“Interstellar”: Space Enough at Last


“Hey, kids! Wanna journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination?”

Not all of Christopher Nolan’s films are five-star masterpieces (here’s nodding off at you, Dark Knight Rises), but the foundation of new ideas that underpin each production guarantees we’re in for a unique cinematic experience rather than prefab Hollywood conveyor-belt product. Witness the debate-class spectacle that is Interstellar — one-half homage to 2001: a Space Odyssey, one-half admitted love letter from Nolan to his daughter bearing messages of hope, curiosity, science, human achievement, and the strength of intangible, immeasurable bonds that keep us connected even when we’re parsecs apart.

Short version for the unfamiliar: In an apocalyptic future when a used-up Earth has become a worldwide Dust Bowl and humanity hasn’t figured out how to convert the remains into viable resources, Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey is a former engineer-turned-farmer struggling to make life worth living for his agriculturally minded son Tom (Timothée Chalamet from Homeland) and his STEM-minded daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, Renesmee from Breaking Dawn). A series of mysterious events leads the family to the doorstep of what’s left of NASA, reduced to underground covert-ops status in an America that prizes pragmatic food production over frivolities such as spaceflight or free-willed career choice.

The head of NASA (Michael Caine) welcomes Our Hero, who’s stumbled in just in time: they’re preparing to launch a spacecraft into a wormhole near Saturn that should hopefully take an exploratory team to faraway planets where humanity might relocate, survive, and thrive once more. McConaughey signs on with a crew that includes fellow Oscar winner Anne Hathaway, The Hunger Games‘ Wes Bentley, David Gyasi (Cloud Atlas), and a robot literally designed with adjustable sarcasm settings. Meanwhile back home, little Murphy is devastated when her daddy has to leave home, maybe never to return. Annoying brother Tom’s cool with it because this means more farming for him. Yay farming!

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Later in the movie are key roles for the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, and a surprise actor absent from all the trailers who’s so A-list that his intro jarred me out of the film for a few minutes.

John Lithgow is Tom and Murphy’s grandpa. Knots Landing‘s William Devane is an irritated NASA guy. Later developments create small roles for Topher Grace (Spider-Man 3) and Elyes Gabel (star of TV’s Scorpion). Somehow I also recognized David Oyelowo (soon to play MLK in the upcoming Selma) in one scene as Murphy’s disappointed principal.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The moral of the story at Level Duh: Nolan is in favor of spaceflight, fully funded space programs, and serious exploration beyond the confines of our atmosphere or even our solar system. Much of the movie serves to update Hollywood science-fiction standards for what advanced space travel might someday look like in reality without Starfleet or the Rebel Alliance to carry us, albeit using the hypothetical concept of a convenient wormhole as a key facilitator. The simplest point made here is that there’s no reason to treat Earth like an inescapable prison. We’ll never know whether it’s all useful or useless out there unless we go take a look.

Sadly, spaceflight today is rare because money. The extravagant investments necessary to get anywhere significant require a certain level of altruism that accepts profit as a low priority. In Nolan’s future the budgetary restrictions seem surprisingly few; the larger problem is public disapproval, which only intensifies as Earth keeps rotting and humanity’s despair worsens. Whether by government fiat or by local political conspiracy, Murphy’s teachers swindle their students with a revisionist history that claims the 20th-century space race was all a hoax, because they need kids to stop dreaming of being anything except farmers. After all, people need to eat something besides dust, all that dust ain’t gonna farm itself, and the more farmers, the merrier. Yay farming!

At the same time, Nolan’s view of spaceflight has its emotional side full of questions. What will it cost us to reach wherever we’re truly meant to reach? What are we prepared to leave behind? Is the long trip worth it if humankind leaves its own humanity behind? Is the survival of the species more important than the survival of its noblest principles? Several key moments hinge on tough choices between head or heart. To a certain extent, the same could be said of the viewer’s opinion of the movie.

Nitpicking? Internet users have been sparring for weeks over what should or shouldn’t have happened. I’ve seen lots of sentences beginning with “Why didn’t they…?” that think they’re shaming Nolan for alleged plot loopholes. A certain humility, borne of my impoverished lack of doctorate-level science know-how, precludes me from too much persnickety indignation in that area. To me it seemed many were disagreeing with character choices more than anything. Since Interstellar didn’t resonate for me as strongly on a space-geek level as it did on others, I didn’t much care if the science-fiction mechanics were reasonable or not. Nothing in the movie screamed “Syfy Original Movie” or even “Transformers” to me. For the 170-minute duration, that was sufficient.

Honestly, though, if we really want to nitpick the movie till it bleeds, maybe we should ask why America doesn’t assign its top scientists to developing cutting-edge farming technology? Why didn’t Nolan make a movie called Intercellular that’s two hours of McConaughey working with his kids to invent radical new GMOs and cool super-fertilizers that’ll turn the periodic table upside-down and save us all? Or. OR! Why not employ the standard SF concept of terraforming? If machines in old SF stories can turn Mars into a verdant Earth-2, why can’t Nolan’s characters copy those machines and reboot his Earth like that? Let’s really dig deep into rewriting Nolan’s movie for him despite his intentions or his point! Let’s all be awesome meddling Hollywood studio executives.

Anyway. My least favorite part: Hathaway is assigned the film’s most awkward speech, in which she tries to make the case for love as a quantifiable dimension that scientific tools someday will be able to access and measure. This seemed a contrived sop meant to steer the film closer to humanism than to the realm of faith. I didn’t buy it for a second, but that’s just me and where I’m at.

Much has also been written at length about the sound mixing — specifically, numerous scenes where dialogue is partly drowned out by sound effects. Nolan recently responded at length that this was intentional. Some of the dialogue isn’t meant to be heard or understood. The thrust of those scenes, counters Nolan, is to immerse us in the characters’ true sonic environment — i.e., at times when they’re smothered in decibels and can barely hear each other even if they’re shouting. In movies past, filmmakers simply mixed the dialogue on a higher level and let us hear it anyway, even if it was technically unrealistic. (See also: loud space explosions we shouldn’t be able to hear.) I think we as an audience might have been more receptive if Nolan had simply allowed the dialogue to be 100% inaudible. Instead, Nolan’s sound team tantalizes us with lines that are 20-30% audible — we can tell people are talking, but we can only understand every third or fourth word. We end up distraught because think we’re missing part of the movie.

In Nolan’s defense, I got the impression that the muffled lines were inessential dialogue anyway — purposefully banal, I’d wager. And as someone whose hearing isn’t the best and whose ears basically shut down amid heavy crowd noise, I’d say the sound guys nailed that frustrating feeling of isolation with a score of 10.0. I can understand the backlash against this weird design, though.

Friends of mine also complained about a scene in which a dying man’s last words dwindle into indecipherable mumbling. They were all like, STUPID NOLAN! And I’m thinking, but that’s exactly what dying old people sound like. I’m sorry eighty years of Hollywood films have given y’all the impression that all deathbed speeches are stoic and articulate until the very last nanoseconds before the soul leaves the body, but that’s not how it works. In the real world, if you’re feeling strong enough to orate a coherent For Your Oscar Consideration speech, then you’re too peppy to die this minute. That scene was immediately spot-on to me, long before Nolan’s defensive interview.

Two things that did bug me:

* As the other major astronaut on board, Hathaway serves the role ably enough as written, but seemed a bit undeserved because one of her key motivators is told to us, yet never actually shown. Selling an offscreen factor as an emotional lynchpin is tricky business (see also: Sandra Bullock’s child in Gravity), and hers never rang true for me.

* I was a little disappointed that I solved one of the central mysteries less than ten minutes into the film. A major plot point resembled a Flash story I read two decades ago, which I can’t spoil here because I can’t remember which special or annual contained it. I had no idea how Nolan would enable the same plot device, but he eventually did.

So did I like it or not? Life in a spacecraft is appropriately claustrophobic, the distant physical destinations are suitably weird and sometimes deadly, and the advanced mechanics are fun to watch in action, especially when things go wrong. At some point during Interstellar, though, hard science stops and heartfelt wonder begins. It’s tough to discuss details without spoilers, but the most ambitious scenes see Nolan and company fighting the inherent limitations in translating some unfilmable, barely conceivable concepts into inadequate fourth-dimensional cinema. When the audience’s grasp of what’s happening falters, we have to latch on to the cast in general and McConaughey in particular if we hope to see this movie through to the end credits.

Thanks to McConaughey, it worked for me despite the drawbacks noted above. He’s great as a pilot regaining his wings for the first time in ages, as a dreamer trusting in the bold plans of others, and as a father trying to save his family and also incidentally life as we know it. To a very welcome extent, McConaughey’s heart and Nolan’s fantastical visions together make Interstellar the best, brightest, grandest episode of The Twilight Zone we’ve had in decades. It’s classic triumph-of-the-human-spirit stuff and I’m pretty okay with this.

(Even if Nolan’s most out-there scenes aren’t wholly successful, I like to think they’ll serve as a springboard for some future filmmaker to revisit his ideas while advancing them further with the advantages of fresh eyes, new tools, and whatever scientific advancements occur on the subject between now and then.)

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Interstellar end credits, though there’s a one-sentence proclamation from Nolan toward the end: “THIS MOVIE WAS SHOT AND FINISHED ON FILM.” So there, I guess.

We’re also privy to a long list of universities and science divisions that were consulted throughout production (MIT among them). Anyone itching to quibble with the science behind the film is free to send debate invitations to those institutions as well.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Best Scientific Inaccuracies in “Interstellar” | Midlife Crisis Crossover

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