Let's talk about Interstellar. I'm going to talk about it as though everyone who is reading this has already seen it. If you haven't seen it and are concerned spoilers, I advise you to stop reading now. I haven't done a lot of film reviews, so I'll tell you what. I'll put my impressions at the top and then, at the bottom, below the dividing line, I'll post the more blow-by-blow take. Now that we're on the same page...
...that was a really frustrating movie, wasn't it? It wasn't a bad film; instead it was a film that could have been one of the greats but lost its nerve at critical moments. It was a huge film full of Big Ideas, terrific performances, amazing visuals, and some of the hokiest sentimentality you'll see all year.
I really liked this movie when it was bleak. The fact that decisions had consequences and costs, and some of the decisions felt genuinely hard, was brilliant. The sense that they were losing a race against time permeated every frame of this film. The betrayals might have been a little telegraphed, but they felt honest.
I do feel like Nolan cheated on some of the physics in order to set up some visuals and some plot points, and that was annoying because it was so tight in other ways. It always threatened to unravel with sentimentality, but it never quite did. The mere fact that it was so close was distracting.
All in all, I liked it and I'd recommend it, warts and all. It's a "thinky" movie and we don't get enough of those from Hollywood.
Here's what I liked about it:
- It was emotionally very, very effective.
- They did some of the hard science well.
- The performances were uniformly outstanding.
- It looked spectacular and, for the most part, realistic.
- The robots.
- Despite the occasional mention of love as something that transcends dimension, they didn't really lean on metaphysics.
- Speaking of love, none of the characters were romantically involved with each other.
- They made exploring the cosmos look cool.
- The scenes that starkly showed the passage of time were brutal.
Here's what I didn't like about it:
- They did some of the hard science quite badly.
- It couldn't decide if it wanted to be a feel good movie or a bleak one.
- It surely didn't need a happy ending for Matthew McConaughey.
- The score got out of control sometimes.
- The dialogue. Everyone speaks like they're lecturing the audience rather than talking to each other. I know one person who talks like that and I find an entire film full of them a little wearying.
- The ending didn't work for me.
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
The films starts at a Frank Darabont pace. The unhurried first act may have made some people impatient (ok, it did), but, for my money, it set the stage appropriately. The Earth is dying of a slow apocalypse (a blight that affects all grain crops) and humanity has not only stopped exploring space, we're denying we ever did. Former astronaut Matthew McConaughey (I'm going to use the actors' names here) is now a farmer raising two kids by himself. His son is earthbound in every meaning of the word, while the daughter is bright and rebellious and quite obviously more-loved by her father.
The haunting of the daughter's room by the "ghost" is one of those things that probably would have worked better if we all weren't so accustomed to how storytelling works. Even though there aren't any explicit hints as to the ghost's identity, most of us had a pretty good idea of who it was right from the beginning just because, in films like this, things tend to play out that way. The ghost pushes books out of her bookshelf and leaves Morse code or binary messages in the dust. One of the messages, a set of coordinates, sends McConaughey off to discover where NASA is hiding and operating in secret.
As it turns out, NASA, led by the always-excellent Michael Caine, has plans to save humanity. It turns out that "someone" dropped a huge wormhole next to Saturn revealing a dozen potentially Earth-like worlds on the other side. Caine has two plans: Plan A is to build a giant ship to remove a fraction of Earth's population through the wormhole to settle on one of the Earth-like worlds. This plan is contingent on Caine solving an equation that would provide enough power to get his huge ship off the ground. Plan B is the fallback. NASA would send a ship full of frozen embryos and a few people to thaw them. The downside of this plan, of course, is that it dooms every human on Earth.
NASA has already sent individuals to each of the twelve potential new homes and have received positive reports from several of them. Caine persuades McConaughey to pilot a ship that will check up on these reports and proactively deliver some of the embryos as the same time. McConaughey bids his daughter, son, and father (did I mention his father was played by John Lithgow? I did not. He is, and he's good, as you'd expect), but not without the daughter telling him that the "ghost" sent him a message to "stay."
McConaughey, along with scientist Anne Hathaway (Caine's daughter), and a couple of redshirts make the two year journey to Saturn. I cannot emphasize enough how beautifully shot the space scenes are. The decision to make space silent and lonely works brilliantly. After the initial rush of liftoff, the crew quickly settle in to the boredom of two years in a tin can combined with the horror of knowing just how close they are to a void that would kill them in a heartbeat. They settle in for cold sleep and awaken near Saturn within eyeshot of the wormhole.
For some reason, it's at this point that the crew decide to let McConaughey know that two of the three worlds they're planning to visit orbit a black hole. That was a little jarring when I first saw that film, and it seems even more inexplicable the more I think about it. On the plus side, it gives them an opportunity to dip their toes in the relativity pool and talk about time dilation. The passage of time and its effect on people is one of the film's strongest themes and this little bit of foreshadowing sets it up nicely.
There are three worlds on the itenerary and job one is to figure out which to visit given their limited resources (time and fuel). There are pluses and minuses to each world: The water world is closest to the black hole, meaning that the time dilation is the strongest there and it will require the most fuel, but the beacon giving the "all clear" is still active and it seems the most Earth-like. Cold world, also orbiting the black hole, also has an active beacon indicating all clear but it's also orbiting a black hole. The third world has no beacon, suggesting the astronaut didn't make it, but the information the beacon sent back was promising.
The crew don't want to go to water world, but McConaughey suggests a difficult navigational gambit that will allow them to visit the world briefly and get back off quickly. Time is of the essence as each hour spent on this planet is the equivalent of 7 years back on Earth. They land in incredibly shallow water which seems to cover the surface of the entire planet. Anyone who's ever read any Larry Niven knows what happens next. As they discover that the astronaut is dead and the machine that's sending out the "all clear" is just running on autopilot, huge waves appear on the horizon. Being this close to a black hole causes enormous tides! Anne Hathaway does something noble that results in their being stuck on the planet for a few more hours than they would have been otherwise and killing one of the redshirts in the process. When they finally return to their main ship, the other redshirt is now an old man.
As cool as this whole exercise was, it took me out of the movie. A gravity well steep enough to cause 61,000:1 time dilation is not going to result in a habitable planet says this non-physicist. You have all kinds of problems: The gravity from the black hole is probably greater than the surface gravity of the planet, any light on the surface of the planet is coming from the Hawking radiation which will barbecue any living thing on the planet, the planet couldn't rotate due to being tidally locked by the black hole, which would tend to minimize the tidal waves (not to mention the water that hasn't been baked off by the radiation has probably long since streamed into the black hole), the atmosphere has likely long since been removed by the black hole, and the amount of fuel it would take to get out of that gravity well? Ugh.
However, this all leads to one of the most interesting scenes in the movie. McConaughey, Hathaway, and the redshirt are in the main ship and they have to decide where to go next. The amount of time they spent on the planet burned a couple decades worth of fuel on the main ship and they now have enough to visit one, but not both, of the other worlds. Hathaway wants to go to the third world, in part because that's where her lover went, even though there's no signal coming from it. McConaughey and the redshirt, on the other hand, are leaning towards the frozen world because of the signal they're receiving. Both Hathaway and McConaughey are clearly in pain, recognizing that their decisions on the water world may have doomed Hathaway's lover, humanity, or both.
Then came the moment that ruined the film for so many people: Hatahway sugggests that love, yes love, might transcend space and time and oh my stars it was awful. I don't think it was completely out of character as she was obviously in a very emotional place and the guys were about to vote to abandon her lover to certain death. But, so many of the characters speak like they're action figures mouthing the words the director wants to say rather than, you know, speaking natural dialogue. Because of that, her words carried more weight than they probably should have as well a big dollop of foreshadowing.
Anyway, they decide to go to the frozen world and, as I'm sure you have already guessed, things go very, very badly. The world is uninhabitable. Matt Damon, in a nice bit of stunt casting, plays the leader of the astronauts who were launched into the wormhole. As it turns out, he faked the data about the world's suitability because he was lonely and scared and wanted someone to come pick him up. The final redshirt discovers that truth just in time to get exploded by a booby trap. Matt Damon tries to take over the main ship but fails to dock properly, killing himself, destroying one of the landing craft, and badly damaging the main ship.
McConaughey and Hathaway manage to dock with the out of control spaceship in a thrilling and realistic-feeling sequence that is among the film's best. Once safely aboard, they have to face the fact that they're nearly out of fuel and, maybe it's about this time, or maybe it's earlier, but they receive a message from Earth. McConaughey's now adult daughter let's our heroes know that there never was a plan A. Michael Caine solved the equation and the solution precluded humans getting off the planet, so the whole program was really about plan B.
It's a bleak scene.
Ever the barnstorming pilot, McConaughey concocts a scheme that will allow the ship to use the black hole's event horizon as a slingshot to allow them to reach the desert planet. This will cost them the last of their robots...did I mention the robots? The robots are great. They're not remotely human looking. They're very functional, and they provide some much needed semi-levity in this very dark film. Anyway, the last of the robots will get in one of the landing craft, adding its thrust to the main ship, and then drop off. By jettisoning this extra mass, the big ship will just escape the gravity well. Too late, Anne Hathaway realizes that McConaughey is going to do the same thing in the third landing craft since "it's the only way." He nobly sacrifices himself and Anne Hathaway zooms off towards the desert world. Only, she's not a pilot. And, now the ship has lost three landing craft, so she has no way to get out of orbit. Unless there were four landing craft on a four man vessel, which seems stupid.
It now gets very strange. Matthew McConaughey maintains not just material integrity but full consciousness in the black hole. He's now experiencing five-dimensional space and it's as trippy a you might imagine. He's behind his daughter's bookcase and, duh, he's the ghost. He's the one who sent the NASA coordinates. He's the one who sent himself the message to "stay" (because, let's face it, this is a very bad mission). He finally "gets" that he can use gravity somehow to send binary messages and he does it via an old watch due to...quantum entanglement? I dunno. Seems like if you could pull off that track, you could just pull one of her books out, write messages in it, and push them off the shelf.
The messages he sends allows his daughter to solve Michael Caine's equation because of something about gravity and time and not taking enough dimensions into account. So, plan A is back in play now, and we learn that the desert world was habitable and Anne Hathaway has set up a proto-colony near where she buries her lover. Matthew McConaughey, on the other hand, gets pooped out of the black hole and dumped where the wormhole was, right next to the ship his daughter's work built. They bring him in, he's still alive, and his daughter, ancient and wrinkled, is on her death bed. Then, for some reason, McConaughey gets in one of the little lander craft, takes off, and...the end.