Review of Interstellar

The following is a review of the film Interstellar that is very rich with spoilers. If you have not seen the movie, and wish to do so, read at your peril.

 

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Important opening statement: Interstellar is a very good movie. I enjoyed my time watching it, and feel that it is an excellent introduction to hard science fiction for the general public. I paid $20 for my IMAX ticket, and $5 for a bottle of water (I know, I know), and feel that I got my money’s worth. I would happily recommend it to anyone interested in spending an evening watching a well made film with a science fiction theme and mature, emotional overtones.

There. Are you happy? I don’t want the Nolan fanboys getting on my case for not seeing the brilliance that many people are claiming this film to embody. I liked it. Okay? Good.

I felt the need to get that caveat off my chest early, because it’s my intent to look at some of the things that annoyed me; and because we live in a weird new world wherein if I don’t love everything that you love, somehow that makes me fair game for all sorts of interesting online attacks.

For example, I really detest the “new” Star Trek movies made by J.J. Abrams.  And that bit of personal preference necessarily makes me a jealous fanboy, snob, elitist, or whatever else insecure people like to call other people with different tastes. So let’s not play that game, okay?

Now, having got that off my chest…

Interstellar was made by Christopher Nolan. Yes, that Christopher Nolan, the anointed second coming of Kubrick, he of The Dark Knight and Memento. Interstellar is the story of the near future, a time when Earth’s ecology is failing us, when there is no more need for scientists and soldiers, and great need for farmers to feed the world’s teeming billions. Things are so bad that it’s official school policy to deny that the Apollo moon landings ever happened, lest it distract students from our problems here on Earth.

Into this dire scenario appears a wormhole to another galaxy, where several possibly habitable planets await us. A mysterious alien intelligence has placed it there for us in our time of greatest need.

That same intelligence, it seems, contacts our hero, a former space pilot cum farmer named Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), in the bedroom of his 10 year old daughter Murphy, by dropping books and dust patterns in code to lead him to a secret NASA base. There, a special mission is being launched into the wormhole to save humanity.

Two key plot points dictate the dramatic thread of this story. The first is that while the mission is under way, the lead scientist back on Earth (played by Michael Caine), along with the Cooper’s daughter Murphy, must solve “the gravity problem’ that will allow all the people on Earth to leave. More on this later.

The second plot point, and the one that really defines the movie’s quality, is the promise made by Cooper to Murphy, that he would return one day. So the question that hangs over every scene is whether he will keep that promise.

In between, there are sentient boxy robots, a black hole, time dilation, cabin-fevered homicidal astronauts, a water planet, an ice planet, and one token black guy who (outside of a black school teacher seen early on) is the only racial minority with a speaking role in the entire two hours plus of movie.

Some people found the plot difficult to follow.  I have a word for those people: inattentive.  But if you require greater clarity, this video summarize the narrative neatly. I won’t touch upon the ending too much except to say that it’s a standard self-interactive timeline paradox, also commonly known as a “bootstrap paradox”, resulting in our hero Cooper –having just entered a black hole and become miraculously preserved in a “tesseract” beyond the beast’s event horizon– communicating with his own timeline in the past to set the film’s actions into motion, with the emotional pay-off of arriving back in Sol System 124 years later, just in time to see his daughter die of old age. Whew. Got it? More discussion and exposition of the ending is available on many websites, including this one.

Up until the launch of the spaceship from Earth, I found myself thinking that this film might be a proper heir to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which to my mind is the finest science fiction film ever made. In other words, Interstellar might just be that mature, realistic space drama with proper overtones of grand existential philosophy that I’ve been seeking for decades.

My hopes were dashed when TBG (Token Black Guy) casually asked Cooper to de-spin the wheel-shaped space ship so they could get a clearer view of the wormhole. Because, you know, who needs the artificial gravity when you’re looking for a photo op? In fact, it was not until that moment, after months of voyaging to Saturn, that TBG explains in a clumsy bit of exposition that a 3-dimensional hole is a sphere… something (one of many things, really) that one assumes would have been explained to Cooper, the mission’s erstwhile commander, well before he strapped into the pilot’s seat.

Later, I found myself literally rolling my eyes when a fist fight broke out between two astronauts (Cooper and Dr Mann, the latter played by the always welcome Matt Damon) on the surface of an ice planet.

The beauty of Kubrick’s vision was its banality: his astronauts were intrinsically boring, because the fact of their voyage through the majesty of space was sufficient adventure to carry the narrative; there was no need to manufacture additional drama from unlikely human conflict scenarios.

Yet somehow modern space films disappointingly resort to becoming action films. For me, this detracts from the promise of a film whose grander themes were poised to elevate this experience to a transcendent artistic one, and not simply a night at the movies.

That’s right: I long for a modern science fiction film in which a physical fight does not break out between any parties. What is it about cinematic depictions of the future that compel directors to drum up the basest of human impulses?

My friend Ed Wong is fond of saying about almost every space-based adventure film, “No matter how futuristic the weapons, it always comes down to a knife fight.” I recalled this during the climax of Star Trek: Nemesis (a truly awful film) where, on the bridge of a futuristic starship centuries in the future, the two main characters decide the fate of millions with… a knife fight. You can probably think of a few other examples.  I certainly can.  *cough* Dune *cough*.

Now, before I go nitpicking, let me list the things I really enjoyed about this movie:

What I Liked:

I appreciate its marketing. Truly. So often, the details of films are given away by the trailers, “leaks”, or the countless late night talk show spots. The last sci-fi movie to effectively pull off a surprise plot reveal was The Matrix, whose “What is the Matrix?” campaign intrigued us enough to buy a ticket, with the pay-off being a stupendously mind-bending film unlike anything that had been made before.

With Interstellar, only the briefest of Earthbound scenes were allowed to be shown on TV or the Internet, with nothing of the space adventure shared. We really had little idea what to expect.

I appreciate Matthew McConaughey. I would pay to watch him read aloud from my least favourite public health pamphlets. That man is cinematic gold.

I appreciate that Nolan eschews 3D moviemaking.  (Ironic for a movie about higher spatial dimensions). It’s a crutch that forces directors to insert unnecessary visual feasts at dramatically inopportune moments. It’s a comfort to know an expensive space movie can still get made in 2D in this day and age. In fact, all of the visual effects were grand, but not obtrusive.  In other words, the special effects were not the focus of the movie, despite being critical to its unfolding.

I appreciate that Nolan has made more than a cursory attempt to make a somewhat scientifically accurate film. (More on that later).

And I appreciate that an American science fiction filmmaker realizes that the core of any special effects blockbuster is still the relationships between fully realized characters.

A Word On The Science:

I think it’s great that relativity and the time dilation effects of both gravity and high speed were tackled in a mainstream motion picture, without dumbing them down too much.  This hearkens to what I wrote recently about why I loved Stargate SG-1, which had something to so with an early episode exploring the time dilation effects of being too close to a black hole.

I think it’s doubly great that the film showed something as basic as there being no sound in space, or that a trip to Saturn using conventional propellants would take months and not hours. It’s sad that after so many scientific atrocities, like Armageddon, these simple accurate depictions are rare and valuable.

It was cool that the entrance to the wormhole was presented as a sphere, which, as was explained, is the four-dimensional (three if you don’t count time) equivalent to a hole in five-dimensional space. Yes, the explanation was expository and questionably timed. But I appreciate the effort to make pan-dimensional thinking accessible to the masses.

In short, most of the space science was accurate enough for my needs.

Or Is It?

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson summarizes his problems with Interstellar‘s science in this list:

  1. If you can poke through a tesseract and touch books, why not just write a note & pass it through.
  2. Stars vastly outnumber Black Holes. Why is the best Earthlike planet one that orbits a Black Hole
  3. Who in the universe would ever know the titles of all their books, from behind, on an bookshelf.
  4. How a pickup truck can drive with a flat tire among densely planted corn stalks taller than it.
  5. If wormholes exist among our planets, then why can’t one open up near Earth instead of Saturn.
  6. Gotta tell you. Mars (right next door) looks waay safer than those new planets they travelled to.
  7. If you crack your space helmet yet keep fighting, the Planet’s air can’t be all that bad for you.
  8. Can’t imagine a future where escaping Earth via wormhole is a better plan than just fixing Earth.
  9. In this unreal future, they teach unscientific things in science class. Oh, wait. That is real.

I think NDT is getting a little overly picky with that list.  (I know. I’m shocked, too, that I’m not siding with him on this.) I will, however, agree with him on the depiction of the alien planets.  Those places were not hospitable in the least, and all space geeks know of the various models for inhabiting Mars.

He misses the mark on his first point.  The “tesseract” is a metaphorical construct that allowed Cooper to manipulate gravity in the past; he wasn’t actually behind the actual bookshelf in the past.  At the time watching this scene, I found it to be disappointing.  Looking back, I really appreciate its cleverness. To people claiming that the tesseract scene was an unnecessary bit of “fantasy” thrown into a serious science fiction story, it’s important to realize that the “aliens” who had put all of this together had constructed the scenario to allow Cooper to enable the bootstrap paradox. There is no fantasy going on here.

However, my biggest problem with the science of this film is its complete ignorance of the nature of most astrophysical experimental data and theory.

This hearkens back to my review of Europa Report, which used the term “key data” so often to mask the writers’ apparent poor understanding of what “data” the space explorers were looking for.

In Interstellar, Michael Caine’s character, a big shot professor, is attempting to solve the “gravity problem”.  This description is given short shrift, but I surmise it has something to do with the Grand Unified Field Theory (GUFT), an assumption given some credence when TBG mentions something about reconciling Quantum Mechanics with Relativity, which sounds like something the Grand Unified Field Theory is supposed to accomplish.

But, clumsily, the film depicts the GUFT as an equation to be solved, rather than a set of concepts to fit into a grander model.  I can forgive this, given that the GUFT is not the core of our narrative, and its exploration would bore a mainstream audience.

However, the necessary data to “solve” the GUFT is presented as unobtainable because it involves an observation of the “inside” of a black hole, a description which I took to mean some kind of gravitational and electromagnetic readings from beyond the event horizon.  In the film, this is frustratingly referred to as “quantum data” several times, a term that really only has any meaning in the context of quantum computing.  Again, I understand that this is a MacGuffin, but it frustrates me.

Leaving aside the fact that data transmitted by a probe from beyond a black hole’s event horizon would not ever leave that horizon, because any transmission is necessarily electromagnetic and therefore subject to the same forces of gravity that prevent light from leaving the black hole, it is the nature of the data that saddens me.  Apparently, the data were so miniscule that they could be converted into morse code and tapped out onto the second hand of a watch in whatever time Cooper had in the tesseract.

Have you ever used morse code?  It takes about five seconds to tap out a single character. That’s 12 characters per minute, or 720 per hour.  So that’s, what, 60 words per hour?  That’s less than the entirety of this paragraph. Even if Cooper had the time bending capacity to remain in the tesseract for centuries, Murphy, who is receiving these data, doesn’t have all that time to convert it back to numbers and words.

In other words, what kind of observation could have been made by the probe that could be succinctly transmitted via Morse Code in the limited time available, that would have profoundly affected the GUFT and changed the course of human history?  It’s simply not possible.

It reminds me of that fun but stupid film, The Saint, with Val Kilmer. In it, the MacGuffin is a secret formula for cold fusion, that the sexy young scientist hides as post-it notes inside her bra.  That’s right.  That’s how science works.

This Is Not New Science Fiction

This is where my snob credentials might manifest.   I can see how for people unfamiliar with hard sci-fi, Interstellar might be mind-expanding.  For those us well steeped in the genre, it’s rather ho-hum.

For a lot of viewers, the heartbreaking aspects of living in differently paced time frames from your loved ones is a new idea.  It’s actually been well explored in several novels, most famously in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, which is about a long term interstellar war involving travel at relativistic speeds.  The skinny is that the soldiers fighting this war end up returning to an Earth, in between tours, that has aged decades or centuries in their absence.  It’s a great exploration of what it means to be culturally unstuck from the place you are fighting to preserve.

The bootstrap paradox, and its close cousin the predestination paradox, are also common tropes in sci-fi. Mainstream audiences can probably remember Donnie Darko, in which certain events early in the story are explained by the events causally post-ceding them later in the arc. Or the entire premise of the TV show Futurama is one big pre-destination paradox, with Fry being his own grandfather and being responsible for having travelled back in time to ensure that he would be in a position to be able to travel back in time.

My own novel featured a plot point about information in the present being unexplainably sent by the protagonist to himself from the future. (This is not a plug, but if you want to buy a copy, I certainly won’t stop you.)

The idea of the mysterious centre of a black hole being both a metaphysical construct and possibly a spiritual one has been touched upon before.  Even Disney’s The Black Hole has that wonderfully weird ending where the voyage through the collapsar is in essence one through Hell.

Robert Heinlein made an entire career out of writing stories about parents and children not ageing at the same rate, due to either longevity or suspended animation.

And of course, for my money, it’s another Arthur C. Clarke story that resonates with Interstellar’s theme.  The author of “The Sentinel“, which was the short story that gave life to 2001: A Space Odyssey, also penned another book that I consider to be a masterpiece: Songs of Distant Earth.

In that novel, it’s not relativity but suspended animation that causes loved ones to age at different rates.  There’s a heartbreaking scene where a space traveller checks his messages after being asleep for years, to see the backlogged images of his loved ones ageing, and eventually dying of old age, while he himself has not aged.  This scene is reproduced in identical tone in Interstellar.

While watching Interstellar, I could help but think of another modern masterpiece: Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin trilogy.  In those books, another all-powerful alien intelligence intervenes in Earthly matters.  And strange dust also falls from the sky, behaving in very alien ways.

These tropes are so common that I will tell you when I figured out some things in the movie.  The moment Cooper and Murphy received the coordinates of NASA from the dust on the floor, I suspected a bootstrap paradox.  This was confirmed early on when no one thought to examine this bit of plot convenience with any degree of scrutiny.

I honestly projected the ending of the film within its first half hour, specifically that Cooper would be reunited with his daughter in the very distant future, with him not having aged.  Why?  Because, in addition to the standard science fiction tropes being followed, it was clear to me that Nolan was presenting a not-too-subtle homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In one of its sequels, astronaut Frank Poole re-appears near the orbit of Saturn 1000 years later. Yes, this was a flimsy connection, but I felt that that was there Nolan was going.

I also predicted instantly, when the wormhole was first introduced in the movie, that the benevolent aliens were humanity of the future.  Why? Because it’s an old science fiction idea, and because no one in the movie seemed interested in devining the identities of the aliens, or in attempting to communicate with them.  It was narratively clumsy and set off too many alarms in my writer’s brain.

And Finally…

Despite my nitpicks about the science and the old science fiction tropes, my two biggest beefs with this film are narrative, not science fiction.

First, the deus ex machina ending is annoying.  Cooper was a tool, not a hero.  The “aliens” lead him to do everything he was supposed to do, then pulled him out of harm’s way, depositing him to where he would be saved.  A hero without agency is a disappointing hero.

Second, it really bothers me how little Cooper seemed to invest in his relationship with his son. In the end, we don’t know what became of him or whether he survived as along as Murphy did.  This really grates on me.

And that is all.

In the end, like everyone else, this film resonates with me for its depiction of parental love.  (Or at least father-daughter love, as the father-son bit seemed like an afterthought).  Other than that, it’s a good, honestly attempted portrayal at something resembling realistic, futuristic space drama. So go see it.

 

 

 

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