It’s not often that you find a science fiction movie that both tries to blow your mind with high-concept science stuff and make you feel something at the same time. And while it’s certainly not perfect, as I’ll explain, I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain my feelings on one of my go-to sci-fi films, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
Like so many sci-fi movies that have people venturing off into space, Interstellar begins in our not-so-distant future, where the threat du jour facing humanity is the breakdown of the environment all around the world. Due to overfarming and a need to feed a continually growing population, the Earth is becoming used up, with oxygen content in the atmosphere dropping as crop after crop is killed off by diseases and dust storms have turned the whole planet into one giant Dust Bowl. In this strangely retro future environment, former NASA pilot Cooper is re-recruited into his old agency as part of a long-shot plan to send a team through a newly-discovered wormhole to a new galaxy. Of a dozen explorers who were sent off before, only three reported back with potential habitable planets, making the stakes quite high. In addition, the relativity involved with space travel makes it quite probable that Cooper will never see his family again, as they will age decades while no time passes for him. With all the astronauts hurting for one reason or another for leaving their loved ones, the journey takes on a measure of desperation as they realize they might never make it home–and might not actually ever have been able to save the people they left behind.
Yeah, it’s a pretty bleak future that’s depicted in Interstellar–and one that, for the most part, seems scientifically sound. In fact, the entire movie was created with the help of real-life scientists and physicists because the creators wanted to make as realistic a story as possible. There’s only a few things scientifically to pick at in the movie, and one of the most obvious are the dire conditions on Earth at the start of the story–scientists say it would likely take hundreds of years or more, not just 50 or so, for the environment to deteriorate like that. But anyway, part of the intriguing nature of Interstellar is that it doesn’t start out as a space movie. The first half-hour at least is simply dedicated to setting up Cooper, rightly portrayed by Matthew McConaughey, as a family man devoted to those he loves, so much so that he gave up flying to offer them a more secure life. It also firmly establishes the movie’s adherence to science as Cooper urges his children to look at life scientifically as opposed to superstitiously–his daughter, Murphy, records observations about the “ghost” in her room that leaves strange dust trails. McConaughey was absolutely the right choice for the part because he brings a very down-to-earth, folksy quality to the role, and while Cooper is a scientist in his own right and far from stupid, he’s still much more highly relatable to the audience than a character like Michael Caine’s Brand–who even still is really good! It’s also quite a refreshing perspective both in the post-truth world of the movie (where among other things, the government has spread the falsehood that the Apollo moon landings were faked) and in our contemporary times, which honestly don’t seem that far removed from how things are in this fictional place. For that reason alone, Interstellar still has the capacity to really connect with its audience right off, even going on four years after its original release.
While it also hurts my heart to see, I’m glad that the way Cooper and Murphy leave things when he departs–unresolved, uncertain, and full of hurt feelings–is the way it is. Too often stories paper over these kinds of family strife, and in real life it’s not always a given that families support each other or will come back together no matter what. It all goes back to the idea that in this world, there are real consequences to the actions of the characters, and they’re not always good ones.
There’s also a ruthless, coldhearted strain of pragmatism present in Interstellar that you don’t always see in sci-fi: a lot of the time, it seems these movies present some kind of long-shot plan to save the world with no real fallback option, leaving you to assume that of course the main characters are going to succeed in their mission. Not so here: hell, it eventually comes out that even Brand, the architect of the entire project, never believed in getting people off the dying Earth and instead was putting his money on the frozen embryo plan to repopulating humanity. That’s pretty dark. And returning to the idea of real consequences, things get super real with the team’s visit to the first planet, where time moves much slower–so much so that it takes them 23 years to get back to their ship, where their crewmates have been waiting in solitude the whole time. Each time these kinds of things happen in the story, it hits you like a punch to the gut because of the impact you know it’s going to have on the Earthbound characters, and because it’s just so matter-of-fact about it. There’s no warp drive here, and no transporters. These are the harsh realities of space travel as it exists at this moment, and it’s something I feel this movie handles brilliantly.
That’s without even mentioning the awesome special effects in this movie, and the way it tackles other planets. No matter what Star Trek would have you believe, not every single planet out there looks sort of like Earth–there are alien environments and possibilities that we can’t even possibly imagine. While the avenues Interstellar explores are still pretty tame by comparison (water planet, ice planet, and desert planet I guess?), they’re still a leap and a jump away from what other sci-fi films have presented in the past and show the filmmakers were thinking outside the box–even if those ice clouds don’t really hold up to scientific scrutiny, either.
And just to hammer home the movie’s point about the double-edged sword of hope and the fallibility and imperfection of human beings, how about that random Matt Damon cameo, huh? Dr. Mann’s cowardice, insanity, and betrayal of the mission he himself founded shows just how far our heroes can fall when things don’t turn out the way they had expected.
I guess this is where I should probably address the elephant in the room–Interstellar‘s ending. It’s the one rather large problem I have with the movie, aside from the whole, “Oh, gravity equals love and love is the foundation of the universe!” thing that’s a little too sappy for me. I mean, the scientific principle is sound: gravity is the one force we know that can factually warp time, making Cooper’s interference in past events via gravity manipulation slightly more believable. I have two issues with what happens when Cooper and his wise-cracking robot buddy TARS fall into the black hole and come out in that weird library/tesseract other dimension thing. One, it’s blatantly ripped off of another movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I mean, seriously. It’s like they didn’t even try to hide it. Then again, the whole movie was very reminiscent of the Kubrick classic, but still. The second is that I hate bootstrap paradox endings like this: they’re invariably a sort of cheat on any and all dramatic tension the story ever had. If the conclusion was inevitable from the beginning, than what was the point of all the action and suspense? Aside from the journey, I suppose, which might in itself be a valid argument. Oh, and if you don’t know what the bootstrap paradox is, take the Doctor’s advice: Google it. But in all honesty, this movie’s theory of time travel is a lot more sound than other movies in that respect (cough Back to the Future cough), so I guess that lets it off the hook a little. However, it’s as close as I’ve ever seen to the literal definition of deus ex machina. How does any of this make a lick of sense? And if you say “because god-like future human things”, I’m done with you.
Two more points: did I mention that the robots are my favorite characters in the movie? The wisecracks of CASE and TARS just kill me every time. Self destruct? Robot overlords? Humor settings? I love those guys, and even though they’re mechanical, they’re pretty much integral to the story and treated as just as human and important as any of the homo sapien characters. The Cooper/TARS bromance could probably be some kind of metaphor for how a relationship between man and machines should be if we don’t want them to go all Terminator on us. And also, on the subject of relationships, I’m very, very happy Interstellar didn’t push a romantic subplot on us, especially between Anne Hathaway’s Amelia Brand and Cooper. The chemistry was clearly there for everyone to see, and they obviously have some kind of mutual attraction, but that kind of cliche we’ve-both-lost-someone-so-let’s-be-together kind of thing is something the filmmakers did well to avoid. Not only does the movie not really need another kind of distraction like that, it preserves the believable tension between the characters through their different points of view. And besides, everyone pretty much gets a happy ending anyway in this movie. What more could you want?
My Rating: 8/10
Look, even though I may find the ending a bit contrived, the fact is that Interstellar blazes new trails that not a lot of other science fiction movies have had the guts to, like relativistic travel and how it can tear families apart, yet is a necessity if we’re going to explore the cosmos. The grand, epic scale of the film is worthy of comparison to things like 2001, and not just because it’s significantly more exciting. There’s a lot of headiness in this movie, but also a lot of heart, and thanks to the great performances out of most of the actors, that makes for a winning combination. Definitely put this one on your watch list.