So I received Interstellar on DVD from Netflix the other day. I was anticipating this movie, as the hype around it made it sound like a smart science fiction thriller based in realistic science. Sadly, it turned out to be neither smart nor realistic.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
The first third of the film seemed very promising as we delved into the life of farmer/engineer/pilot Matthew McConaughey (known only as Cooper) and his family on a dying earth that has lost billions of people to some epidemic or other catastrophe that I was unclear about. I was willing to overlook some of the obvious absurdities (for example, how people of the world could exist only on corn, and how NASA could keep a secret facility that obviously cost a lot of money to operate and consumed a lot of natural resources). The extra-terrestrial communication for Cooper’s daughter, Murph, was interesting, if somewhat familiar in a Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind-way. I was willing to buy the whole plan A, plan B approach to saving mankind, even if plan A seemed well beyond any technology that could be available on an earth so crippled.
Cooper is selected out of the blue to pilot the last desperate space mission to save humanity. He is supposed to travel through a wormhole to another galaxy, where 12 earlier NASA missions had gone, each with a single individual, looking for a new planet for humans to inhabit. Going with him are three crew members, the important one being Brand, played by Anne Hathaway. You know the two of them are going to fall for each other, although I will give the film credit for taking us on a big detour before we reach that conclusion. The other two crew members are hardly worth describing, except to say that if this were an episode of Star Trek, they’d both be wearing red shirts.
I guess I should add that there is a fifth crew member, TARS, just about the weirdest robot I’ve ever seen in science fiction. It made the robot in Lost In Space seem downright pedestrian. He (I call it “he” because it is voiced by Bill Irwin) ends up playing a far more important role in the story than half the crew. I could not figure out exactly how TARS and the other robot in the story, CASE, actually operated. They seem to be able to pull their limbs apart in whatever way is necessary to do whatever they need to. They are smart, too, which of course begs the question of why NASA needs human astronauts, who require lots of extra equipment, including deep-sleeping vats, to cover the vast distances, when they probably could have launched three times as many probes each piloted by a single robot. But then there wouldn’t be THE story.
Anyway, I was still on board Interstellar even as they passed through the wormhole, but from here on the film really jumps the shark. The physics becomes as warped as the space-time of the wormhole. First of all, it takes them two years to go from Earth to Saturn, but on the other side of the wormhole it seems to take them no time at all to travel to a planet that happens to be orbiting a black hole. It is revealed that the giant gravity well that engulfs this planet will slow down the astronauts time due to the laws of relativity, so that for every hour they spend on this planet, seven years will pass on earth. For Cooper, who intends to return home to his children, this is an excruciating problem. But they decide that they can do what they need to do in an hour, and are willing for seven years to pass. Of course, things don’t go as they plan, first red shirt dies and three hours pass, so that by the time they have returned to the larger space ship, where they left the other red shirt, 23 years has passed.
While they’ve been away, messages from earth have snuck through the wormhole, so Cooper can see his children aging before his eyes as they send videos his way (for some reason, Cooper can’t send replies). Now Murph, Cooper’s daughter who had been receiving messages from beyond, has grown up to become Jessica Chastain and is working with Brand’s father (played by Michael Caine), a noted physicist and apparently the leader of the NASA facility. All along the action has been jumping back and forth between the astronauts and the people back home on earth, but now that hip hopping becomes more frenetic. We learn that the big scientific breakthrough that would help the earthlings launch their mammoth space ark, which Michael Caine had promised Cooper he would crack before Cooper returned from his mission, was always hopeless. This breakthrough required data from inside a black hole, and, of course that was impossible to get.
But wait! Cooper is nearby a black hole. At this point, of course, the big reveal that comes at the end of the film becomes obvious. And it just seems like the remainder of the movie is a slog to get to that point — and we’re still only about two-thirds of the way through.
There’s no need to rehash the rest of the film but I need to get a few more complaints off my chest:
- I had no idea what was going on with the Matt Damon character. His motivation and what he was hoping to accomplish was completely murky to me. It seemed stuck into the story just to make the final desperate gambit necessary.
- Somehow Cooper manages to enter a black hole without being torn apart, experiences some weird shit, does what we know by now he is going to do, then ends up in a bed back on the other side of the wormhole. If whatever force had the means to do all that (and by then we’re told what that force is), then why all the Rube-Goldberg nonsense? Beings with the knowledge and power to pull off all this space-time mumbo jumbo should be able to fashion a simpler resolution to the problem.
- An aged Murph spends two years in deep sleep traveling to the Saturn space station to see Cooper. All this is kind of murky as well, because there’s no indication that two years have passed since Cooper awakens. He walks into the crowded room for the reunion with his elderly daughter, having not aged much. She hasn’t spoken to him in 110 years or something like that, yet she knows he’s in love with Anne Hathaway (who is on the other side of the wormhole caring for a bunch of embryos, or something) and tells him to go to her. Which, of course, he does.
If you want a more knowledgable and thorough critique of the science of interstellar, check out this article. There are a lot of others.
Beyond the laughable science, the film has other flaws. It starts out as hard science fiction, then descends into sappy, metaphysical drivel. And, maybe worst of all, earth is dying, but at no time does a character lament how human beings have brought this devastation on themselves, other than early on when a school teacher remarks that the history textbook they use has been updated to report that the Apollo moon landings were clever hoaxes created to trick the Russians into a space race that doomed communism.
As I said, pretty disappointing stuff. There is the making of a good film here. Solid acting, decent special effects (though not world class, if you ask me). And some interesting concepts. But the writer and director, Christopher Nolan, packs too much silliness into the story and loses his way. It’s too bad, because I’m still awaiting the definitive Hollywood science fiction movie. And waiting.