Jacob closed out August with a film that I pointed out has the single-highest unadjusted world gross for any film yet shown at Cinema 1544…with the sound on (sorry, Harry Potter!) – Christopher Nolan’s space odyssey Interstellar. Interstellar was touted as, to invent a paraphrased quote, “the big-budget science fiction movie that gets the science right”. As we’ll see, that’s debatable. While recently I’ve been holding back the majority of my commentary until after the plot rundown, I think that today it’s time to break that trend. So here we go with Interstellar – the good and the very, very bad. Note that there will be absolutely nothing left unspoiled in this review (even more than usual), so if you don’t want to know, don’t read it.
Premise: In a future seemingly about 50 years away (but for all that, untouched by things like, say, unfamiliarly-modern vehicles) there is a severe blight that is simultaneously destroying every crop on Earth – corn is all that’s left – and causing massive dust storms. Think Dust Bowl, except most of the planet has pretty much died off. Do not think “climate change” (I’m talking to you, internet) because that is definitely not what the screenplay is talking about. It is a blight. One blight to rule them all, to be sure, but a blight nonetheless.
Second Premise: An “alien civilization” (more on that later), possibly from the future (more on that later) has somehow taken an interest in saving the human species. Their methods of doing so seem, however, to be extremely unconventional.
Cooper is a former jet pilot who was taken out of commission by a crash (and subsequently the blight) and who has become a widower farmer, growing that corn with his father-in-law, son, and precocious daughter Murph. Murph takes after her dad – she goes in for all that science stuff – and she’s got a little problem that she needs to solve scientifically. You see, it appears that an unknown being (she calls it her “ghost”) is periodically knocking books off of her shelf, perhaps in the form of giving her a Morse code message. Eventually (and we’ll get there) her ghost is going to turn out to be a manifestation of Cooper himself, which everybody and their mother seems to say they saw coming all along. I’ll tell you what – I sure didn’t. Then again, I didn’t see the twist in The Sixth Sense coming either, so either I’m particularly dense or I’m just unusually willing to admit I didn’t notice the potentially obvious.
At any rate, gravitational anomalies become the focus of a particularly long first act that sets a ton of mood (and does it well) but allows its devices to fade out without ever having any utility. (Seriously, how did the capture of the Indian drone affect the plot at all? This was a major series of scenes that may have taken up ten minutes of screen time. For no payoff at all. You may say, “oh, it’s a potential example of yet another gravitational anomaly” but that’s at best a throwaway connection that is completely redundant and in no way justifies the screen time.) These anomalies are evidently the cause of the falling books, but more importantly after a dust storm they cause the dust to fall in a particular pattern on the floor, which Cooper interprets as a binary message that corresponds to navigational coordinates in the mountains nearby.
Cooper goes to these coordinates and finds – lo and behold! – a NASA installation, operating in secret (because blight farmers ain’t got no tax money to spend on space – in fact the official U.S.A. school textbooks now teach that the moon landing was a hoax) on two plans to save humanity from a blight that is deemed unrecoverable. Earth is toast, as far as humans are concerned, and relatively soon.
Interjection: I have a very difficult time believing that beating the blight on an otherwise hospitable planet is a more difficult alternative than sending human colonies through a wormhole to an inhospitable planet. If you’ve REALLY got no choice but to terraform why not Mars? (OK, so the planet that is ultimately selected appears to be a barren desert world, but at least it has a breathable atmosphere, so I guess there’s that.)
You see, something like 40 years ago, unreported to the people at large, a wormhole was mysteriously opened in the vicinity of Saturn, and some time ago NASA sent 12 astronauts through the wormhole to investigate 12 worlds for viability as a potential human colony. Three of those astronauts are sending back “pings” which indicate potential viability, and Plan B involves using NASA’s last rocket to send up a team to investigate, and a bunch of embryos for colonization. Plan A involves solving the “gravity equation”. Gravitational anomalies such as the ones seen by Cooper indicate that gravity can be controlled, and Dr. Brand, a lead scientist at NASA, is devoting his life to solving the equation, which would allow us to construct immense space stations and simply counteract gravity to leave the planet. We find out later that Dr. Brand has actually solved the equation years ago and knows that Plan A is hosed – barring the impossible result of getting data out of the inside of a black hole. He’s merely keeping up appearances because he doesn’t believe that anybody else at NASA would work very hard on Plan B knowing that Plan A couldn’t work. But, coincidentally, there’s a black hole right on the other side of the Saturnine wormhole, and don’t bet any money it’s not going to play into the story.
Well, stuff leads to stuff, and seeing as Dr. Brand was coincidentally Cooper’s professor at college and NASA doesn’t really have anybody left that can fly the mission (Seriously? They were just waiting for a former fighter pilot to show up on their hidden doorstep?) they select Cooper to be shuffled off of the planet with little hope for return.
Naturally, Murph doesn’t take this very well, and the tear-jerking family interactions in the movie (including, but not limited to Cooper’s departure) are certainly its biggest asset. But despite a message from the ghost mysteriously urging Cooper to “STAY” he goes on the mission, and if there were any justice in this world, he would never see his daughter again.
Cooper is joined by Brand (the daughter of the scientist, yes) and two other astronauts who are eventually going to die and after waking up from some stasis sleep to get them to Saturn and some nifty explanations about why a wormhole is spherical they go through it, and the much-vaunted science of the film comes onto display. Literally.
Because right there is the rotating super-massive black hole. And it looks mahvelous. One of the talking points about the science in the film is the complexity of the equations and the depth of the computations that they went into to calculate just what the accretion disc around a rotating super-massive black hole would look like. Apparently not only did they get it really right, but the work resulted in two publications for the film’s scientific adviser. So there’s that.
But the science comes to the forefront, and not just to make pretty pictures, because we’re going to start planetary exploration. First on the plate is Miller’s planet, which in the vague astronomy of the wormhole galaxy definitely orbits the black hole, and which can be seen in the image above.
Miller’s planet has a lot to offer – plenty of water and organics – but it also has its down side. Like it’s so close to the black hole that there’s a severe gravitational time dilation going on. But since it’s so promising, the crew decide that it’s worth it to go down for a quick look, hopefully only blowing seven years in the process. They blow something like 24. As it turns out, Miller is dead and the entire planet is cursed by gigantic periodic tidal waves despite the fact that it appears to be covered by about two feet of water. The planet is simultaneously completely inhospitable and completely ridiculous scientifically.
Interjection 1: The time dilation on this planet, while it provides a nice plot point allowing Cooper to get partway to his future in a short time, is at the very least supremely underexplained. Prominent scientists such as Phil Plaitt initially knocked it as impossible, but while for technical reasons relating to the black hole being in rotation he retracted that, it still makes no sense to the layman. The planet itself has only 1.3 Earth gravity at the surface, so it seems counterintuitive that it could be in a gravitational well that causes such severe time dilation. The answer of course revolves around the fact that the planet is in orbit – just as an astronaut on the ISS is being pulled by Earth’s gravity but does not feel anything relative to the space station, so the astronaut on Miller’s planet feels only the planet’s gravity, and none of the black hole’s.
Interjection 2: The issues of communication across the wormhole really crop up at this point in the film. Despite the fact that we were told that the original planetary explorers were only capable of sending back an annual ping to indicate viability, our heroes are getting freaking videotaped messages through the wormhole. Umm, does not compute. They totally could have sent information far more useful than simple pings, if the technology of just a few years later is any indication. Of course, the whole reason from the point of view of the script is to send out people to planets that they don’t know anything about, but it’s super sloppy.
Interjection 3: The robots in this movie are this really awesome kind of articulated monolith things. You can see one cruising around in the image above. And while the movie really doesn’t carry the same feel (or the same gravitas, at least to me) of 2001, you do spend the entire movie waiting for the moment when the robots are going to go rogue on the humans like a walking HAL-9000. It never happens. They are very prim and proper and well-behaved robots, as long as they get their humor and honesty settings adjusted correctly. If only the humans could be have been so stable.
Now that 24 years have passed it’s as good a time as any to point out that Murphy has grown up into Jessica Chastain and has become Dr. Brand’s protege at NASA, searching for the solution to his equation. Despite his deathbed confession that it’s a sham, she searches on, for some reason believing that returning to her childhood bedroom would allow the ghost to communicate the impossible black hole data to her. I mean, she turns out to be right, but why in the world would she do that?
So with 24 years burned and Miller’s planet counted out, it’s time to head off to the next destination. Unfortunately, if they want to go home they only have enough fuel to visit one of the two. Brand argues for Edmunds’ planet, but since Mann’s data is better, and Brand is in love with Edmunds, Cooper overrules her. Brand spouts some pseudoscientific claptrap about love transcending space and time, or some such, and you really feel like Cooper must have made the right choice.
They find Mann in stasis (not surprising considering their delay) on a planet full of ice clouds. Like clouds, made of ice, that are apparently floating in the atmosphere. Mmm-hmm. Science! (As long as we can ignore gravity, despite gravity being a central premise of the film.) To make a long story short, Mann, who was the leader of the entire expedition and the bravest man Brand had ever met, has gone a bit…off. He faked data suggesting that his planet was habitable just in the hopes that an expedition would come and rescue him. And, you know, he probably could have copped to that, but instead he maintains his lies long enough to get all homocidal. In his attempt to escape he really messes up a docking procedure, killing himself and severely damaging the main ship. Which (again, in the confused astronomy of this second galaxy) immediately begins to be sucked into the black hole. I mean, it was in stable orbit around Mann’s planet (which may or may not be orbiting the black hole, it’s not at all clear) but a bit of damage and whoops! it’s getting sucked in!
Cooper and Brand, by now the only survivors (along with two robots, TARS and CASE), are forced into a desperate situation. Their only hope is to use the black hole as a gravitational slingshot to get them to Edmunds’ planet. It’s going to cost them another 51 years of time dilation, but it’s that or die getting sucked into the black hole. In order to do this, they need to blow all their thrusters at the right time and drop a bunch of weight into the black hole – including TARS, which is going to attempt to send back the gravitational data needed from the black hole (event horizon be damned!) Oh, and so she can’t object, Cooper doesn’t exactly mention that the outboard ship he’s in has to get dropped too. Brand survives, and eventually we see her setting up a cairn for the now-dead Edmunds on his inhospitable desert planet – presumably the ultimate destination of humanity. But first, the Aristotesseracts!
You might think that Cooper would die horribly, being torn apart by the tidal forces of the black hole. And hey, his ship certainly is. But he ejects as it’s blowing up and somehow finds himself intact in the middle of a multidimensional tesseract, along with the disembodied voice of TARS. I just rolled my eyes so hard that I converted a 7-10 split. It would appear that the alien race that initially took interest in the humans and can apparently transcend the laws of gravity has set up this tesseract to allow Cooper to communicate with…well…with Murph in her bedroom. Yes, as I mentioned earlier, he’s the ghost. He figures out how to float to particular times in the space-time continuum to send her messages, he sends himself the NASA coordinates, he tells himself to STAY at home, you know, it all plays out the way it did before. Except, what we didn’t know, is that with the help of TARS’ data, he makes a wristwatch he gave to Murph before he left tick in Morse code, encoding the information she needs to solve the gravity equation. Somehow in all of this, Cooper comes to the bizarre conclusion that the tesseract was not constructed by an alien civilization, but rather by evolved humans. It gets really fuzzy here, but he probably wouldn’t go off blabbering about it if Nolan didn’t want to imply that that’s really what happened.
Anyway, she finds the watch, she solves the equation (as a woman in her thirties), and then Cooper is magically ejected from the black hole through the wormhole and out to Saturn where he’s picked up for the inevitable brief reunion with his now-elderly daughter on a space station powered by the gravity equation before heading back out to join Brand on Edmunds’ planet.
The end. Not that I don’t have more to say.
For one, let’s be honest. The plot is ludicrous. Imagine a species so highly evolved that it transcends space and time and gravity – and it can’t even find a better way to communicate with Earth than getting an astronaut to fall into a black hole tesseract? Stupid. And while it’s not technically a time travel film, Cooper does send messages from the future into the past (his own past no less!) so the same sort of issues arise.
I’ve had quite a bit to say about time travel in my reviews of Cinema 1544 films – oddly enough it’s a topic that seems to come up again and again, and it’s tough to get it right. While Interstellar doesn’t actually get the timeline wrong in any serious way I can see, it does rely on a device that I’m going to coin, here and now, as the Anthropic Time Hiccup. What is an Anthropic Time Hiccup? Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Imagine the universe as a four-dimensional Time Loaf. In the same way that Peter Gabriel’s video for Big Time took a three dimensional loaf of colored clay and cut into it, slice after slice, to reveal the predetermined story inside, imagine the universe as the same sort of loaf. Any slice through the “time” dimension of the loaf will reveal one moment in the universe. Furthermore, we can retain forward causality (something that certainly seems to be a property of our universe) – we simply stipulate that the Time Loaf was constructed with forward causality as a rule. But because the Time Loaf is fully formed, all of time is predetermined. This is actually a pretty good conceptual place to start for a time-travel movie. If the timeline is unalterable, you tend to avoid the worst of paradoxes. But you can still have paradoxical “hiccups” – for instance, in Back To The Future, how did Marty get his name? It came out of nowhere, right? Marty appears, as a result of time travel, in the 1950s with the name Marty carrying back from the ’80s. He meets his mom, makes an impression on her, and she subsequently names her son that grows up to be Marty “Marty”. He’s named after himself. For all intents and purposes his name came from nowhere – it is a break in the expected forward causality. This is a Time Hiccup.
The Anthropic Time Hiccup is, named from the Anthropic Principle, a Time Hiccup which allows the human species to exist. Humanity needs to solve the gravity equation to escape Earth. The gravity equation cannot be solved without data from the inside of a black hole. Data from inside a black hole can’t be transmitted out without the human species evolving into five-dimensional beings that are capable of manipulating gravity (and time) to do it. So the future humans are required to create the Tesseract (etc.) in order to ensure their own survival despite the fact that clearly they survived in order to create it in the first place. An Anthropic Time Hiccup.
That’s super-unsatisfying, if you’re me or anybody like me. The reason is that by nature a Time Hiccup is supernatural. This isn’t necessarily immediately self-evident, but it’s the case nevertheless. We use the concept of supernatural to denote anything which falls outside of the physical rules of the universe, one of which certainly appears to be forward causality. A violation of forward causality is supernatural because you can only do it by manipulating the Time Loaf from outside of the purview of the Time Loaf. Imagine a Claymation artist putting together the three-dimensional Time Loafs found in Peter Gabriel’s video. He can violate forward causality all he wants (perhaps to the astonishment of his two-dimensional beings in the loaf), but he’s doing it as essentially a god. So while I don’t necessarily have a beef with the concept of the supernatural (in fact if you get me drunk enough and give me all night I’ll explain to you why I think something like this must of necessity be going on) it doesn’t really belong in an otherwise non-supernatural sci-fi flick.
According to my WordPress page, I’ve spent 3300 words telling you exactly why Interstellar sucked. I think I’ve pretty much hit the lowlights. So let me tell you what’s good about the movie: it’s really fun to watch. The human interactions in the film are dealt with really well. In between the obligatory CGI and manufactured crises there’s a really good dramatic film hidden in here. And with the actors giving it their all (little Murph doing a heck of a job) it’s a really moving film that draws you in and hooks you with a moving score and easily makes you forget its plot holes – until the emotion wears off and you start really thinking about it from a distance. The robots are revolutionary and regardless of probable mechanical impossibilities, one of the more creative additions to the world of the future. And it manages to keep you pretty much hooked for over two and a half hours without feeling terribly long. All in all, it’s a masterfully-made film that really just needed a better script. Sweep away the plot holes, pop a bit MORE science in there when needed, get rid of dumb stuff like gigantic floating clouds and love transcending space and time and it could really have been a serious Best Picture contender. Instead, it just makes me a bit nervous about seeing Matt Damon as a virtuous stranded astronaut on Mars in the upcoming super-anticipated film “The Martian” after seeing his turn as the evil stranded astronaut on Mann’s planet here. (I’m not so worried about Chastain, though the percentage of main cast overlap of The Martian is even more alarming with her inclusion.)
Did it suck? Yes. Was it good? Yes. Was it the most sciencey science fiction film ever? Probably not, despite the sprained shoulder it got patting itself on the back. Am I ever going to watch it again? Probably not unless somebody else wants to. Do I have anything else to say about it? Gee, I think I’m finally tapped out.