In a cinema age where production money is being cannibalized by a glut, deluge, nay, dare I say an over saturation of superhero movies, it’s refreshing to see a movie like Interstellar hit the silver screen. A movie that challenges the senses while introducing intellectual concepts often bereft from recent Hollywood fare. By my last count there are a mind boggling 21 movies coming out from Marvel alone over the next five years based on comic book intellectual properties. Those movies alone are going to cost untold billions of dollars to produce . . . billions of dollars that will not be used to produce adventurous and intellectually stimulating movies, but instead will feed us mindless action vehicles. But I’m off in the weeds already, and that’s perhaps a topic for another day.
Interstellar is another rollicking mind bender from the creative duo of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Their movies are some of the most memorable and creative of this century. Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Inception, et al . . . all modern examples of smart movies that offer complex characters painted on a tapestry of equally complex concepts. Interstellar falls squarely in the same vein and delivers on everything the Nolan brothers are known for. The only problem is that this may be the movie’s limiting factor, but I’ll get into that later.
Interstellar stars Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a farmer and retired astronaut raising a family as a single father in a near future where where governments have collapsed and a blight is spreading across the planet destroying most cultivated food sources. It’s a world where good farmers are valued over good engineers/scientists, where people would rather have a full stomach than the newest smartphone.
Cooper is eventually reunited with Professor Brand (Michael Caine) a former colleague from his test pilot days, and is quickly swept up in a mission to save the people of Earth by traveling to another galaxy via a wormhole that has recently appeared near Saturn. Presumably a wormhole placed there by someone who has humanity’s best interest at heart. On the other side of this wormhole are other planets that may support life based on data being sent back from previously lost missions. Cooper is Earth’s last hope to find another home before conditions on Earth spiral so far out of control that all humanity is lost. But before the decision is made Cooper, a dedicated and loving father, struggles with leaving his family behind, especially the intelligent and precocious Murph (Mackenzie Foy) who seems destined for a future much brighter than the drudgery of a dying farm.
Interstellar is clearly an homage to the Kubrick classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many musical cues evoke memories of 2001. The obelisk shaped military robots are reminders of the brooding obelisks from 2001, in addition to the coldly calculating HAL. But are TARS and CASE sinister characters used to hinder the crew on their journey to another galaxy? I’ll let you find out.
Other parallels to 2001 included a message from another “entity” causing humanity to reach for the stars. And Cooper going on a crazy mind trip near the end that brings him in contact with his benefactors. Some people may view these similarities as a ripoff of 2001, but it’s clear that they are an homage . . . and rightly so. But while nearly every character in every Kubrick film (including 2001) are populated with lifeless and monotone characterization, Nolan attempts to populate Interstellar with characters who have life, and who deliver dialogue that evokes emotion. For the most part he’s successful . . . much more successful than Kubrick ever was in his science fiction masterpiece.
Interstellar is a visually stunning movie. At times it’s beautiful and mysterious, while at others it’s loud, furious, and full of peril. During the wormhole travel sequence our entire IMAX theater was literally shaking and rumbling with the fury of that traverse. As if every viewer were strapped into a seat with the astronauts having their teeth shaken out of their heads from the gravitational tides, and their eardrum fractured from the stresses about to tear their ship apart.
Yet Interstellar is far from a perfect Nolan film. Where the movie breaks down for all but the most nerdy viewer is in its length, its scientific depth, and of course time travel. Yes, it’s a Nolan film, and yes it’s long coming in at nearly three hours. Not all of that time is full of action. The rest of the time is spent in dialogue, much of it way over the head of the average movie goer. Cutting the journey to the first (water) planet would have saved a significant amount of time. But that journey allowed for a tense action scene, as well as a vehicle to further explain the concept of general relativity, time dilation, and how intense gravity near a black hole affects time. Again, subjects and details that will be lost and confusing to most.
But this leads me to another problem with the movie. The first planet they go to, even though they are limited on fuel, is one that is in very close proximity to a black hole. Why would that be the first planet they visit? A planet bathing in x-rays and swimming in a gravity field that causes massive time dilation if one were ever to journey off the planet. It was an odd writing choice, but did provide from some exciting scenes.
To quote Neil deGrasse Tyson . . .
In #Interstellar: They explore a planet near a Black Hole. Personally, I’d stay as far the hell away from BlackHoles as I can
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) November 10, 2014
Nolan employed an astrophysicist during the making of Interstellar in order to get as many of his concepts to appear on film as at least theoretically possible. But most people get confused by even the most simple of scientific concepts. Again, introducing them to relativistic concepts, black hole mechanics, event horizons, three dimensional wormholes and the like is only going to confuse most people. Evidence: as the credits started to roll in our showing of Interstellar an old gentlemen in front of us raised his hands and uttered “Whatever!” then stood up and shuffled out. Clearly he was expecting something completely different when he plunked down his money at the box office.
But the rest of us nerds will geek out on all the scientific content stuffed into this Interstellar adventure!!
Time travel is a hell of a thing, and it literally happens in Interstellar (not just via relativistic effects). I can’t reveal too much about it without giving away pretty much the entire movie, but time travel is the ultimate deus ex machina of storytelling. It’s not so much used in that manner here, but time travel kept simple works very well (Back to the Future), or can make your brain utterly ache (Primer). Interstellar‘s time travel leans closer to that brain aching side of the spectrum, introducing time as not only another dimension, but as a physical dimension that can be manipulated and strummed like a guitar string. I better stop there . . .
Interstellar isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s an excellent addition to the portfolio being built by the Nolan brothers who have in a very short time become masters of thought provoking storytelling. It’s a true science fiction movie that tempers the fiction with a healthy dose of science. True science fiction fans should be lauding films like Interstellar with every chance they get.
Explain the concepts to your friends who have aching brains. Hold their hands and nurture them to love science fiction so we can have more films that make all of our brains ache just a little . . . just like 2001: A Space Odyssey has done for generations.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Words © 2014-2021, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).