Guest contributor Gerry Lopez and I take on Christopher Nolan’s polarizing Interstellar.
written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
directed by Christopher Nolan
On a recent trip to Disney World, after experiencing Enchanted Tales with Belle – in which a “magic” mirror transforms into a doorway before our eyes and opens into a room in a distant castle – my five-year-old daughter curiously asked how it was done. Her grandmother answered as most people would, by saying it was “Disney magic.” To which my daughter replied, dismissively, “No. I don’t believe in magic,” making me one proud dad. My wife immediately jumped in and followed up by asking her how she thought they did it. The answer? A “special button,” which with our help she determined was based on science and engineering. These are the types of exchanges I have with my daughter frequently. I mention this because it happened only one week after having seen Interstellar, and it is exactly the type of thing that made me connect with the movie, immediately, on a very personal level. And I think by the end of the movie, it is clear that personal connections are the point.
This movie is about several things, but chief among them are the tension between logic and emotion, the sacrifices of parenting, and the concepts of time and immortality. These themes are explored in parallel and ultimately unified in the conclusion of the film. Whether or not there are larger answers or a straightforward one-sentence summary that can be made about the whole thing is not important. I think what director Christopher Nolan is trying to say may be too complex to be put into one simple sentence. And maybe he’s not even trying to say anything that specific at all, but rather point out something about human connections.
Interstellar begins in a future that is never too clearly defined. My best guess would be that it takes place some 80-100 years from now. The Earth has been affected by a “blight” that isn’t explored in-depth either, except to set up that crops have become nearly impossible to grow and there are massive dust storms across the planet that make people sick. Millions have died and the emphasis has been on repopulating the planet. But this is not Mad Max (1979) – society has survived, though there are hints that they are just coming back from utter chaos.
In this world, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who used to be an engineer and test pilot, is now a farmer, raising his children with the help of his father-in-law (John Lithgow). But Cooper hasn’t let go of his past skills, in spite of the fact that the world doesn’t have much use for them anymore. The implication is that maybe the masses blame technology for the state of things. When Cooper is set to drop his kids off at school, he has a meeting with their teachers who inform them his son will not be going to college, but will instead be a farmer. He is also told that his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) brought in a “banned” text book that went into detail about the moon landing, which we learn the government has classified as propaganda designed by Kennedy to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Cooper, however, would rather have his daughter suspended than to have her fall in line. And this is where the relationship between father and daughter has its foundation, rooted in a love for science. From the very beginning they are connected by their mutual curiosity, and while it could be argued that Murph’s curiosity is the result of her father instilling it in her, the fact that her older brother does not share it perhaps says something about nature versus nurture and different personalities.
At one point, Cooper laments that we (mankind) used to be explorers, looking to the stars, but now we only look at the dirt. This comment about the state of the world, about dreaming versus survival, works not only in terms of plot, but also in terms of parenting issues that are often hard to express without seeming selfish. And it relates directly to the idea that once you have children, you only exist to be a memory for them. When we have kids we give up a lot of ourselves, sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity, often by both. Many of the things we wanted to do take a backseat or are kicked out of the car entirely. Our lives become centered on caring for our children. In a sense, they are now our dreams and aspirations, fairly or unfairly. Once Cooper is given the opportunity to “save the world,” we have to wonder what exactly it is that pushes him to do it. Is it really as simple as wanting to do what’s best for the world and his children? Or is it about recapturing his own sense of adventure and purpose? Maybe it’s both and maybe that’s what we should strive for as parents. In any case, it’s not a decision that comes without a cost, as leaving his daughter is heartbreaking for both of them. Murph, perhaps seeing it as a selfish move on her father’s part, thinks he is abandoning her, even when he assures her he will return… perhaps even younger than her, due to relativity.
From the first scenes of the film Murph has been obsessed with what she calls a ghost back at the house. Repeatedly, however, Cooper tells her there is no such thing. From the start, I had a pretty good idea of where this was going: Cooper’s the “ghost” communicating with Murph. And I was okay with that being telegraphed, because what is interesting here is that even though Murph called it a ghost, she was never under the impression that it was supernatural or scary. Instead, she was curious and trying to decipher communications from it. She’s open in a very grounded way, which is exactly what being rooted in reason instead of faith is about. It’s a nuance that many people don’t understand when they hear you are an atheist. Once the film reaches the climax and brings us back to these early moments from the opposite side, it becomes heartbreaking to see Cooper experience a series of realizations that go from trying to make himself stay on Earth, to passing on what he has learned so that the bigger mission can still be completed against all expectations.
On another level, the film works as a sort of breakdown of belief systems in order to illustrate the importance of said human connections. We are shown a world that has largely rejected science in favor of survival, but then discover the most scientific-minded individuals on the planet have been working in secret to save humanity. While on the space mission, every step is carefully and logically discussed and planned out. Cooper and the others are very deliberate about setting aside any emotional bias when weighing each option. That is, until it all goes south on the first planet they land on. Due to their proximity to a black hole, in a matter of minutes they wind up losing a crew member and more than two decades. After a scene where Cooper watches 23 years worth of video messages sent by his son – arguably the movie’s most gut-wrenching moment – the crew needs to decide their next move. It’s a choice that should be completely logical, based on data, but astronaut Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) appeals to a feeling she has. She admits her choice may just be based on love. She tries to explain – unconvincingly – that love is the point of everything. It’s unconvincing to Cooper and it was unconvincing to me. It’s entirely possible that Brand does not entirely believe it herself, that she is of two minds at this moment and has voiced this plea in desperation. The crew does not go with Brand’s suggestion, and it is later revealed that, due to false information, the choice they make is incorrect. But it was logically sound – it’s not as simple as Nolan telling us that you should sometimes go with your gut. They were simply lied to and there was no way for them to know that. But for Nolan, that human element is still vital, because in the end that is what ultimately saves mankind.
Most of Nolan’s films deal with time in some way. Memento (2000) is told backwards. Insomnia (2002) is about one long day. A central element of Inception (2010) is how time is experienced differently in the dream world. And Interstellar takes it to the ultimate level by dealing with time and space at its most theoretical and scientific. Filmspotting’s Adam Kempenaar points out that it’s all about human longing, regret and the inability to change the past. I agree with his assessment and would take a step further. I think it’s about coming to terms with human mortality. Whether it’s Batman dealing with the death of his parents by attempting – futilely – to eradicate crime, or Cooper trying to cheat time itself by plunging into a black hole, the struggle is ultimately against death itself. In the case of Interstellar, the struggle leads to revelations of what it might mean to become immortal and the nature of time itself. But it also gives us hope that rather than trying to struggle against the inevitable, we should perhaps cherish our human connections instead. The message, if there is one, may be that rather than attempting to change the past, we should look forward: Our humanity will keep us anchored to what we’ve lost.
No. Please tell me it isn’t so. Please tell me I didn’t spend more than two hours watching the sci-fi epic Interstellar only to arrive at a climax with a library floating around in a black hole, a teary reunion between a father and his estranged daughter, and the realization that love is, well, an interstellar force. Please whisper sweet nothings in my ear and tell me director Christopher Nolan didn’t go all M. Night Shyamalan on me. Please.
Alright, so I got that off my chest.
I apologize – Nolan is nowhere close to reaching Shyamalan’s level of what-the-fuck-is-this non-payoffs. And okay, fine, there’s no actual library floating around in the sky. It’s rather a visual metaphor that aims to illustrate the connection between all human beings, represented by a daddy and his little girl. It’s meant to be sweet and moving, and in theory it should work. But it’s one of many, many problems I had with Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious – and silliest – film to date. And believe me, I’m no hater: Having balanced indies such as Memento (2000) with more big-budget fare such as The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012), he’s certainly become a director I respect. If you’re into film, even seeing him fall short of the mark is worthwhile.
I really enjoyed the setup of Interstellar: Earth is devastated by an unnamed blight, dust storms continuously ravage the land, and history has been rewritten to accommodate the new reality. It’s ugly, but eerily prescient. We meet Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an engineer turned farmer, trying to make a living with his family. Through a mysterious coded message, Cooper and his daughter Murphy stumble across the remnants of NASA, tucked away in an underground facility led by Professor John Brand (Michael Caine). Brand explains humanity has but one more generation on Earth, and the only way to preserve the species is to go into a wormhole they’ve discovered (placed by an extraterrestrial intelligence?), and find potentially habitable planets. A crew has already identified three possible worlds, but now another mission is needed to gather more data. So far, so good – I’m a sci-fi geek, so this is right up my alley.
And then Brand asks Cooper to be the commander of the spaceship Endurance, which is about ready to leave.
Wait a sec. Brand has barely talked to Cooper for five minutes, and now he’s asking a man who hasn’t piloted a ship in God knows how many years to be the leader of an expedition to save the planet? And wouldn’t NASA have chosen someone already? Okay, no biggie, it’s a movie – I can suspend my disbelief a bit.
Brand then says he doesn’t know how long the mission will take – potentially years – and there’s no guarantee anyone will come back alive. Holy crap, that’s some shit to think about. Cooper agrees, goes back home, says goodbye to his children, and rockets into space.
Yep, Cooper pretty much abandons his children in order to save humanity. And sure, you can say all you want about the nobility of his actions, but I just wish the character would’ve taken some time to weigh the consequences – as a father, I know I would’ve. Hell, give us a montage in which at least a week passes by before the guy makes his decision, then add some scenes where he trains for the mission (does he even get a CliffsNotes on how to fly that thing?). Instead, the movie shifts speed abruptly, as if Nolan suddenly realized he needed to get to the space stuff already. And it won’t be the last time it happens either: Interstellar is chock-full of these jarring rhythm changes.
But alright, now we’re in space and Interstellar gets exciting again. The crew will travel through the wormhole and recon a bunch of planets orbiting a black hole. Cool. Scientist Romilly (David Gyasi) folds a piece of paper and explains to Cooper how they’ll be taking a shortcut through spacetime, shortening the distance from point A to point B and – –
Stop the presses.
Cooper doesn’t know the theory? He’s a former NASA pilot. On a space mission whose first objective is to do exactly that. Give me a fucking break.
Obviously the scene is there for the benefit of the audience. But it is an example of Interstellar’s second issue: The need to over explain things (Nolan made the same mistake in his 2010 film Inception). In any work with knotty narratives or heavy nomenclature, it is tempting to make things clear – I get it. But it is highly irrelevant to the enjoyment of the work itself. Great sci-fi films know and avoid this. They include Shane Carruth’s time travel indie Primer (2004), Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal Solaris (1972), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stanley Kubrick’s obtuse masterpiece and Nolan’s obvious point of inspiration. Even during Interstellar‘s climax, taking place in a multidimensional tesseract from where Cooper can see all points of his life, a robot named TARS goes over everything that’s happening. It completely undermines what could’ve been a poetic scene of a man visualizing – and coming to terms with – his place in the universe (you know, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Interstellar‘s third and perhaps most egregious mistake is in trying to marry sentimentality with hard physics. Central to the plot is the relationship between Cooper and Murphy, played at age ten by Mackenzie Foy and as a grown woman by Jessica Chastain (due to time dilation during Endurance’s travels, people on Earth age faster than the crew). This is a movie that in essence asks whether love, in its cosmic we-are-all-stardust way, can be as powerful a force as anything measurable by science. And even though I think that’s beautiful, the way this film goes about setting it up is clunky at best: The astronauts are sitting around trying to decide which planet they should descend to when biologist Amelia (Brand’s daughter, played by Anne Hathaway) suddenly posits that “Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful, it has to mean something. Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.”
You’re kidding me, right? An astronaut just says this out of the blue?
Of course you could argue she says it because she, in fact, is in love – the planet she picks is the one her scientist boyfriend discovered in the previous mission. There’s a chance he could still be alive. But that’s not why she says it. She says it because the character needs to set up the film’s schmaltzy climax, in which Cooper makes contact with his now-adult daughter, makes amends for abandoning her, and gives her the technology that will permit humanity to leave Earth and survive. But damn if there aren’t dozens of ways to go about that scenario that wouldn’t feel as forced. Amelia’s speech brings Interstellar‘s central hypothesis to the surface, and it makes for a rather tantalizing supposition – one that I desperately wanted the film to pay off in a way reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) or even Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), both similar ruminations on love and our place in the cosmos. But to me, the end result is just too literal and in-your-face. You can tell this film was originally written for Steven Spielberg.
At this point I want to bring up two movies which I think are more inspiration to Nolan that he’d care to admit, or which at least seem to be fairly obvious blueprints for Interstellar. First is Contact (1997), Robert Zemeckis’ film based on Carl Sagan’s novel about a scientist (Jodie Foster) who travels through a wormhole and realizes that faith and love aren’t so bad after all (ugh). It has secret coded messages from space and a central relationship between a father and daughter that gets resolved in the final climax. Hell, it even has McConaughey himself as a hippie Christian philosopher. Then there’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the 1984 sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey in which a group of astronauts try to find out what happened to the failed Discovery One mission from the 1968 film. It sets up a crisis on Earth that could lead to World War III and the destruction of mankind. The main character is a scientist father (Roy Scheider) who leaves a child behind in hopes of a better future. And it has a feel-good climax in which humanity receives a message of hope and love (ugh). Does any of this ring a bell? Watching Interstellar I couldn’t help feeling I’d seen this story before, and by now I expect much more from Nolan.
I could go on and on: Matt Damon pops up from out of nowhere in a terribly miscast role that had me laughing in disbelief. And Hans Zimmer’s score is bonkers, with its ridiculous pipe organ arpeggios. But I’ll stop complaining. There are some good moments here and there, including a sequence on a planet with enormous tidal waves, and a suspenseful race to stop a stolen shuttle. McConaughey’s solid, his humanity in full display in a scene where he watches video images of the past twenty-three years of his children’s lives (perhaps the best moment in the whole film). I also appreciate Nolan’s conviction of shooting on celluloid, some of it Imax 70mm – the space vistas are gorgeous. These are all good calls. But in general Interstellar didn’t touch me. When saving the human species hinges on “All You Need is Love,” you better have a clever way of saying it. The Beatles were right to keep it simple. Nolan just takes the long and winding road across the universe.
Carlos I. Cuevas