Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) is one of those outer space movies in which human astronauts travel to the end of the universe -- and existence itself -- but are confronted not with incredible alien life, but rather with themselves; with the affirming aspects of human life.
Yet you can’t blame anyone for adopting this you-don’t-see-the-aliens approach to filmmaking, either.
Even the word “alien,” to us, implies something within the human context or natural world, not something of another world, or another reality. We might imagine a creature of three heads and ten arms, perhaps.
When you undertake a journey of the mystical and the awesome -- or even the horrific and supernatural -- you don’t want it, necessarily, to be a shaggy dog story. Instead, you desire to be rewarded with the money-shot: an establishing view of the being behind the curtain, to use a movie metaphor.
The imagery runs the risk of not living up to your imagination, or being shabby, silly, or somehow clichéd.
At the film’s end, you can wrap up the whole story into a neat and comprehensive tale of two not-fully understood forces -- gravity and love -- being responsible for the infinite wonder of the cosmos.
Understand those two things, my friends, and the five dimensional world shall be your playground (just watch out for spaghettification…)
Interstellar, like Contact (1997), or Solaris (1972) or the Solaris remake (2002) concerns that very idea. No matter how far we travel, the things that make us human are the things that we carry with us, and impact our destination. We don't want the alien, to quote Stanislaw Lem, we desire a mirror.
Give me a Prometheus (2012), an Alien (1979), a Solaris (2002) or even Event Horizon (1997) over a swashbuckling space fantasy any day, and I’ll be quite happy.
So, I enjoy the film, and feel it is a worthwhile work of art.
And as Interstellar points out in one of its very best scenes, time can’t travel backwards. You can't re-litigate what you choose. You don't get to start over. In every moment, there is a winner and there is a loser (at least one) for your attention.
One moment, the film’s hero, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is kissing his ten year old daughter goodbye. The next time he sees her, she’s a thirty-something year old woman.
He weeps watching his children grow older because he has not been there for them, and he knows there is no going back. He made his choice, and must now live with regret and self-recriminations.
The last act of the film, in which we learn that there are no aliens creating wormholes for us, only mankind attempting to reach back and save his future, resonates, in some sense. We can begin to accept the idea that love continues not just in our presence, but in our absence too; that when we are away from our children, we are still with them as the "ghosts" of their memories, of their thoughts.
The idea here is that man is a fragile, sometimes short-sighted creature, but one who -- powered by gravity and love will “rage against the dying of the light,” not for himself; not for mere vanity’s sake.
But to have one more minute to spend with a beloved child, or a spouse.
Is that a fair trade off?
But Interstellar remains noteworthy and remarkable because it reminds us, at the very least, that distance and time don’t change, finally, the things that matter most to us.
In the near future, Earth is dying. A blight is eating up the air, and killing crops. Within one generation, man will not be able to survive there.
On a small farm, a former astronaut and pilot, Cooper (McConaughey) lives with his son and daughter, and young Murphy believes that ghosts are inhabiting her bedroom, living behind her book-shelf.
This weird supernatural event or "anomaly" transmits a message that Murphy and Cooper decode, and sends them to a nearby NASA installation at the old NORAD facility.
There, they learn that Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) is preparing a mission to the stars, one that can give mankind a final hope.
A wormhole has been discovered near Saturn that makes a solar system in another galaxy accessible to them. There are at least three planets in that system capable of supporting human life.
Brand wants Cooper to fly the mission through the wormhole, in hopes of learning which of three planets (already visited by scientists Edmunds, Miller and Mann...) offer the best hope of human colonization.
Murphy doesn't want her father to go, realizing she may never see him again. But her very future rests in his hands...
Several times in the film, we hear Michael Caine’s Dr. Brand recite the poem I excerpted above, Dylan Thomas’s (1914 – 1953) “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” The work was first published in 1951, but the important thing is the artist himself.
Go back to Steve Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), and you’ll find that a poem plays a role of tremendous importance there too, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”
Thomas is, apparently, the go-to-poet for metaphysical science fiction films.
In all seriousness, his work is used in both films to chart the protagonist’s existential journey.
In Solaris, George Clooney’s Kelvin labors with a suicidal lover (Natasha McElhone), and loses her. Kelvin imagines again and again, through his recitation of the poem, a world where death shall have no dominion, and the lovers can be rejoined, in Eternity.
At film’s end, Solaris “gifts” that very universe to Kelvin. He is reunited with his lover in an after-life where death has no dominion, no purchase. They will exist together forever.
This is precisely the act Cooper undertakes in the film, fighting death on planet after planet, in space (during a terrible space station accident), and finally in the black hole. He rages against the possibility of death each time, and conquers it, though the odds are great.
He is driven to see Murphy, his daughter again, and to save her generation. In a sense then, the movie is about him raging against the dying of the light not just in terms of his own experience, but his daughter’s as well. He can’t fail, he can’t let death take him, because it will also take Murphy, and the people on Earth. And then the sacrifice of all his time with Murphy will have meant nothing.
Disney’s The Black Hole (1979) seems another obvious connection to Interstellar. The Black Hole features two comic-relief robots, V.I.N.Cent and Old B.O.B., and Interstellar similarly features two comic-relief robots, TARS and CASE.
V.I.N.C.ent is notable, in particular, for reciting human proverbs at times of danger, whereas TARS makes jokes about his human qualities, and the percentage of those qualities he has activated. He is 90% honest, for instance. In both films, at least one robot journeys through a black hole, as well. In both films we come to think of these robots as being more than mere machines. They become, essentially, beloved companions.
In The Black Hole, the survivors of the Cygnus and the Palomino reckon inside the black hole with a Manichean world of Heaven and Hell, angels and fallen, doomed souls. Perhaps, these travelers have created -- out of their own thoughts -- this moralistic construct or hierarchy based on their human belief systems.
In Interstellar, Cooper similarly encounters not the unknown or alien, but a 5-D representation of Murphy’s bedroom. That arena is a place that allows him, again, to “rage against the dying of the light,” and deliver a message to his daughter that can save her, and all of mankind itself. There can be no doubt that Cooper shapes that construct, as well, based on his desire or need.
What we find in the infinite, therefore, is not something new and alien, but something familiar. Either ingrained images of religious importance, or familiar images of a family house and a loved one.
In both cases, the answer to the questions of the cosmos rests inside the human mind.
For example, both films seem to boast three-part structures. In 2001, we met the apes at the Dawn of Man, encountered advanced, 21st century man in the middle section of the film (on Earth, the Moon, and then aboard Discovery), and then traveled to “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”
Interstellar provides no title cards that separate one act or mini-story from another, yet it follows a similar track.
The first part of the film, like Dawn of Man, is earthbound, on Cooper’s farm.
The second part of the film involves the difficult space journey, and features multiple locations (Dr. Miller’s world and Dr. Mann’s world).
And the third film introduces the metaphysical or cosmic aspects of the tale: the journey inside the black hole.
In Interstellar, Cooper is reunited with his daughter Murphy, now an elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn), and then heads back in space to re-connect with Dr. Amelia Brand.
2001: A Space Odyssey has an ending that reckons with the future, and the possibilities -- but not the specifics -- of man’s future. Will we all become children of the stars?
Interstellar’s ending -- the movie’s most questionable element, if you ask me -- continues Cooper’s journey after his relevant quest is complete. He finally meets Murphy again, and they forgive each other for harsh words and the separation.
That probably should have been the end of it, but isn't.
Instead, Cooper steals a spaceship and heads back out, to find Amelia.
On a purely practical level, relativity and slippage still exist, so won’t Amelia and Cooper be vastly different ages when they again meet?
The ending of the film -- a suggestion that Amelia and Cooper will reunite (and fall in love?) -- under-cuts Cooper’s very journey, and the fact that time is a resource that can’t be replenished easily.
The lesson of the film is that he had to give up something to get something. To save Murphy, Cooper had to leave Murphy. Time wouldn't let him be both a father and a pioneer, so he had to choose only one path. He chose to leave his daughter, but save her life.
By suggesting, suddenly, that Cooper can go out and find Amelia -- and they can live happily ever after -- seriously scuttles that message. It's a disaster so far as being a relevant and coherent conclusion to the film.
In this case, love is the critical factor in the human gestalt. Consider that Cooper braves all the dangers of the film because he loves Murphy, because he can’t let her generation on Earth die.
Mid-way through the film, Amelia relates her feeling that they should choose to visit Dr. Edmund's world...and that love is again the reason why. She loves him, and wants to be reunited with him. She feels that love is the very thing -- a force -- drawing her to that world, and not to Dr. Mann’s world.
For the first and only time in the movie, Cooper acts against emotion and love. He doesn’t see love as a possible factor in determining which planet to visit when resources are dwindling, and time is running out. '
He overlooks Amelia’s sense of love, and the results are catastrophic. They visit Dr. Mann’s world and his environmental readings are a sham. Mann has lost his mind, and nearly kills everyone and ends the mission.
If Cooper had listened to Amelia, had honored her “love” argument, the mission might have succeeded sooner. (On the other hand, he likely wouldn’t have traveled into the black hole and been able to save Earth…so there’s that to consider too.)
He refuses to honor the idea that rescuing Murphy is the thing that will drive Cooper to succeed, and then betrays Cooper on his death bed, outing himself as a liar. His only purpose was to “not think of the individual,” but “as a species,” and that goal in itself is...inhuman.
Interstellar informs us that the only way we survive as a species at all is by thinking of the individual, and the concerns of the individual, of rejoining and rescuing family.
Right or wrong, “love” is what generates action, and it is the very force that creates Cooper's “reality” inside the black hole: his consuming need to save Murphy and the survivors of Earth.
Murphy and Amelia share a conversation in which he asks her if she believes nature can be evil. She doesn’t think that it can be. He does. He knows, from difficult life on the farm, that nature can drive people apart, and can destroy lives.
Likewise nature -- the tidal waves of Planet Miller, or the Ice Clouds of Planet Mann -- are indeed “evil” in the sense that they keep Cooper separated from Murphy, and keeps him from saving the planet Earth.
Anything -- including nature -- that steals the resource of time from Cooper and his family is, by definition in the film, evil.
People are divided and, worse, believing ludicrous conspiracy theories conjured by dangerous, deranged men. The history books have been rewritten, in Interstellar, to suggest that the Apollo moon missions didn’t occur; that the government made them up so as to bankrupt the Soviet Union.
In other words, Interstellar occurs in a future directly in line with our own present, in which government is always the worst bad guy imaginable (forget about corporations, okay?) and our leaders are sinister conspirators, not people doing their (admittedly fallible) best to serve our country.
Yet such conspiracy theories and beliefs about government are almost wholly emotion-based not logic driven. Indeed, watch Cooper totally undercut Murphy's high school principal using logic, not emotions.
Perhaps Interstellar is trying to be even-handed by including this aspect of human existence; revealing that emotion can be our greatest strength and our greatest weakness at the same time…
|From Strange New World (1977).|
If you sense any diffidence or ambiguity in my review of Interstellar, you’re not entirely wrong.
I truly admire the film’s visuals, particularly the landscapes of Planets Millar and Munn. I also love the concept of a documentary discussing a new “dust bowl” here on Earth from a future perspective. There are some great details in this look at life on an environmentally-ravaged Earth, like how the denizens have to turn over bowls and cups on kitchen table so that dirt doesn't get inside them.
And I very much how the film depicts the mechanics of space travel, and suggests that mankind can tame the stars.
A lot -- nearly three hours -- hangs on a theme that can be expressed in three words (love conquers all), and I find this to be a characteristic flaw of Nolan's work (especially Inception). He overloads his films with so much material (not to mention time...) that the foundation beneath them starts to crack from sheer weight before the film is even over.
Cooper does not know of NASA's location at NORAD as the film commences, but is led to it by a series of coordinates delivered by the ghost in Murphy’s room.
He is that ghost, we learn, so why is he both typing out the word “STAY” (warning himself not to travel to space) and the coordinates to NASA, which prevent him from staying and which generate the whole time line?
Which is it Cooper? Would it be better to stay with Murphy, and never know of NASA and its missions? Or is it better to initiate the time-line and send those coordinates?
I don't think the film is able to make Cooper's state of mind in the black hole very clear, so that we understand precisely why he sends two very mixed messages home to Murph.
Similarly, NASA is within a day’s drive, apparently, of Cooper’s farm, and NASA knows Cooper from his previous space mission (and crash). So why did they never contact him to begin with?
Why do they have to rely, in this instance, on the ghost’s interference?
In short, I find it hard to believe that even a diminished NASA would not realize that one of the few remaining astronauts in the world is living on a farm less than a day’s drive away from its primary installation.
The early scene in the film, wherein Cooper describes parents as being present so as to be “memories” for their kids, grown up, is masterful and powerful. Cooper describes parents as “ghosts of your children’s future,” and that description feels true, and meaningful. It rings true, at least to me.
Children grow up, grow old even, and their parents are always present in their minds, even if they have died. Their voices are always there, consulting and advising, even criticizing. Interstellar takes the idea of parents as “ghosts in children’s future” and literalizes it.
Cooper isn’t physically present to guide Murphy and save her, but he is there, in some sense, -- consciously or spiritually -- within the 5D construct of the black hole interior to impact her destiny.
After watching the film, I confess, I wondered about my own life, and those who had left us, and those who will leave us.
Are they mere voices in our heads, or a resonance of a presence beyond death, of the mystery of “love” infiltrating our presents from some distant future, or from another sense of reality? From cryptic space-time, even?
Beyond the powerful visual presentation of other-worldly environments and space, I find the film worthwhile in the ways I have outlined here. Christopher Nolan's film reminds us that time is a resource, and one that, for the living, is not endless. We are mortal creatures bound to other mortal creatures, and time seems to escape us, to seep away.
Like Cooper, we will reach “far beyond our lifespan” and impact the generations yet to come. Certainly, this point seems relevant in terms of how we handle environmental resources, or tackle issues such as war and peace, or even climate change. Our choices regarding how we use time now will impact, indeed, the future.
With that kind of responsibility, one hopes for some sort of Dylan Thomas-esque wisdom about the importance of "death and entrances..." But in lieu of such poetry, I'll merely state that Interstellar works hard to share shelf-space with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, and Contact, and ultimately, it earns that real estate.
Like those films, it finds that -- at the end of the universe -- the answer to all our questions can be found in who we are; the qualities we bring with us on the journey. These films may evade true knowledge, denying us information about the physical appearance of an alien being, or the truth about the meaning of life.
But they approximate knowledge by showing us how the small things -- a beach, a house, or a book-shelf -- can mean an awful lot in the human scheme of things.