“Interstellar” - Christopher Nolan (2014)

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) is another mind-bending science fiction thriller – this time about astronauts searching for a new planet for human habitation in the not-too-distant future. The film was co-scripted with his brother Jonathon Nolan, who also had co-writing credits for Nolan’s earlier Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). 

Here again, as with his Inception (2010), Nolan presents conventional action-adventure muscularity in a highly imaginative science-fiction-warped context.  And again Nolan apparently has a box-office bonanza on his hands.  From my perspective, though, there are problems with this film that make it unlikely to suit discerning tastes.

The story is somewhat complicated, but there are a couple of relatively straightforward elements that I will go over.

In the future, life on earth will apparently be run by peacenik socialists (probably the right-winger’s version of the apocalypse) who have eliminated war but have been unable to stop population growth and the depletion of natural resources.  To feed the human population, almost everyone is coerced into farming; but climate catastrophes and agrarian pestilence are now (at the start of the film) leading to looming disaster.

In this context we meet Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), an obstreperous Texan and former NASA test pilot who was forced into farming like everybody else. A widowed father, he lives on his mechanized farm with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and his two children, one of whom, his 10-year-old daughter Murphy, thinks that she has received symbolic signals from a ghost. Though scoffing at the notion of ghosts, Cooper decodes these “messages” into geographic coordinates and seeks out their location, which is found to be a secret NASA research base led by the elderly Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

Cooper’s discovery of Brand’s secret laboratory and launching site turns out to be opportunistic, because Brand immediately recruits him to pilot NASA’s spaceship on a mission crucial to mankind’s survival.  The only way to save humanity, it seems, is to find another planet that is habitable and then transport everyone to go live there.  But the problem is: there are no known habitable planets within many light years of the Earth, and time for humanity is running out.  However, Brand and his researchers have discovered a “wormhole” near the planet Saturn that they believe has been conveniently placed there by benevolent aliens and which could provide a relativistic shortcut to other habitable planets. Three earlier missions had been sent out to that wormhole and may have found something on the other side, but there has been no communication with them since. Cooper’s mission is to find out if those earlier missions have found a good planet.  If a habitable planet can be found, then Brand has two alternative plans to save mankind:
  • Plan A.  Solve the problem of transporting all of humanity to that planet in a short space of time (remember, time is running out on Earth).  This apparently involves writing a lot of equations on the blackboard and looking for the “solution”.
  • Plan B. If Plan A doesn’t work, then send a few hundred frozen human embryos (presumably with a midwife or two for care giving) to the newly discovered planet.
Plan A is preferable, of course, since Plan B means that the existing human population on Earth would perish.
So Cooper sets out on the spacecraft Endurance with a crew that includes a geographer, a physicist, two English-speaking robots, and a pretty biologist and daughter of Professor Brand named Amelia (Anne Hathaway).  Everyone has a Ph.D and is a brilliant scientist, of course, except for the cowboy Cooper.  They reach the wormhole and learn how to trace the three previous missions, separately led by scientists Miller, Edmunds, and Mann.  First they head for Miller’s planet, but it orbits a powerful black hole whose gravitational field is so strong that it causes intense time dilatation – one hour on that planet corresponds to seven years back on Earth.  Cooper, Amelia, and the geographer leave the Endurance on a shuttle to visit Miller’s planet, but it turns out to be disastrous – the planet is uninhabitable, Miller is dead, the biologist is killed, and their few hours visit there means that 23 years have elapsed back on the Endurance and on Earth. 

This time shift turns out to be the key plot-element of the story: when Cooper and Amelia return to the Endurance, they are unchanged, but everyone else is 23 years older, including the now 50-ish physicist on the Endurance and the people on Earth. Cooper’s daughter Murphy (Jessica Chastain) back on Earth is now in her mid-30s and has become a theoretical physicist (of course) working in Professor Brand’s laboratory to further Plan A.  Just before Brand’s dies of old age, he confesses to her that he had long thought Plan A to be theoretically unachievable.  Murphy plows ahead anyway with her theoretical calculations, though, hoping to find a solution for Plan A.  So there are now two parallel threads of action: (a) Murphy on Earth working more or less hopelessly on Plan A and (b) Cooper and the Endurance out beyond the wormhole.

After some arguments between Cooper and Amelia, the Endurance is eventually directed to Mann’s planet, where Dr. Mann (Mat Damon) is still alive.  But this planet, too, proves to be uninhabitable, and the encounter with Mann ends in violence.  Eventually with the Endurance running low on fuel, it is sent back to Earth with Amelia, while Cooper and one of the intelligent robots separately navigate a small space shuttle into a black hole. Falling into the black hole, Cooper finds himself tumbling into an extra-dimensional space-time warp that enables him to connect with other points in space and time. Managing to connect with his 10-year-old daughter, Cooper, in an effort to save humanity, turns out to be the ghost who had earlier in the film sent Murphy messages.  He also sends the 33-year-old Murphy messages that eventually help her solve the problem of Plan A and rescue humanity.  So everyone gets saved thanks to Cooper and Murphy.
Over the course of Interstellar, the action moves along at a fast pace, but our ultimate satisfaction will depend on how the narrative evolves in a coherent fashion.  In most films there are two main narrative threads: an action thread involving some goal in the external world for the protagonist(s) and a narrative thread involving the evolution of one or more relationships.  In a science-fiction film the action thread is compounded by a scientific aspect that challenges the minds of the protagonists and the viewers. The filmmaker must present something that is scientifically imaginative but that is also scientifically plausible.  That’s what we have in Interstellar, too, but there are problems with this film along all of these lines.

In connection with the action thread, there are several issues.
  • The main idea of the action narrative is this Plan-A/Plan-B thing.  We get that basic outline OK, but the fundamental issue of Plan A is just passed off as some theoretical problem that must be solved by mathematical equations. The viewer is shown some equations on a blackboard, but there is no attempt at presenting a narrative trajectory about this. It’s just shown as a very hard, wonky problem that requires mathematical genius. Since Plan A is such a key aspect of the story, it leaves a big narrative hole in the film.
  • Gravity, particularly in connection with Coriolis “forces”, is always a problem in SciFi films set in outer space and I won’t be too strict on that score [1], but it still seems to be treated very casually in a film where gravity is an important issue. Nevertheless and despite the participation of physicist Kip Thorne in the production, there are some things that strike me as unrealistic.  When the astronauts on the other side of the wormhole are near a black hole and descend to Miller’s planet, they encounter such an intense gravitational field that it causes severe time dilatation, as described above. It seems to me that such an intense gravitational field would crush biological organisms and prevent normal biological processes.  But this is not addressed.
  • It also seems highly unrealistic that Professor Brand would immediately assign Cooper to pilot his spacecraft without any preparation.  It would seem to me that the complications associated with such a mission would require months of planning and training.  And if Brand knew that Cooper was a good choice, why didn’t he recruit him in the first place – Cooper showed up at Brand’s space laboratory on his own accord and somewhat by serendipity.
  • There are various narrative dead-ends in the story – narrative threads that are initiated and then dropped and forgotten.  For example at the beginning of the film, Cooper is interested in tracking drones launched by the Indian government that are flying over his farmland. He tries to commandeer these drones, but surely there should be something more significant to these events than merely making a toy for his 10-year-old daughter.
There are also problems with the relational narrative threads in the story.

  • The relationship between Cooper and his daughter, Murphy, which is presumably important, is never developed. Sure, Murphy always calls her, “Murph”, but that isn’t enough to establish an interesting relationship. And later in the story Murphy condemns and rejects her father for what she believes to be his commitment to Plan B. That’s not a very filial attitude to have toward’s one's parent if we are supposed to be looking at a meaningful relationship.
  • We are set up for a relationship to evolve between Cooper and Amelia Brand, but nothing much develops along these lines, either.  There is no chemistry, nothing interesting along the lines of personal interaction between these two characters.  At the end of the film, we are led to believe that Cooper will seek out Amelia, but we haven’t been given any reason or motivation to believe that this is interesting.
  • There is a presumed existing amorous relationship between Amelia and Edmunds, the astronaut who had gone on an earlier planet-exploration mission through the wormhole but had never returned.  But we never see Edmunds, and we are never given any information about what that relationship means to Amelia. This is another narrative hole in the story.
There is a potentially interesting relationship-narrative theme that could have been explored but was not.  It concerns one’s personal stance towards commitment to others.  It is curious that Professor Brand and others are wrathfully despised by some other people, such as Murphy and Amelia, for trying to work on Plan B.  If Plan A is really not feasible, is it so reprehensible to still strive to save humanity in some form?  In fact the film portrays four general ethical and empathic stances that one might take in life:

  • Selfish.  One is only concerned with his or her personal welfare. This could be attributed to Dr. Mann.  (Incidentally, I am not really a fan of Mat Damon, but I find that whenever he shows up in a movie, the story becomes more interesting – and this is the case in this film, too.)
  • Immediate close associates.  One strives primarily to help one’s family and loved ones.  This stance is taken by Amelia and Cooper.
  • Everyone.  One works on behalf of everyone living.  Murphy and Cooper seem to be concerned at this level.
  • Universal.  One works for the abstract, future benefit of people yet to be born. Professor Brand and Dr. Mann are concerned here.

These various empathic stances move from the personal to the abstract, and it is interesting that the women in this story occupy the middle layers, while the men are more associated with the more selfish and abstract.  A potentially interesting elaboration would have been the consideration of how the intelligent robots fit into this scheme (compare with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)).  Anyway, this aspect of personal empathy is not really developed in Interstellar, while it was examined successfully in Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011).  In Malick’s film there are also a number of narrative threads, but he manages to endow each of those elements with a dramatic vitality that is missing in Nolan’s film.

It seems that Nolan has established a pattern for his films since Memento and Insomnia (2002) that constitutes his formula for success – start with a budget of around $200 million, make a near 3-hour epic with a convoluted plot structure, and artificially elevate the tension with a blaring and jarring musical score by Hans Zimmer. This may work at the box office with a public satisfied with the short-term distractions of video games, but it doesn’t live up to the real potential of science fiction, which is to explore the mysterious unknown of human existence.  It has been my observation in the past that British authors and filmmakers have understood this element better than those from America.  Great science fiction evokes from us a sense of wonder, if not horror, about the horizons of our world.  But Britisher Nolan is the exception here and to my mind is more like an American.  His films are essentially mechanical exercises strewn with gameplay and present a mechanical/reductionist view of reality, but they miss out on that crucial element of mystery.

  1. Dave Van Domelen, “Frame Effects on Space Stations”, Kansas State University Physics Education Research Group, 13 January 2008.

1 comment:

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Well, this review has come as a pleasant surprise to me. I, for one, didn't expect you to review a Nolan film on your esteemed film blog.

Anyway, I must say that I really enjoyed reading your film analysis of Interstellar. I have not a single Nolan film in my Top 100 and yet when I wrote of positive review of Interstellar, many people accused me of being a "Nolan fanboy".

As much as I enjoyed reading your review, I must tell you that I feel that you have been a bit too harsh in your assessment of the film. Since I haven't really tried to demystify the science of Interstellar myself, I would like to share a couple of links which to some extent might quench your curiosity. You may find answers to some of your questions.

1). Review by a film enthusiast named Nafees (Plan A and "They" answered):


2). American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson Praises Science of #Interstellar in Twitter Review


3). My Review:


Please do share your thoughts.