Film Review: Interstate 60

January 15, 2012

I recently watched the film Interstate 60: Episodes of the Road (2002) and it literally blew me away! Best part was that I was aware of it the whole time. It was timed so precisely that I was able to make mental notes to myself about what the film reminded me of and understand why it was just so refreshing, while still following the plot.

The storyline is based on the main character Neal Oliver (played by James Marsden) having his birthday wish come true – an open-ended wish – to find the meaning of life. The answer lies with a strange blond girl Lynn Linden (Amy Smart) who provides the protagonist with clues and signs through billboard messages, the non-existent Interstate 60, and the destination of an unknown package to a mysterious town called Danver.

In short, the film reminded me of the everlasting thirst children possess and the eager blindness (and naïve ignorance) with which they face their chosen future paths. Ironically, I found the film to be very child-friendly, only to realize later that it was indeed rated R for the sexual references and strong language throughout the film. More metaphorically, the Interstate 60 experience involved being given a chance to get what you want and to reach the treasure you have to face the obstacles that lay in your path. The most obvious example is of someone like Indiana Jones having to pass a series of tests to get to the epicenter of a tomb. This quest is thrilling and a journey both into another dimension (whether a tomb or the highway Interstate 60) and also into oneself. Almost like a self-help book…..How To Reach Enlightenment for Dummies!

For me, the film brought to mind the struggles the protagonist makes to get back home in the Odyssey. Actually, it even reminded me of such classics as the Wizard of Oz and especially Alice in Wonderland (the recent Johnny Depp one) who are also looking for a way back home. I could even go so far as to say that it reminds me of Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto Del Fauno) and other such mature, dark fairy tales because of the innocent child-like quality of how the whole story is unraveled. For it is only a façade that looks like it’s packaged for children to ‘enjoy’ but is in fact a lot deeper and interpretive than that. Interstate 60 is a film that searches for the meaning of life, and where will this learnt knowledge be useful but amongst loved ones and family members, which is why the story has so much in common symbolically with other homecoming tales. It tackles personal wants, wishes, maybes and ifs and puts all of this onto the inter-dimensional, past-present-future converging landscape of a highway. The storyline also allows the protagonist as well as the audience the dimensions that make up a person and what kinds of a person are on show in this world.

With so much happening and so many ‘societies’ encountered, what we see is in fact the protagonist Neal playing the role of anthropologist and purposefully and intentionally viewing the archaeological landscape of the world as the Interstate 60 through anthropological lens. In order to fulfill his wish, the godmother-like angelic character O.W. Grant (Gary Oldman) must get him to open his unbiased eyes (open his third eye or open his body’s chakras) and pass a rite of passage. These rites are performed by the character Ray (Christopher Loyd) with the test of cards during the film, where the lesson of the possibility of red spades and black hearts is taught, as well as the nerve to sign a contract in blood in good faith. With realization and acceptance of the inevitable, this opens Neal’s mind to the idea of signs and in general the idea that preconceived notions are a hindrance to a true and happy life.

In terms of drawbacks to the film, while there were no major problems with the script, there were two aspects of the film that seemed a bit over-the-top and overkill to the storyline. First was the need and role for the magical, all-answer-giving 8-ball. It was an overused asset in the film and the dependence of the main character Neal to the 8-ball was, to me, a negative point and a form of character assassination to the protagonist. This also caused confusion because the opening shot of Neal showed his obvious lack of decision-making skills as he used a computer-generated tactic for making major yes or no decisions. As the plot progressed, and with the introduction of the handheld 8-ball to the film, not just simple decisions, but complex decisions and answers were relegated to the choice of an outside entity. It provided too much of a similarity to the ‘God will provide all the answers if you just take a leap of faith’ scenario and made the film a tad too biblical, rather than just being surreal and somewhat whimsical. Even though Neal threw the 8-ball away post climax, the point was that its role was necessary even during the climax, which really retaliated with my view of his character progression through the film.

 

Second, what bothered me and seemed to hold the film back from being legendary was the lack of enough obstacles. Throughout the film Neal met many eccentric people and was placed in many weird situations. However, while all seemed pleasing to the eye, Neal never digressed from his path and goal. He was never even close to being seduced by the places and people he met. Now how unreal is that. Whereas I see a lot of meaning in the film itself, I find it astounding that a film made in this decade would still have an unrealistic ‘perfect’ hero in its midst. He can never do any wrong or go back on his word. While I hold to the belief that people can only grow and become better human beings if they have stumbled or have at least some character flaws as well, the main character in Interstate 60 had no major difficulties in his way. He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t go against his dad’s wishes, he doesn’t upset anyone, he won’t have sex with the scantly-clad hitchhiker who propositions him, he won’t try or give any credit to the happy drug ‘euphoria’ in the film, he works any job to pay his way, he doesn’t break any laws or any bones to escape jail but does it legally, he doesn’t even open the mysterious parcel he has to deliver! There’s too much good in the guy that makes him not stand out or be remembered at all! I like the storyline and the plot, but I can’t say I like the man-boy that is Neal Oliver. It’s kind of the opposite of how much I detest the character of Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s Catcher and the Rye…but with the same end result.

I’d rate the film a 7.5/10.

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