I just watched Interstellar with my son, and wanted to share some reactions.
Overall, I was very impressed, and moved on a personal level. The story was emotionally powerful, epic in ambition. As science fiction, the movie crammed in far more scientific information and sf genre work than most mainstream films would ever attempt. Personally, the father-daughter narrative hit me hard, and I enjoyed watching a pro-space exploration film with my similarly pro-NASA son.
Why blog about this science fiction movie here? I’ll answer that question at the end of this post. First, let me dive into details. Please be aware that Interstellar is very plot-driven, so there are many spoilers ahead. These notes aren’t ordered by consequence; this isn’t an essay.
The plot was fascinatingly well layered. I was expecting an action film’s simplicity along the lines of the recent Star Trek reboots (2009, 2013), but this had more in common with the director’s Inception (2010). The story starts off as an environmental disaster tale, then morphs into space exploration, then ratchets up into a kind of cosmic science plot. The time (and time travel) theme lets the script neatly insert a variety of hints and setups for later events, like Dr. Brand’s mysterious wormhole hand-touch. In fact, the film advances too quickly at times, almost skipping over important developments (why did Romilly get blown up? what happened to the Earth between now and then?). I suspect an extended DVD edition could be in the offing.
Gooeyness: reviews suggested to me that Interstellar could mix space exploration with soppy sentiment. The involvement of Spielberg early in the project furthered my schmaltz fear. As it turns out there is a chunk of woo, but only one, really, in the role of love as a trans-dimensional fixer. The movie’s emotional charge and stakes were high enough by that point to let it slide for me (a typically crusty reviewer).
Visuals: the film is gorgeous. It treats us to spectacular space vistas and lovely landscapes, from an unEarthly gigantic ocean wave to the surface of a frozen world.
The non-epic production visuals are excellent throughout. The robots are a new design, as far as I can make out, and fascinating to watch.
Sound: Interstellar presents us with a massive, immersive soundscape. Zimmer’s music doesn’t offer readily accessible tunes, generating instead something like a 19th-century tone poem. One downside is that the soundtrack occasionally squashes dialog. I don’t think we missed any plot points, but I do look forward to seeing this on DVD, with pause button and subtitles.
Humans: casting and acting were fine. The child actor playing Murph did a splendid job. McConaughey carries the movie well.
References: Interstellar pays homage to many sources, or just draws from the, 2001 (1968) is the obvious touchstone here, from mind-blowing deep space trips to a hole around Saturn. Zimmer’s soundtrack occasionally echoes Ligeti. We also see signs of Contact (1997), from wormhole travel to a bold engagement with science. The concluding paean to love as cosmic force should remind everyone of The Fifth Element (1997). Several scenes of lone figures in enormous, ontological stress may recall Tarkovsky’s (there is no other) Solaris (1972). I also was reminded of The Twilight Zone’s emphasis on the terror of isolation, and how needy we are for human contact.
On the textual side, I noticed Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) fall out of Murph’s bookshelf. As one IMDB commentator notes, that’s also a book about the near-extinction of humanity The use of the word “tesseract” reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time (1962), but an IMDB commentator also suggests Robert Heinlein’s “-And He Built A Crooked House-” (1941).
Science: I was amazed at how much science the film explored or touched on, from the silence of space to visualizing a four- or five-dimensional perspective. And it never stopped to do basic exposition. Again, this recalls the film Contact. It is very concerned with ideas. Note that Mann’s betrayal is framed in terms of evolutionary psychology, not just personal flaws.
Specifically, Interstellar is blatant and welcome propaganda for NASA and space exploration in general. Despite flawed people, it is space exploration which saves the human race. Conversely, the American dystopian government teaches schoolchildren that it faked the moon landings as a Cold War intelligence op.
There were many impressive set pieces and small scenes. In one a spacecraft hurtles over a planet’s sky, soaring between cloud layers. It trails a wind through one fluffy cloud – then breaks off a chunk of it, because the clouds had frozen, as the planet was so cold. A great way to surprise an audience accustomed to aerial sequences.
And yet I withhold some applause.
First, there are oddly conservative elements, starting with gender representation. This is a mixed bag. On the positive side, I was pleased to see the daughter become the world’s ultimate great scientist, after the aging foundational scientist was revealed to be a liar. I was surprised to see the Dr. Mann (ahem) character become a treacherous, destructive coward, after the build-up from other characters. Cooper’s decision to overrule the younger Brand turns out to be a bad mistake. Male characters actually weep from depths of sadness, defying the stoic masculine stereotype.
But too much of the plot moves according to dynamic men, leaving women in reactive positions. We see traditional gender roles represented in careers, with women as homemakers (Cooper’s daughter-in-law) or life scientists assigned to care for proxy infants (Dr. Bran). Bran senior sets the overarching plot in motion, and Cooper takes care of the rest. Bran junior (does she ever get her own, distinct name?) has a love affair which occurs offscreen. We never see her love; his death happens without dialog or explicit description. Her thoughts of him barely appear. So this is very much a masculine film. Note the official tagline about “mankind”, not “humanity”, It’s a step backward from Gravity (2013). You can find more gender criticism by Nico Lang.
Moreover, the film explicitly opposes caretaking and exploration roles, valorizing the latter over the former. Indeed, we don’t see any positive scenes of caretaking. People usually die offscreen without end of life care (Cooper’s father-in-law, Cooper’s wife, his first son-in-law), and when the elder Brand dies it’s the setting for a horrible betrayal. Only Murph’s meeting her father on a sickbed is positive, and that occurs without any visible medical assistance. Since we continue to gender caretaking professions as female and exploration as male, this is at best an uncomfortable binary to have in play, and is at worst simple sexism.
Second, the longing for an early form of American farming life brackets the film. Despite the opening agricultural crisis, the Cooper family home appears to be a good place. Later one of its rooms will house the salvation of the human race. At the film’s end we return to that house, either moved or recreated. There’s something pleasingly reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s midwest here, but it feels oddly out of place in a 21st-century film about reclaiming space. I understand how its retro nature showcases the failing Earth’s regression, but it has a hard time fulfilling that role along with the sweet one.
Third, this is a movie about heroic individuals. It focuses on the ethical choices each person makes, and assigns them enormous effects. It is not, however, very interested in groups or masses of people. While this does make for appealing storytelling, it sidesteps much of the science fiction tradition, which is usually concerned with how societies change. We never see crowds, other than a small audience watching a local baseball game. Instead the movie emphasizes a few individuals on otherwise empty, even anti-human landscapes.
At the end our male lead shuns the world he’s just saved in order to help out a lonely woman who’s setting up for babies. Like Huck Finn, he lights out for the territory instead of engaging with a complex world. That’s a finale I must reconsider.
Why should I write about that movie on this blog? Several reasons.
Because Interstellar is, despite these flaws, profoundly optimistic, despite engaging with massive levels of despair. The movie begins in serious, semi-apocalyptic gloom. (Actually, it might be post-apocalyptic, since Cooper’s father-in-law mutters about there were more people alive when he was younger) Around two-thirds of the way in things get even worse, reaching a classic plot nadir, with catastrophes threatening both Earth and the Lazarus expeditions. And then the movie wrenches itself around, solving its plot problems and looking forward to a future, more advanced, five-dimensional human civilization.
I mentioned seeing this with my son. Owain is adamant about preferring happy endings in stories. Even at 16 he resists tragedies. So Interstellar‘s final happiness made for a good ride home afterwards. It also returned me to my newfound optimism, and will probably help goad me out of the darkness researching education often entails.
I blog about the movie for another reason. The film displays schooling gone very wrong. A heartbreaking scene sees two schoolteachers and/or officials explaining to Cooper why his son cannot advance to college, despite his brilliance. They also uphold stupid, government-published curricular propaganda. It’s a small instance of what dystopian education can look like.
There’s something powerful and striking about a film willing to engage a wrenching dystopia and exhilarating optimism in 2014, one offering an unflinching call for more science and a return to exploration. I see too much of our times in this near-future dust bowl, with its craven schools and sense of resignation. I don’t see Interstellar‘s hopes in our world often enough.
There’s more to say, but this is enough for now.
(images from IMDB, or Roger Ebert’s site, or the official movie site; thanks to my Facebook army for many conversational probes)