of the scientific community have concluded that humanity’s days are numbered on Earth and that the only way to save the species is to travel to another survivable planet – aided by the discovery of a conveniently placed wormhole to another galaxy – causing him suddenly to be valued again.

“Interstellar” also heavily features a black hole as a plot element and so it builds much of its action and its appearance around travel in and around two phenomena that most members of the audience can probably barely comprehend and which none have any experience of. Which makes the reported level of scientific input on the characteristics of black holes and what it might look like to be in or near one seem like overkill.

In comparison, the end credits for “Big Hero 6,” an extremely loosely adapted Marvel comic book (and the first animated comic book adaptation of a Marvel property under Disney’s label), also list many technical experts. But they’re largely in somewhat more down to earth fields like robotics and gifted children. “Big Hero 6” also introduces a wormhole of sorts, albeit more like the “Stargate” variety than a vast space anomaly, and I don’t know how much debate occurred over just what it ought to look like, but in practice it’s just as effective.

The film tells a story of two orphaned brothers being raised by an aunt in the wonderfully depicted and named San Fransokyo – both are scientifically gifted, although younger brother Hiro is the true genius having graduated from high school at 13. He’s a fan of underground ‘bot fighting with little interest in more formal education until he’s introduced to, and won over by, the robotics program at the local college. This leads to complications when his entry into a science fair, in the hope of gaining admission, has unforeseen ramifications.

The co-star in “Big Hero 6” is a medical assistance robot created by Hiro’s brother – an adorable, inflated machine that starts off as the most unlikely of unlikely heroic figures. Baymax is slow, clumsy, and as mild mannered as one could possibly conceive.

“Big Hero 6” gets rolling far faster than “Interstellar,” with an opening scene set at one of the ‘bot fights – and it keeps up its pace very nicely. There’s a vibe throughout that’s similar to the level of exuberance associated with the first “How to Train Your Dragon” film which, for me, is high praise indeed. There are a few scenes towards the end of the film that seem marginally repetitive but it’s generally tight and very satisfying.

The same isn’t true of “Interstellar.” There’s an appealing tone in most of what seems like a very grown up drama, with deep issues at stake, but it starts to get overly convoluted in its third act with time travel paradoxes and a virtual Möbius Strip of cause and effect relationships. These come as the result of addressing other realities of General Relativity Theory, with the space travelers experiencing less time passing than the folks they’ve left behind on Earth. It’s all based in theory but at some point it folds in on itself so much that it actually minimizes the drama as it makes anything seem possible or correctable – not helped by a trite final scene that seems tacked on and unsupported by prior events.

The acting is “Interstellar” is quite varied with some well known actors given relatively (!) little to do. The weak link is Michael Caine who isn’t especially convincing as an aging physicist – and one who doesn’t actually seem to age that much as those around him age enough to go from child actors to Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck. McConaughey is most notably supported by Anne Hathaway as the scientist daughter of Caine’s character and Matt Damon in a small role as one of an earlier group of space explorers.

Interestingly, “Big Hero 6” is quite lacking in A list talent – whereas most big budget animated features seem to unnecessarily include costly stars. This may be a result of an intention to make more in the franchise and to keep future payroll down.

On balance, I enjoyed the ambition and concepts in “Interstellar” enough that its problems didn’t completely ruin the experience. It’s vast in scope and well produced and it should appeal on principle to those who grew up reading the classics of science fiction. However, it might draw the ire of some who will see the film as a warning against environmental and climate change outcomes they’d prefer to ignore, or at least not be reminded of.

I watched it in IMAX and wouldn’t recommend that format for this film. There are sequences that may benefit from a truly enormous screen, as with “Gravity,” but much is dialog heavy with close ups of faces and scenery that don’t gain by being that tall. The soundtrack is also quite oppressive and in the IMAX screening that I attended, I could feel my clothing vibrate as though I was sitting up against the speaker (I wasn’t). It’s worth noting that many IMAX screens as well as approximately 200 regular screens are projecting “Interstellar” from actual film prints at a time when the industry has widely converted to digital projection – an unusual choice as many theaters no longer have film projectors or people capable of either running them or of assembling a print like this (as in splicing together multiple reels of film).

I don’t have any such concerns regarding “Big Hero 6.” It’s a film with the option of 3D viewing and for which 3D viewing is worthwhile – largely due to flight sequences, as with the “…Train Your Dragon” films. It’s engaging, well-paced, and likely to appeal to all ages with some technological content that, while certainly not as complex as “Interstellar,” is less trivial (or silly) than many family oriented films. It’s the kind of film that could inspire a whole generation of future nerds (a term the film embraces) to enter robotics or other tech fields of study.

Using that same “How to Train Your Dragon” comparison, “Big Hero 6” is a film that’s so good it manages to make you look forward to a sequel while also worrying that it might have too tough of an act to follow.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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