To the great frustration of atheistic fans of so-called "hard" science fiction, we religious-studies majors are kept in business by Hollywood's vexatious—or is it amusing?—tendency to use science fiction as a cover for religious messages, imagery, themes, and concepts. Christopher Nolan's latest film, "Interstellar," seems to follow this well-worn path, so strap in, Dear Reader, because this review is going to be a long and bumpy ride, much like Matthew McConaughey's trip into that awesome wormhole. And a warning: there will be spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie yet, you should probably stop reading now.
Still with me? Well, good. Eh bien, continuons.
I'll start with a general impression: "Interstellar" was much, much easier to decipher than "Inception" was. (In fact, I probably need to re-watch "Inception" a second, third, and fourth time before I begin to understand its wrinkles.) Despite the weirdly recursive nature of the plot of "Interstellar," the story isn't that hard to follow. That being said, I'm not sure I stand with the majority of critics and viewers who unreservedly liked this film. There was one powerful moment that moved me to tears, and there was imagery that, while not exactly mind-blowing, was nevertheless fascinating, but the whole seemed somehow less than the sum of its parts. Some of this review will be devoted to exploring why, exactly, that might be the case.
"Interstellar" stars Matthew McConaughey as "Coop" Cooper, a frustrated pilot/astronaut/farmer and widower who finally receives the mission he's been waiting for: the salvation of humanity. The Earth is dying, you see: it's the near future, and our planet is suffering from massive waves of a mutating blight that has been progressively destroying crops the world over, leaving little but dust in the blight's wake. American growers have been reduced to cultivating corn, which seems to be one of the last crops able to withstand the blight. For some odd reason, never explained in the movie, militaries no longer exist, and people are apparently left to police themselves: the random dust storms maintain civic order by making people focus on them instead of on each other. University entrance has become highly selective; most students are tracked to become farmers, as happens to Coop's son Tom (Timothée Chalamet, then Casey Affleck as the older Tom). Along with his son, Coop has a plucky little daughter named Murph (Mackenzie Foy, then later the not-so-little Jessica Chastain). Stubborn and inquisitive like her scientist father, Murph claims she's being visited by ghosts—poltergeists, to be more precise—that she feels are trying to communicate with her. Coop is skeptical, but he suggests that Murph approach the problem scientifically, gathering empirical evidence and filtering that evidence through inductive and deductive reasoning. Surprisingly, it turns out that someone or something is trying to communicate by leaving signs in Murph's room: a sort of bar-code message, neatly laid out as piles of dust, appears on Murph's floor, and Coop immediately understands that the dust landed in this pattern because some intelligence can manipulate gravity. The bar code turns out to be map coordinates: the map coordinates lead Murph and Coop to a hardened NORAD facility, where Coop stumbles upon his old mentor, Professor Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine), who now works with what remains of NASA. In mythological terms, this is the moment when Coop, our hero, receives his Call to Adventure from the Wisdom Figure.
Brand brings Coop up to speed: a gravity-manipulating superintelligence has opened up a wormhole near Saturn, and information coming through the wormhole has allowed our scientists to surmise that, first, it leads to a completely different galaxy and, second, it will deposit any travelers near several potentially habitable planets. A multi-pronged project, called "Lazarus missions," has sprung up around this discovery: "Plan A" involves eventually depositing all of humanity on the most viable of the candidate worlds, and "Plan B" involves a "population bomb" in which human embryos by the hundreds or thousands will be "seeded" onto one world (presumably with caretakers). By the time Brand paints this picture for Coop, three intrepid astronauts—Miller, Edmunds, and Mann—have already gone through the wormhole, each having been assigned a world to explore. These alien planets orbit close to Gargantua, a supermassive black hole whose temporal horizon causes major Einsteinian time dilation, and whose gravity, even at distance, affects planetary surface and tectonic conditions. The earthbound scientists have had little news from the Lazarus astronauts aside from a tantalizing "thumbs-up" signal or two; Coop's mission will be to track the Lazarus astronauts down in a ship called the Endurance, accompanied by a mixed team of scientists and blocky-looking AI robots. He will then recover any data related to the planets, send the data back to Earth and, assuming the success of Plan A, act as the vanguard for the eventual exodus of humanity from its homeworld. Coop says yes to the mission.
This brings me to what was, by my reckoning, the most heart-wrenching moment in the film. Coop knows he'll be gone for years; he's aware that time dilation near the black hole might even mean he'll be gone for decades, in Terran terms. All the same, he has to say goodbye to his son and daughter. Tom is stoic about the whole thing and promises to maintain the farm as best he can; Murph, by contrast, refuses to speak with her father, angrily rejecting his attempts to have them part on good terms. In tears, Coop leaves the homestead and heads for Saturn and the wormhole. As he drives away, Murph runs out of the house, screaming for her father, but it's too little, too late: he doesn't see her, and he keeps on driving.
The movie's focus now shifts to the Endurance, and to Coop and his team of fellow astronauts. Among them is young Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), the prickly daughter of Coop's mentor. Also aboard are Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley of "American Beauty" fame). We fast-forward past the two-year sublight journey to Saturn, and it's not long before we approach the wormhole and dive in. The special effects for this ride, and for other cosmic events in the movie, were guided by physics god Kip Thorne, so this is, supposedly, a more or less faithful representation of what it might be like to plunge into a wormhole: there's plenty of rumbling and shaking (Nolan was, however, smart enough not to use any sound effects during the external shots in space, as space has no air or other medium through which to propagate sound), and Hans Zimmer's grandiose, pipe-organ-heavy score swells like an apotheosis happening inside a planet-sized cathedral. The visual feel of the wormhole strongly reminded me of both "Contact" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." I'll have a lot to say about the Clarke/Kubrick connection later. For now, it's enough to remark that the encounter with the wormhole is played as an encounter with the ineffable: young Dr. Brand is actually able to "shake hands" with some mysterious being during the transition to the other side, almost as if she were greeting a god.
I suppose we could divide "Interstellar" into four movements. First is the terrestrial prelude, during which we learn about the blight, about humanity's need to relocate off-planet, and about Coop's call to adventure. This movement ends with the trip into the wormhole. The second movement is the team's exploration of the worlds orbiting Gargantua; this phase ends when Dr. Mann (Matt Damon, looking a bit timeworn himself) proves to have survived planetfall, but betrays the Endurance crew and damages the Endurance itself, thus transitioning us to the movie's third movement: Coop's plunge into Gargantua and his encounter with an extradimensional view of time. The fourth movement, a sort of coda or epilogue, finds Coop back among fellow humans, young-looking but over 120 years old by Terran reckoning, where he encounters his aged daughter (now played by Ellen Burstyn) and is given another life-mission—perhaps his most important one, which is to find love again.
The most major spoiler of this film has to do with the central mystery about the alien intelligence: we learn bits and pieces about this intelligence throughout the first two-thirds of the plot, but the full reveal comes in the final third of the movie, when Coop realizes that the aliens are us: future humans who have successfully moved offworld and have mastered the navigation and manipulation of more than the three physical dimensions with which we're all familiar. It is we who created the wormhole; it is our future selves, reaching into the past, who are the catalyst for our race's salvation. God only knows what sort of time paradoxes this maneuver evokes; at the very least, the idea of humanity rescuing itself from disaster implies a "Star Trek"-style causality loop: for future humanity to evolve into its time-transcending form, the rescue has to happen, and people have to get offworld. The future humans' ability to manipulate gravity has given them the power to reshape black holes into gravitational tools: when Coop falls inside Gargantua, he ends up in a weird, Escher-esque, interstitial space (called a "tesseract" by TARS, one of the robot companions who also dropped into the black hole*) that allows him to navigate moments as if they were physical instantiations.
One prominent theme of "Interstellar," albeit not the most important one, is betrayal. Ten-year-old Murph feels betrayed and abandoned by her father when he leaves Earth on the wormhole mission. Decades later, and now a NASA scientist herself, she's still bitter, although she seems to have reconciled herself to the notion that her father will never come back. Matt Damon's Dr. Mann, a coward who is desperate for rescue, places himself in hibernation after faking data that advertise his assigned planet's viability. Dr. Mann attempts to kill Coop during a walk on the planet's surface, cracking Coop's faceplate but turning off the audio of Coop's gasping because he doesn't have the stomach to listen to someone die. Mann seems a bit of a paradox: he wants off his planet, but he also seems to want to continue with Plan B of the mission, which means heading toward Edmunds's world. The third major betrayal is from Michael Caine's Professor Brand: Brand had been trying to find a way to effect a gravity-powered mass exodus from the Earth, but because he claimed to be unable to reconcile quantum mechanics and Einsteinian relativity—to establish a Grand Unified Theory, in other words—no solution was in sight. In reality, Brand had worked through the math to understand that, given the current state of human knowledge, mastery of gravity was impossible, which in turn meant the Lazarus missions to the alien worlds beyond the wormhole were little more than a vain gesture. Secretly, Brand understood that Plan B was truly humanity's only hope: through Plan B, Earthlings would seed another galaxy with life and begin again.
What's left of the Endurance's crew (Doyle is killed by a rogue wave on Miller's time-dilated planet,** and Romilly is killed in an explosion set by Dr. Mann on Mann's planet) figures out that data from the singularity at the heart of Gargantua might lead to a breakthrough on Earth, allowing the earthbound scientists to create the grav-tech needed to evacuate the planet and fulfill Plan A. After Dr. Mann betrays the Endurance's crew and damages the Endurance, Coop points the vessel toward Edmunds's world and jettisons himself and TARS toward Gargantua, leaving Dr. Brand fille to head toward the final planet alone. Based on a surmise by Romilly, Coop is banking on surviving entry into the black hole, and is further hoping somehow to transmit data back to Earth to help Murph, now all grown up and working beside old Professor Brand, solve the riddle of gravity and salvage Plan A (humanity's mass exodus).
Coop's trip into the black hole ties several major story strands together, and it also reveals what I believe to be the movie's fundamental theme: the transcendent power of love. Young Dr. Brand gives a speech, at one point, after the crew discovers she's been in love with Edmunds (whom we never see). She puts forward the idea that love offers a type of connection that bypasses the strictures of time and space: like gravity, love is a phenomenon that pervades reality and exceeds the physical dimensions we know. Also like gravity, which unaccountably operates over great distances,*** love is an attractive force, but it's a force that brings sentient beings, and not mere physical objects, together. Coop uses his love for his daughter to guide him through the tesseract's maze of moments in order to find just the right time in which to transfer the black hole's telemetry. The ghost that Murph thought she was dealing with turns out to be Coop himself. Coop is also the author of young Dr. Brand's spooky "handshake" moment inside the wormhole.
I'll give Nolan credit for not taking the easy route and pinning all this mystery on godlike extraterrestrials. It is, when you think about it, a very Nolanish maneuver to find human answers to human questions; there's a sort of comforting solipsism that underlies the plot of "Interstellar." In the end, it won't be some deus ex machina that saves us: it'll be us. Just us. It's a bit trite to say that Nolan has written a story in which the journey into outer space becomes a journey into inner space, but that's about the way this movie plays out.
There was a lot to like about "Interstellar." Nolan, as is routine with him, doesn't insult his audience's intelligence by making things too simple: a viewer of Nolan's movies is often required to think his way through the plot, and that can even mean pondering the images and concepts long after leaving the theater. The visuals in this movie were generally magnificent—on a par with "Gravity," evoking the majesty and grandeur of space, of wormholes, of black holes, and of alien worlds with no aliens on them. The corny problems normally associated with benevolent aliens are neatly dismissed by making the aliens human: why else would an alien species take so much interest in humanity's survival, anyway? And why would Murph's bedroom be the focus of gravitational disturbances? In terms of its story, "Interstellar" was fairly solidly constructed. The acting was also top-notch; Matthew McConaughey was the perfect leading man for the job, and little Mackenzie Foy, as Coop's daughter Murph at age ten, now has the distinction of making me cry during a movie. Her performance was deeply affecting. Anne Hathaway did a decent job of evoking her inner Catwoman-bitch as Dr. Brand; she walked the fine line between unlikable and sympathetic. Michael Caine, as the scientist who fooled everybody, was as solid as he's ever been. The quirky AI robots, imbued with a sense of humor and the ability to dial down their frankness to preserve delicate human egos, were amusing to watch. They moved about with a certain blocky charm, producing extra appendages at need like giant, living multitools.
But the movie had problems, not least of which is that it was amazingly weepy. Korean audiences love mawkish over-sentimentality, but I prefer my characters to show a little spine and not to break down every fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, in "Interstellar," tears and snot flow freely for much of the story. At the beginning of this essay, I noted that the whole seemed less than the sum of its parts. One problem was that I felt Nolan recycled certain visual tropes from "Inception." Most obviously recycled was all the zero-gee maneuvering in both real, physical space and the uncanny interstitial space of the tesseract inside Gargantua (an effect that could have come courtesy of Spike Jonze, a man who likes weirding people out visually). Also recycled were the "terrain folded on itself" motifs: there's a scene in "Interstellar" in which a craft is flying through a planet's atmosphere, mountains simultaneously above and below it, as if we were revisiting the folded-over city of Paris from "Inception." Later on, when Coop wakes up inside a huge, cylindrical ship (orbiting Saturn?), we see the ship's interior curving upward and overhead, all objects held in place, we can assume, by the ship's axial spin.**** Hans Zimmer's pipe-organ music was intrusive and overbearing; the swell-to-crescendo of the organ was effective the first time I heard it (at the moment when the Endurance first arcs delicately into the wormhole); by the second or third time, I felt the crescendo was overkill. Also, I was highly annoyed by Matt Damon's character, Dr. Mann. Mann doesn't speak naturally: he sermonizes and soliloquizes like a character from an early Michael Crichton novel. Mann seems to be little more than an exposition-spewing plot device; when he finally dies—as I knew was going to happen—his death comes as a great relief. And speaking of things I knew would occur: I knew, the moment I saw the old people on the video screens at the beginning of the story, that those decrepit folks were voices from the future, and that their testimonies had not been filmed on Earth. Nailed that prediction.
The biggest problem for me, though, is tied to the movie's central theme. For my money, "Interstellar" descends into sentimental mush when it takes a concept like love and turns it from something metaphysical into a mere force of nature that—thematically, at least—resembles gravity. What exactly is the movie trying to say about love, and the ability it supposedly gives us to transcend time and space? Does love make us psychic, telepathic, prescient, or telekinetic? Is love truly one of the fundamental forces that bind the universe together? Is love a quantum-entanglement homing system that allows a father to find the right moment at which to contact his daughter from across the stars? This is, I felt, the point at which Nolan took his otherwise profound sci-fi film and handed the story over to religion. He was obviously trying to use gravity as a metaphor for the all-pervading, all-transcending power of love, but I'm not sure it worked. In fact, by reducing love to something merely physical, he may actually have cheapened the concept. Nolan succeeded at evoking a proper sentimentality early in the movie when he showed us Murph's sadness about her father's departure, but I feel that, the closer the director got to the ineffable, the more he stumbled.
This brings me to the topic of the movie's deep creative debt to Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and to Stanley Kubrick's film of the same name. A quick side note: Kubrick and Clarke worked simultaneously, and in dialogue, on their respective projects. Clarke provided the germ, but after that, he and Kubrick essentially worked in tandem to create the story of one astronaut's journey through a stargate in inadvertent pursuit of mankind's ultimate destiny. "Interstellar" often felt like a rehash of Kubrick's "2001." Nolan's wormhole, and its trippy interior, was an analogue for Kubrick's monolith-stargate. Mankind's ultimate destiny was a major concept in both films as well. The fact that we never get to see the future humans, those inscrutable masters of gravity and time, echoes the way in which the alien minds that crafted the Monolith in "2001" remain forever behind the scene. Nolan himself didn't deny the Clarke/Kubrick influence: "You can't pretend '2001' doesn't exist when you're making 'Interstellar,'" he averred. "Interstellar" may as well be 2014's "2001."
I'll grant that the movie was fascinating enough for me to want to write at length about it. Christopher Nolan isn't shy about being an idea guy; his movies—even "The Dark Knight"—are charged with grand, compelling themes. In "Interstellar," Nolan tackles the familiar territory of the mystery of human nature, but he also attempts to say something about the respective natures of time, gravity, and love. I'm not so sure that this works, and the fact that Nolan recycled tropes from previous films gave me the impression that he may have been a bit too creatively exhausted to handle the concepts he wanted to handle in "Interstellar." But Nolan gets credit for trying, and that's more than I can say for most directors out there, who seem content to spoon-feed information to the audience.
In the end, "Interstellar" aims to be a message of hope for humanity: we can evolve; we can self-transcend; things can work out in the end for us. This is a big, ponderous, loud, deep, recursive, convoluted, well-acted movie. There are elements of the story that work well enough to move an impassive guy like me to tears, and other elements that fall flat. As several critics have noted, the movie's sound design does tend to drown out dialogue, but these auditory difficulties happen at points where a lack of audibility makes the most sense, such as when engines are firing or when we're rumbling through the innards of a wormhole. "Interstellar," which could easily have been titled "Intergalactic," is earnest and un-cynical. It doesn't quite succeed in its attempt to be profound, but it's an impressive ride. That said, I'm not sure I'm in any hurry to rush out and see it again.
ADDENDUM: After writing this massive review, I realized I had left out a couple important remarks. The first regards theme: another major theme of "Interstellar" is the will to survive. "Do not go gentle into that good night," intones old Professor Brand, quoting Dylan Thomas, when the Endurance team launches. "Do not go gentle" is also Brand's dying utterance to Murph. Dr. Mann, after cracking Coop's faceplate, tells Coop that the desperation Coop is feeling is thanks to that ancient survival instinct kicking in. The Lazarus missions, Plan A, and Plan B can be seen as humanity's last gasp as it attempts to escape its own fate.
My second remark regards the point of view we're privy to while Coop is inside Gargantua's tesseract. This is a theological moment, because even though Coop can move and breathe and think like a typical, spatiotemporally constrained, three-dimensional being, he's floating around in a space with substantially more than three physical dimensions—a space that puts him in the godlike position of being beyond time. This allows him to navigate moments and, also in a godlike way, to interact with them physically. (In a bit of humorous NPR commentary, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wonders aloud as to why Coop felt obliged to send his message to Murph in binary or Morse when he could simply have spelled his message out in plain English. This should have been possible if Coop, from within the tesseract, was able to manipulate matter in whatever moment he targeted. Instead of bar codes, why not letters?)
Although survival is a pervasive theme in "Interstellar," I'd still contend that Nolan's basic thrust is about the all-encompassing nature of love. The love/gravity connection or association is a sly way of implying that the supernatural is woven in and through the natural, and that humanity, per Teilhard de Chardin's vision, is on its way to an evolutionary Omega Point sometime far in the future. We want to survive, but we survive through love, and love fills the cosmos. This is an interesting, and potentially comforting, idea—comforting in the way many religious notions can be comforting. Perhaps by making the concept of love into a physical force, Nolan is simply trying to say that love is the most natural thing there is.
*This is a somewhat more proper use of the term "tesseract" than the silly appellation we get in "The Avengers," where "The Tesseract" refers to a cube that is an extradimensional portal through which massive amounts of energy can flow.
**An hour on the surface of Miller's world is seven years outside the influence of Gargantua; because of the planet's immense rogue waves, the away crew takes more than three hours to return to the Endurance; Romilly spends twenty-three years in orbit, whiling away the time and trying not to go insane or start engines and move on to another world.
***Most physical forces follow an inverse-square law, i.e., the amount of force varies inversely with the square of the distance in question. Example: let's say two objects at a distance of 1 unit from each other experience 1 unit of attractive pull. If those objects moved to a distance of 2, the force of the pull (assuming the inverse-square law is in operation) would be 1/4 of the original force (1/22). If they moved to a distance of 3, the force would be only 1/9 the original pull (1/32). And so on: F = k/d2. The inverse-square law means that most forces fade rapidly to insignificance over large stretches of space. Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation is also an inverse-square law... and yet gravity obtains over unimaginably huge distances, holding stars together in galaxies, and perhaps even holding galaxies together in galactic clusters. Gravity's ability to operate over galactic distances is still something of a mystery; see here. Christopher Nolan, in writing this story, may have been aggressively exploiting this gap in human knowledge to craft his tale of love and time.
****I'm at pains to avoid saying "centrifugal force," since there's a great deal of debate as to whether such a force even exists.