After months of hype and anticipation, I finally saw Interstellar. I did not know what to expect walking into the movie. Critical reviews were pretty polarized, and since I did not really enjoy Christopher Nolan’s last two films, I was not expecting too much from this movie. Fortunately, I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Interstellar is a very uneven film, but it packs enough speculative science fiction and visual thrills to keep the audience engaged. Like many of Nolan’s more recent movies, the plot only falls apart after you spend the time to think about it. I want you to see Interstellar, and unfortunately my review has a lot of spoilers. I will conveniently let you know when I am getting into spoiler territory so that you can skip ahead if you want to see the movie with a blank slate.
Interstellar opens on a dying Earth. Coop (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA test pilot who now spends his time farming. A parasitic disease called the Blight has wiped out most of the Earth’s crops, and all available resources and man-power are spent producing food for the remaining humans. The mass starvation on Earth caused a large-scale war to occur, leading to the collapse of the United States. Now, the remnants of civilization cling to agriculture to save what remains. History is rewritten to discourage the younger generation from thinking about space travel. Mankind has become stagnant.
Eventually Coop gets linked up with the remains of NASA and volunteers to go on a mission through a wormhole to find a habitable planet for the human race. And that is about as much as I can say without getting into spoilers.
Let’s talk about what works in this movie first.
Christopher Nolan has always been good at large-scale visual spectacle. This movie is no exception. The scenes in space and on various planets are gorgeous. Taking a page from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan shoots a lot of his slow-moving space scenes in nearly complete silence, with only a mysterious orchestral score in the background. Although experienced film viewers might instantly end up comparing this technique to other classic science fiction films, it works really well in Interstellar. There is a reason that a lot of movies use the silent aesthetic. In science fiction films, the silence of space portrays the otherworldliness of space travel and the isolation of our characters. So it works.
Another great part of Interstellar is Matthew McConaughey’s performance. Most of the emotional impact of the movie comes from him. McConaughy was able to give his character a gravitas that was not overwhelming combined with a warmth that was not belittling. There were many scenes in this movie that would not have worked with a lesser actor. Unfortunately, most of the other characters in this movie are poorly drawn sketches of characters. They do not exist for any particular reason than to spout off expository dialogue and act as a foil for Coop. Although this is frustrating, the lack of characterization makes Interstellar feel like a Golden Age science fiction novel, where characters were only referred to by their last names and were mostly defined by their field of expertise. Interstellar is not as interested as developing an ensemble cast of characters. It is only interested in speculative science fiction and Coop’s interest in humanity.
And with that
SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT
Oh good, you are still here.
Looking at Interstellar as speculative science fiction a la Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov makes the movie much more enjoyable and will allow you to better appreciate the various set pieces and ideas that Nolan employs.
The various alien worlds are fascinating and beautiful. One is a water planet with giant waves and strong relativistic effects. Since the water planet was so near a black hole, time moved slower on that planet. Ok. That is pretty interesting. Another planet is an ice world with frozen clouds and stark black and white landscapes. Also pretty cool. So I give Nolan a thumbs up for creating exotic alien landscapes.
Throughout the movie we are also constantly reminded of the effects of general relativity, mainly that in the presence of a large gravitational field, time moves slower for those within the gravitational pull. This is used to create tension during some of the planetary explorations. I really liked seeing a movie account for relativistic effects, usually they are just ignored.
However, what was really frustrating was that although most of the movie took relativity so seriously, when Coop fell in the black hole Nolan just seemed to forget about that science and go with whatever he wanted.
The part in the black hole was the worst part of the movie. Up until that point, I was very much enjoying the film. But, as soon as Coop entered the black hole, it devolved into silliness.
Early on in the movie we are introduced to the idea that Coop’s daughter Murph has a ghost in her room. Something is knocking the books off her shelf in Morse code. The message? “Stay”. Also, the ghost draws a binary code in dust that gives Coop the coordinates to the NASA launch site, which leads him to eventually fly through the wormhole.
Near the end of the film, we realize that the ghost was Coop himself. In an effort to get to the last habitable planet, Coop and Anne Hathaway’s character slingshot around a black hole and use the gravitational forces to give them the velocity to make it to the last planet. However, in an incorrect usage of Newton’s Third Law, Coop realizes that he must jettison the part of the ship that he is in to give Anne Hathaway enough velocity to escape the gravitational pull of the black hole… I guess.
Well it turns out that the black hole was actually created by future humans who existed in higher dimensions. They put it there so that Coop would send himself the coordinates that would eventually lead to humanity being saved. This higher dimensional portal looks absurd and allows Coop to knock the books off of his daughter’s shelf in the past to transfer messages. He also is able to give his daughter (in her adult) age a complete theory of gravitational manipulation which gives the humans on Earth the capacity to launch a giant space station into orbit.
And I feel like I am going insane describing this. Just go see the movie.
What really bothered me about this scene was that it was completely derailed the plot. Up to these scenes, Interstellar had been a pretty standard, hard science fiction movie, but ended with a pseudo-metaphysical mess about the meaning of love and time travel.
I instantly compared this scene to the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey since both are really similar. Both endings involve our main character being transported to another alien dimension and trying to figure out what is going on. However, unlike Stanley Kubrick, Nolan decided to make his ending a very blatant and forced metaphysical statement.
Sometimes less is more. I would have preferred if Interstellar had left the mystery of the book shelf up to the audience to decide. Throughout the movie we are told about the mysterious beings who manipulate gravity and created the wormhole that our heroes travel through. The mystery is interesting, but by explaining it away in so much detail, Nolan robs Interstellar of its complexity and mystique. I would have preferred if he took a page from 2001 and left the “aliens” vague and ambiguous. That is what makes 2001 so interesting; there is enough mystery to keep the audience speculating well after the movie ends.
The confusion of the ending is further complicated by Christopher Nolan’s issues with time and space in his writing and shooting. Only at the end of the climatic black hole scene was I even aware that Anne Hathaway and Coop were in different parts of the ship. Nolan’s love of inter cutting destroyed any sense of placement of his characters. And with that sense gone, some of the emotional force is lost.
Nolan also really struggles with time relations in the end of his movie. We are never aware how long Coop is in the black hole or how long it takes him to transfer a complete theory of gravity with binary code. We can assume that he is in the black hole for a long time because by the time he gets out his daughter is an old woman and the humans have created a giant space station. But we get no sense of that while the black hole scenes are unfolding.
This confusing time scale also makes the ending baffling. After finding out that Anne Hathaway is possibly still alive on the planet that she went to colonize, Coop takes a space craft and goes to recover her. But, we are told that the planet that Anne Hathaway went to was not in the gravitational field of the black hole. Therefore, she should be aging at the same time as the people on Earth. Halfway through the movie we see that because of relativistic effects, Anne Hathaway is the same age as Coop’s daughter Murph, so if Murph has died of old age, by the time Coop gets to Anne Hathaway, she should be dead as well. If that is not the case, then Nolan needed to point that out, or the ending does not make any sense to the viewers.
A final frustration comes from Nolan’s treatment of relativity. The script makes such a big deal out of relativity and the effects that gravity has on time, that Coop’s adventures in a black hole singularity should have taken thousands of years in Earth time. By the time he got back, the gravity induced relativistic time dilation would have caused him to be millenia in the future.
Even as I am writing that, I have to remind myself that this is a Christopher Nolan film, and his movies tend to rely more on emotional than logical thrills. And with that I am ending spoilers.
SPOILERS END SPOILERS END SPOILERS END
Ok, so maybe I am being to tough on Interstellar. I generally liked the film. I thought that the first 2 and half hours of it was awesome, but that the movie derailed in the last half hour. This is what makes the movie so hard for me. I want to unconditionally love it… I just… can’t.
The derailment of the ending is almost forgivable though because the rest of the movie is so entertaining. We do not see enough big concept science fiction films in theaters today, so I am glad that Nolan has proving that risky, big science fiction films can still pull in a lot of money, even if they do have some problems.
As I write this review, I realize that I did enjoy Interstellar. But I am also a sucker for science fiction and am used to reading science fiction novels with flawed characterizations and crazy premises. I think that going into Interstellar with your mind as open as possible is probably the best way to watch it. I would not mind seeing it again in theaters, if only for the visuals.
Go see Interstellar mainly for the impressive visuals and Matthew McConaughey’s wonderful performance. Out of all the Christopher Nolan films, Interstellar is one of the ones that I have enjoyed the most. I’ll see it again, and maybe knowing what happens will let me better enjoy the movie for what it is: a fever dream of crazy science fiction.. a flawed masterpiece.
My grade: B+