INTERSTELLAR: A REVIEW
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine
Release Date: 11/ 07/14
Length: 165 mins.
*** SPOILER ALERT! Advise reading this only if you have seen the film or have no intention of doing so.
Near the end of Interstellar, the latest offering from Hollywood superstar director Christopher Nolan, the movie’s hero Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, returns from a mission to another solar system to find himself rescued by a patrol from an oddly placed space station orbiting the planet Saturn. He soon discovers that while he has only been traveling in space time by his own reckoning for about two years, in Earth time he has been away for 86.
By the time the credits roll, audience members could be excused for thinking they had spent those full 86 years with him. The movie is so incomprehensibly elongated and lugubrious that it makes you wish that time could have been contracted, rather than stretched, so that we could have traveled back several light years earlier.
Interstellar is a BIG movie – big in special effects, big in its musical soundtrack, big in philosophical statements, big in the solving of difficult scientific questions. But here are some of things it is not big on – a plot, a screenplay, good acting, character development, story continuity and proper calibration between the musical score and the screen action.
Epic sci-fi movies in the modern era always have to live up to a difficult standard – the great accomplishment of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which long ago established that sci-fi could be brainy, exciting and technologically challenging.
Unfortunately Interstellar strives for all three and fails to ignite on any of them. It is instead a murky mix of movie scripts and over used plots ranging from Disney’s Black Hole to Event Horizon to the children’s book A Wrinkle in Time with nothing particularly original. It is an interesting exercise in soullessness and dopey dialogue aboard a Ferrris Wheel styled space craft whose mission makes no sense and whose crew don’t seem to know anything about one other or their real purpose until they are several years into their mission.
Interstellar is really composed of two stories – one of Planet Earth and the other of a particular Earth family. As it turns out, the fates of both are intertwined and curiously dependent upon one another.
The Earth story concerns a planet that is dying – a fact which no one seems to know or appreciate save for one scientist, who keeps the secret rather close to his chest. Food has become scarce and the only crop that will grow is corn and even that staple is subject to the ravages of enormous dust storms. In order to save what is left of humanity, NASA has engineered a massive space station which it plans to send into space through a wormhole, on the other side of which it there is believed to exist several planets with life sustaining environments similar to Earth. Ten years or so earlier NASA had sent twelve astronauts though the same wormhole to discover which of the suspected planets on the other side could seed human life. Only three of those missions have radioed their survival. NASA needs a second mission to pour through the wormhole to discover the success of the first. And although this does seem a lot like throwing good money after bad , there is a point to this enormous scientific effort which will drain the last coffers of a rapidly asphyxiating world: the new world will be carrying 500 embryos which will be hatched upon arrival in order to seed the new planet(s) with life.
The human story revolves around a retired crash pilot astronaut, Cooper, who still has nightmares about the crash which almost took his life. He is the widowed father of Tom and Murphy ( a terrific Mackenzie Foy), a precocious 10 -year- old with a scientific bent and who is mystified by the ghostly tumbling of books onto the floor of her rural home’s study. Cooper is now reduced to farming in a world that does not need test pilots or astronauts, but food providers. But Cooper gets a chance to return to space when he and his daughter stumble upon the coordinates of a secret NASA work station. The two visit the work station only to discover that it is being run by his old teacher, Professor Brand. Brand is delighted to meet his old student because he has arrived just in time to captain a special mission to determine the fate of the lost astronauts. The next day, seemingly, Cooper with no training or even a good space manual, is an astronaut again, lifting off with his crew of three – Professor Brand’s daughter biologist Amelia ( Hathaway) an engineer ( Romilly) and Doyle a microbiologist with a very bad hair piece.
In order to survive the two year journey to Saturn without lapsing into endless philosophical babbling about the purpose of life and the even more daunting exposition about quantum physics ( which must be saved for filling blank space later in the movie) , the crew of the Endurance slide into cyro – sleep, using what seems to be the same antiquated freeze machines, re-engineered from the mid-60s television series Lost in Space.
Soon enough the Endurance is entering the orbit of Saturn and is quickly sucked into the void of the wormhole, travelling light years into the future – or the past ( depending upon your perspective). Ejected from the black hole, the Endurance spins in search of the three planets where signals, though weak, keep arriving. Cooper and Brand descend to the first planet, named, imaginatively, “Planet Miller” ( for the astronaut whose signal they keep picking up) only to discover she had died when a giant tidal wave overcame her craft soon after landing. Time passes extremely slowly on Planet Miller so that for every hour they spend on its surface, seven years elapse on Planet Earth. By the time they return to the Endurance ( sans Doyle, the astronaut with the bad hair piece who was lost when the second craft too encounters a tidal wave) Romilly, the lone astronaut who had remained aboard the mother ship, greets them with a sad expression and a wobbly voice, declaring that he had been waiting for them for 23 years. When Astronaut Brand questions why he didn’t take advantage of the same cyro-sleep beds that had been used on the outbound trip, he mumbles, almost apologetically, “I had things to do.” Obviously such a busy life did not involve preparing for the crew’s triumphant return with champagne and caviar.
OK. Enough of the plot. I have already given away too much to make any one want to see this movie unless you are interested in pompous dialogue, inexplicable physics and time travel which defies human understanding.
But if you do venture on after the disastrous mission to Planet Miller you will encounter the ( space) mad nutter Professor Mann ( Matt Damon – who has survived in cyro-sleep on the eponymously labeled Planet Mann), reprising the role of Lost in Space’s Dr. Smith and who tumbles into an awkward space fight with McConaughey’s Cooper butting space helmets with him like two elk in rut.
You will discover that the alluring Amelia, the lone woman on this space mission, in whom none of the men on the space craft seem to have demonstrated any sexual interest after years aboard the Endurance (giving the craft’s name a very special added meaning), reveals that she has a secret passion for Edmunds, the last of the three supposedly surviving astronauts and whom she travels a few billion miles to find. It is here you will hear her burble the one inimitable, immortal line from the film, something we should never let the scriptwriters forget – ” love is the one thing that transcends time and space.”
You will also encounter the Tesseract, a floating library in the black hole in which all human memory exists and where time in fact appears as a spatial ” fifth” dimension and which any passing astronaut from the past or future floating by with, I guess, the adequate key card, can access. The script writers make clear that the Tesseract’s construction was made possible by future humans and only because Cooper had successfully completed his mission in saving humanity many eons before. But his mission is only a success because of the Tesseract – with his manipulation of the past and his ability to communicate with his ten- year -old daughter in another dimension. All of which makes us ponder what came first – the highly advanced Tesseract or Cooper’s mission? Or is all time and space just jumbled together – much like the script, story, acting and the props in the actual movie? No answer provided by the film makers.
As you float through this tangle of movie making flotsam and jetsam, you will encounter several other puzzling anomalies which will demand your attention:
- Near the beginning of the film, a wayward Indian made ( YES, Indian made) space drone appears out of nowhere beginning an excited dance over the cornfields of Louisiana which in turn sparks a turbo charged truck chase (on only three good tires) by Cooper and his two children through said corn fields. But when they finally capture the drone it is as if they have just landed a fish they have to throw back. It seems to bear little interest for Cooper or anyone else and after gutting the brains of the craft, the hulk is towed back to the farm to do what, exactly? We never see it again.
- If you look at all the vehicles on Earth in the film, they appear to be current day models, including the Dodge RAM truck that Cooper drives. How did humans in the not too distant future (let us say, to be generous, 2030) then develop super spaceships to travel to the stars but yet can’t seem to solve the food crisis on Earth?
- Why does Cooper’s daughter appear to age but the chief NASA scientist, played by Michael Caine, does not appear to age at all and is wearing the same clothes years later? I know he’s an engineer but even they wash and change clothes sometimes.
- If wheat died several years ago, how is Copper still able to drink beer?
- Why doesn’t Cooper know where NASA is located, particularly since he apparently once worked for the agency, it is near his home and his old professor, who immediately press gangs him into service for the benefit of humanity, has known that he has been living only a few miles away for several years?
- Why are there only two plans – Plan A and Plan B – made available to the astronauts? Aren’t there limitless options available to astronauts once they become space borne? And couldn’t the script writers come up with better names for these plans which actually accord with NASA’s rather creative use of mythological references for its missions in the past (anyone remember Apollo, Gemini and Viking?)
- Why does Caine’s Professor Brand, endlessly and annoyingly intone lines from the Dylan Thomas poem Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night – acting more like a doddery NASA monk than a NASA scientist, a cleric who has run out of ideas and is now relying solely on faith and his knowledge of mid-20th century poetry to propel Endurance through the Universe?
- There are three Earth-like planets orbiting around a black hole, yet there’s no proper star in this system. Without a celestial body, how do any of these planets support human life or even provide sunlight? Remember that black holes are the result of dead suns which have collapsed in on themselves. To solve a food problem, a team of scientists and explorers then have knowingly come to a planetary system with a dead star. The light we see on these planets may be due to some kind of accretion disc around the black hole – but that is notoriously unstable – so betting on its light to support human life is scientifically out of the question.
- Why, when Cooper and his faithful robot TARS, are finally discovered floating through space by an Earth space patrol, do the several generations of his expanded family (children, grandchildren and great- children) not excitedly flock to him when he enters the room of his dying daughter who has been waiting earnestly all of her remaining 86 years for his return? Strange that no one seems to want to have much to do with him, given his status as the hero (as his daughter knows him to be) who saved humanity.
- Why does Cooper then decide to jet off to Planet Edmunds, leaving behind his huge family ( I mean isn’t family everything? – as Cooper at one time expostulates in the movie), defying the potentially bone crushing gravitational forces within the Black Hole once again, in order to meet up with Amelia, who, as we have now discovered, has uncovered the body of her dead lover amidst the wreckage of his landing craft. But it was not as if heat had sizzled between the two astronauts while they were space borne. In fact, a less steamy relationship, confined as it is most of the time to clunky space suits, cannot be imagined. Perhaps the film makers were after all attempting to validate Amelia’s verdict on time and space – and that “love” transcends it. Perhaps love even transcends good film making. Who knows?
- More perplexing than any of this is the question of the need to leave Earth in the first place. Isn’t the job of saving Earth a gazillion times easier and less costly than jetting a know-nothing crew through an unknown black hole to an unknown solar system where the fate of the humans who had preceded them is similarly unknown? Couldn’t all of that technology (and money, if it still exists) have been better employed to save the Earth from its cruel fate?
I have saved the philosophical issues for last because they are actually the most interesting. In no review of Interstellar that I have so far read, does the Earth’s final fate even rate a casual mention. The doomed planet is ultimately and fatally doomed – a result of man made degradation. Nothing mankind is capable of conceiving can save it. There is not even a Plan B minus for Earth. All two of the professor’s plans are directed at ejecting humanity from the Earth, rather than harnessing human intelligence and will power to avoid catastrophe. The ultimate conclusion is that the devastated Earth, because of man’s willful neglect and abysmal greed is now not even worth saving. This is of course of a piece with the environmentalist mindset of Hollywood directors and script writers – whose sci-fi oeuvre from The Day After Tomorrow to Avatar is replete with such nonsense. And that is why, buried deep in the script, you will find such baleful lines as:
“Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here” or “This world’s a treasure, but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now.”
Really? The idea of mankind exhibiting an inherent rottenness is itself rooted in a religious (gasp!) concept of good and evil, with man in perpetual sin, incapable of defeating his baser impulses. One then wonders, with such a philosophical mindset, exactly how Nolan and his brother co-writer understand that the new generation of embryos, sent off to be raised by Universal Mother Amelia, is going to grow up to be any different than its ancestors? Or will humanity, having left behind on Earth the evil Conservatives, Republicans, CEOs and Tea Party maniacs who have encouraged the world’s defilement, finally be free to live a healthy, organic life, free of carbon toxins and pollution- and thereby prosper? The philosophical questions abound.
The second philosophical trope that one encounters is a disturbing existentialism which fails to mention or consider the presence of any Divine intelligence that might play some kind of role in the formation and order of the Universe. When the NASA scientists on Earth explain to Cooper that someone or something has “placed” a wormhole near Saturn as an invitation for humanity to pass through, I would bet that half the audience would be thinking that this ‘something’ is aliens while the other half would be thinking it is GOD. When the Endurance passes through the black hole and is nearly ground into space dust, a hand reaches out to shake Amelia’s. Alien or the hand of God?
I hazard to guess that there is not a NASA astronaut who has ever ventured beyond the Earth’s atmosphere who has not pondered the existence of G-d given the universe’s extraordinarily delicate balance and order. One does not have to actually believe in a divine intelligence to contemplate its existence. What you need is an open mind, something I assume space travel, a human adventure that only a handful of beings have ever experienced ,tends to encourage given the unparalleled vistas and wonders encountered. But how interesting it is that in all the blather about quantum physics, ‘love’ and family attachment in the movie, there is no discussion at all among the space crew about order in the Universe and the fact that there might be some unknowable force (perhaps the dark matter which constitutes 80% of the Universe and of which both they and we know nothing) which might be exerting an influence on not just the planets but also on the individual missions of each of the astronauts themselves.
It is an important question because this movie, if it concerns anything, it is life’s purpose. If the Earth is no longer a useful vehicle for organic life and Man such an irresponsible steward, then why waste the energy to jettison that life to another solar system to begin again? The answer that the movie wants to give is that life does, actually, have purpose and tries to satisfy the question by rhapsodizing about family and love. But in the end this is nothing but a hollow conceit. In the end Cooper completely abandons his extended family on the space station for a life of bliss on a rather forbidding planet with Amelia. Amelia’s love drive is revealed as an empty, futile quest as the chances for Edmunds’ survival, given the disappearance of 10 of the other astronauts on his previous mission, was never likely. As a scientist she could have easily calculated the odds. No, what we might say drove her was the sense that she could claim to begin human life again, in order to train it to reach a higher purpose.
What that higher purpose might be was beyond the reach of these film makers and actually beyond the thinking of almost any one in Hollywood. Perhaps one day our world will produce sci-fi movie makers who are also deep thinkers, connected to a reverence for the mystery and wonder of our Universe and in fact deeply humbled by it – men and women who are not afraid to ask difficult questions of how it – and we- all came about. In the meantime, we should all revel in the uniqueness of Planet Earth and its fortunate place in the Universe and the extraordinary luck that we find ourselves in this location and at this time. The third rock from the sun is providing its own transportive journey through the Cosmos and we should all perhaps be enjoying the ride.