Thoughts on Interstellar

Looking up at the EarthI 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.

Ready?

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Go!

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.

Scene from Interstellar

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.

Interstellar_poster_dudeFirst, 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)

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20 Responses to Thoughts on Interstellar

  1. jennycolvin says:

    There was so much story in the film, so much glossed over to get MM into space. I actually wanted more about his story. We are told he goes from engineer to farmer but is it sadist to say I wanted to see that fall of civilization, not just the end? There seemed to be a lot of richness in the time before. Not that I wanted the film to be longer….

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  2. Clyde Lee Graham says:

    I thought it interesting that Dr. Brand Jr’s (for the lack of a first name) call was to go to the planet best supported by the science as we understood it, despite the relationship with Dr. Mann. It was only when pressed that get the emotional scene about love. And then Cooper follows his heart and it’s the wrong decision. That said, I think the emotional and psychological angle on love was, despite all of the talk about being a transcendent force… really it was about what drives us, as individuals and as a species. Love carries us past evolutionary psychology. It gives purpose.

    I also saw elements of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with Cooper trying to decode the message… no mashed potato devil’s tower, admittedly, but…

    The robots reminded me somewhat, despite being verbal, of the drones from Silent Running…. and of course, the trip to Saturn, which was the original plan for 2001, but Kubrick went with the then current visuals for Jupiter, as otherwise the visuals for Saturn would have been outdated in 10 years or less.

    I thought that making the visuals for the tesseract an nth dimensional loom to be particularly brilliant.

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    • The robots: good call (Huey and Dewey, eh?). Also an echo of “Moon”, which I strongly recommend seeing.

      Tesseract: indeed.

      Love vs reason: so why does Cooper’s love for his daughter work in the end, when it led him astray earlier?
      Bonus question: would Brand Jr’s boyfriend have been alive had they gone there first?

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  3. Clyde Lee Graham says:

    Saw and loved Moon. It scratched the itch for 70’s style SF in a way that Interstellar didn’t try to. I missed Solaris. Good call there.

    Also, this occurred to me while chatting with Sherry tonight: In 2001, things go wrong (as we were informed in 2010) because HAL had received conflicting programming, specifically in regards to withholding information (lack of trust).

    In Interstellar, the mission ultimately succeeds because TARS didn’t trust Dr. Mann. I think that’s quite intentional.

    Finally, I liked TARS’ version (or was it CASE) of Newton’s Third Law.

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  4. garthster says:

    Good read that, Bryan. I am waiting for the movie to come to Swissyland hopefully next month…
    You might recall that Spacesleepsyndrome plot i did with my sick friend some time back: it seems this is picked up and will attrack attention soon me thinks: see http://www.syfy.com/ascension/about
    In the vein of past Syfy mini-series such as Taken, Alice, Tin Man and Battlestar Galactica, Ascension is a six-hour event set to debut on November 24. so next week.
    In 1963, the U.S. government launched a covert space mission sending hundreds of men, women and children on a century-long voyage aboard the starship Ascension to populate a new world. Nearly 50 years into the journey, as they approach the point of no return, a mysterious murder of a young woman causes the ship’s population to question the true nature of their mission.

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  5. Lee Graham says:

    Just read a comment on another AV blog about Interstellar and the reader wondered why no one else had commented on how similar the movie is, in some ways, to Heart of Darkness.

    I’m still thinking about this…

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  7. Abby Woods says:

    I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with you about Interstellar.

    For a movie that claims to be about humanity, it has absolutely no clue how people talk, with 90% of the dialogue being either exposition or philosophical blabbering, but not in that order. One could take the script and highlight which portions were character development, which were plot essential, and which were philosophical narrative and have no overlap.

    Dr. Mann in particular was horrendously written, constantly espousing about humanity (as all the characters are wont to do at a moment’s notice) and committing the unforgivable act of telling us what he, and in one case Cooper, was feeling rather than showing it. As the film’s counterpoint in favor of the caretaker side of humanity, the audience really needed to connect with Dr. Mann on an emotional level and understand how lonely he was. It’s a pity he was little more than a strawman who was blown out of the airlock mid-lecture.

    Dr. Mann is merely the worst of the bunch. Characters hammer the all-important Message into the viewers’ skulls at every turn. If Cooper opens his mouth, he’s either being philosophical, bringing up his daughter randomly, or doing plot things like yell at Hathaway. The only characters who weren’t constantly being philosophical and/or trying desperately to fill up the metaphor quota for that shoot were the robots, and they were the most human characters in the movie.

    I admit it was a cool idea with a halfway decent delivery, but regardless a movie about humanity needs humans, not philosophical mouthpieces. Next time, let’s hope Christopher Nolan takes yet another leaf out of 2001’s book and has everyone shut up once in awhile.

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    • Hm. I take your point – or I would, if I could have heard all of the dialog!

      Personally, I’m perfectly happy with philosophical stories. I don’t require everyday language in dialog to believe a story. Maybe it’s years of reading people like Lovecraft, or watching too many art movies.

      Mann did surprise me. What a cold character, so exterior and total in his intellect.

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      • Abby Woods says:

        Philosophical stories are fine. I take issue with the philosophy being shoved down my throat every time a character talks. The writing doesn’t allow for interpretation, and I feel like the writer was afraid the audience wouldn’t get the point if he didn’t outline it clearly. We’re smart; we can figure out Cooper misses his daughter without him mentioning it at ten-minute intervals.

        Not every story needs normal dialogue, but this one does. In a movie about the nature of humanity, we need humans.

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  8. Good point.

    Ever read Frank Herbert? This became a problem in some of his books, like _God Emperor of Dune_: hip-deep in so much theory the dialog became nonfiction.

    In Interstellar, though, I did buy the family separation story. That felt nearly operatic for me.

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  9. andrebiss6 says:

    0¨ because that was the fashion or “you’re not a social network? who cares about wearables?” and now nobody cares about social networks! ?…i?n the ?wearable ?world? technology becomes important because things can become very small minuture yet need to work and be accurate and be meaningful so it becomes a ?technology game… …the average consumer will have 5 wearable devices oddstar6

    Like

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