This week the United States and China signed a landmark agreement to curb carbon emissions in an effort to get global warming under control. Though for years the warnings of scientists have fallen on the deaf ears of politicians, reason has finally broken though. We can only hope it is not too late, and that the anti-intellectualism of popular media news outlets who believe that ignorance deserves “equal time” does not derail the process. If we have waited too long, the scenario that begins Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar may prove all too prescient.
Unfortunately, the disaster that precipitated this blighted earth on which the former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is forced to attempt to scratch out a living for himself and his family—a world we are introduced to through an opening series of interviews with elderly folks who sound as if they are describing the dust bowl of the 1930s—is never mentioned in the movie. Instead, Cooper must defend his daughter Murph (named for “Murphy’s Law”) against officials from her school who complain that she is discrediting the section in her history textbook that claims the Apollo moon landings were faked by the U.S. in order to drive the Soviet Union to collapse in trying to keep up in the “space race.” While the scene likely parodies the kind of rewriting of history demanded by school boards in certain benighted U.S. states, where books that don’t conform to the party line cannot be used in public schools, the implication that citizens of the U.S. blame scientists for the climate debacle is ludicrous: it is the debunkers of science, not the scientists, who have brought climate change upon us. So in this way the film is politically disingenuous.
To be fair, or at least a little bit more fair, the focus of the film is not on the cause of the disaster. It is focused on the desperate solution: Cooper and Murph are able to interpret a cryptic communication from what the girl thinks at first is a Poltergeist in her bedroom, which leads them to the secret underground headquarters of what remains of NASA, still covertly (and insufficiently) funded by the government despite the popular resentment of scientists. Here Cooper meets his former mentor, Professor Brand (played by Michael Caine, Nolan’s Dark Knight Alfred), who explains that years earlier NASA sent three individual astronauts through a wormhole discovered near Saturn into a planetary system in a galaxy millions of light years away, and is about to send a full crew on a larger mission to explore each of the previously earmarked planets in that system to find which is most suitable for human habitation. Finding the right world, Brand asserts, will allow NASA (if Brand himself can figure out the right formula that takes into account the “problem of gravity”) to launch a kind of spaceship ark to carry surviving earthlings to that planet and save them from the earth’s imminent demise (Plan A), or at least deliver a collection of human embryos to be born on the new planet and perpetuate the species (Plan B). Thus the implicit point of the movie is that space exploration is not only a worthwhile but possibly even a necessary investment for our future. The suggestion that the government’s downsizing of the NASA budget when public opinion saw no need for space travel any more once the practical political objective of whipping the Russkies was achieved was a mistake may well be accurate, and Cooper’s assertion that human beings have always been explorers appeals to an undeniable aspect of human nature: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down at our place in the dirt,” he argues convincingly at one point. But Nolan takes what seems to me an unsuccessful approach in having what apparently is the entire scientific community left in American working on a hugely expensive and almost certainly futile project of transporting huge populations over trillions of miles, while apparently no one at all is trying to figure out how to make things better on earth and save the planet. “We’re not meant to save the world, we’re meant to leave it,” says Brand at one point. Well, I have to reject his frame. How does he know what we are “meant” to do? And which course seems likelier to achieve some kind of success?
Former astronaut Cooper, who left NASA as a result of some debacle hinted at early in the movie but never clarified, is urged by Brand to pilot the Endurance, a large spinning vessel built to take a crew through the wormhole to the other galaxy. On board will be Brand’s own daughter Amelia (Ann Hathaway), who it turns out has her own agenda, which I can’t say much about without spoiling the plot, and two other scientists, Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), who, if you’ve watched enough episodes of Star Trek, you must recognize as cannon fodder. And so Cooper must choose: he knows that a trip of this sort, in which at times he must be traveling close to the speed of light, time will pass more slowly for him than for his children, and that by the time he returns (if he returns) he may be the same age as his daughter. Brand must realize that he is not likely to live long enough to see his own daughter’s return. Cooper must make a parallel choice: to save the human race, he must sacrifice his relationship with his family. He makes the only choice he can, for the greater good, and the Endurance sets off for its interstellar journey.
Indeed at one point in the journey, the astronauts are compelled to make a landing on a world circling the edge of a black hole, and the extreme gravitational effects of the back hole (causing what physicists call “gravitational time dilation”) create a situation whereby a single hour on the planet’s surface is equal to seven years’ time on earth—ensuring that if Cooper does return to Murph, it will be far later than he had hoped. The science of the film is complex and some viewers may find it a bit of a slog, but it is legitimate science—respected theoretical physicist Kip Thorne worked with Nolan as consultant and executive producer. But on the human level, the wrenching misery of Cooper’s desire to make it back to Murph is one of the true and powerful aspects of the film.
For there are two poles around which this movie revolves. One of them is the repeated motto “Anything that can happen will happen,” which the film incorrectly identifies as “Murphy’s Law,” after which Cooper’s daughter Murph is named. In fact, of course, Murphy’s Law says that “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”—a much different assertion, since it suggests the near-impossibility of anything turning out as planned. While in some ways that maxim may apply to the voyage of the Endurance, it is not the direction of Nolan’s plot. The film’s motto, “Anything that can happen will happen,” is in fact a truism of quantum physics, and underscores the surprising possibilities made manifest by quantum mechanics—possibilities that boggle the ordinary imagination. Such a maxim makes us believe that, far-fetched as it may be, the voyage of the Endurance is at least possible, and the success of that mission not inconceivable. But no one in the film has yet mtnioned an important qualifier of that maxim as usually expressed by physicists: given an infinite amount of time, anything that can happen will happen. The crew of the Endurance more than aware, however, that they so not have an infinite amount of time. For them time, like fuel, is a limited resource. And that severely limits the likelihood of their success.
The film’s other pole is the sentiment, first expressed by Amelia, that sometimes important decisions can’t be made based solely on logic alone, but we must listen to our heart as well as our head, and there are times when the heart must triumph. Apparently this applies particularly to making a determination, between two possible courses of action, as to which is more likely to save the human race. In her case, she is discussing romantic love, but the same principle must apply to Cooper’s love for Murph. It may seem as if the pole of scientific fact is irreconcilable with the pole of love conquering all, but in fact, if it is true that anything that can happen will happen, then the mysterious force of love may act as a force as powerful as gravity in determining the outcome of a situation, and the two poles may come together like the two ends of a wormhole.
There are laudable things going on in this movie. The science is fascinating and far more challenging than the run-of-the-mill science-fiction flick. The emphasis on the power of human love may seem a bit hokey but is actually welcome in this otherwise grim technological world. And the cinematography and special effects are generally up to the standard an audience has a right to expect with an epic science-fiction extravaganza like Interstellar: alien planetary landscapes are remarkably realistic, especially a tidal wave mistaken for a mountain range at one point. Performances are noteworthy: McConaughey is sympathetic as the reluctant and divided hero. Mackenzie Foy is very believable as the ten-year old Murph, and Jessica Chastain is remarkable playing the grown-up Murph, a chip off the old block who has in some ways replaced Amelia in Professor Brand’s life (not really a spoiler, since it’s easy to see coming). Michael Caine as Brand has sufficient gravity for the part (sorry about that pun), and in a small part as Cooper’s father-in-law, John Lithgow is suitably wise and cranky. In a surprise pivotal role that is nearly a cameo, Matt Damon manages to win our sympathy and our disdain at the same time.
But the talented Casey Affleck seems wasted in the role of Cooper’s embittered son. He’s given little to do. Anne Hathaway seems somewhat miscast, perhaps too vulnerable to be the super-rational, determined trailblazer off to save the world. At the same time her character makes some disastrous emotional decisions, so maybe it’s not Hathaway but the character who’s hard to believe.
I found some other aspects of the film unappealing and occasionally downright annoying. In a few spots, particularly toward the end of this nearly three-hour epic, the visuals were quite unremarkable. In scenes where characters are traveling through a black hole or spending time in another dimension, the cinematography seemed to lack imagination. Hans Zimmer’s musical score is filled with swelling crescendos at several points, sometimes at moments that are not particularly climactic, and sometimes, annoyingly, so loud that I couldn’t hear what the characters were saying. But maybe that’s just my age talking.
Interstellar is also a highly allusive film: Nolan is constantly channeling previous cinematic works, particularly in the sci-fi genre, but likes to reference literature as well. It may be that the surname of chief NASA scientist Brand is an allusion to the title character of Henrik Ibsen’s poetic drama of the same name. Ibsen’s Brand is a fanatical clergyman who sacrifices everything, including his own child, to his uncompromising vision. More conspicuous but less successful are the repeated voice-over repetitions of Dylan Thomas’s classic “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” dropped in at various points in the movie. The trouble with this is, of course, that the poem has nothing to do with what’s going on on the screen. The speaker of Thomas’s poem addresses his father, and urges him not to passively slip into death but to “rage against the dying of the light.” Are we supposed to think of the Endurance mission as humankind’s “raging” against their own demise? In the first place, they are not raging, and in the second place, they’re trying to prevent the extinction of the race, not fighting an impossible battle against individual mortality. The poem is distractingly misapplied.
There are reminders, as well, of earlier films like Steven Spielberg’sClose Encounters of the Third Kind, Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, andM. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. But the strongest allusions are to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the wisecracking computer TARS, who turns out to be more helpful and less malevolent that 2001’s HAL (but who looks in fact like one of Kubrick’s monoliths), to the revolving spaceships that in both films set out for Saturn and which both contain hibernating crew members, to the overall thematic concern for the evolution of the human race, this film constantly alludes to Kubrick’s. Even the ending of Interstellar—dealing like Kubrick’s with a return to earth—is reminiscent of 2001, but here is where Interstellar essentially falls short. Though deliberately less confusing than Kubrick’s ending, Nolan’s lacks the beauty, the wonder, and the mythic transcendence of 2001. Instead, for me, it was the most disappointing aspect of the film: I found the last twenty minutes or so to be, well, silly. It may be true that in a quantum universe, anything that can happen will happen, but I’m pretty sure that what happens in the end of this film is not something that can happen. Nothing really makes sense, not because the science is too complicated but because it involves no actual science at all. Rather than referencing 2001, the movie’s denouement draws, instead, on Disney’s far-fetched and unmemorably ludicrous The Black Hole.
Ultimately, though the film features some fine performances and occasionally remarkable cinematography, I was finally put off by too many aspects of the film to have any desire to see it again. Nolan is a first-rate director, for me Interstellar lacked both the adroitness of the nonlinear narratives of Memento or Inception, or the compelling atmosphere of the Dark Knight films. I’m going to give this one two Jacqueline Susanns, and incur the wrath of my wife, who enjoyed the film much more than I did.