Interstellar – A Grand Science Fiction Experience

Interstellar (2014) cinema poster. © Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

This past weekend the film I have been most looking forward to all year was released. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Despite what many critics are saying about this film, I think Nolan has given us a film that is better than Inception (2010).

In the future there are no wars, no armies, and no international conflict. The reason for this is that the Earth has turned against humanity. Crop blights are rapidly causing the supply of food to dwindle. So much so that all humanity’s efforts have turned to farming to feed the few that are left. This is the world of Interstellar to which we are introduced.

Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar (2014). © Warner Bros. Pictures.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former pilot and engineer who now, like everyone else, has turned farmer. Cooper, along with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) and two children, son Tom and daughter Murph, work their farm and try to keep a positive outlook. Cooper has a problem, though, in his precocious daughter who, like Coop, has a talent for science and maths in a time when all society wants is farmers. So much so that the moon landings of the 1960’s and 70’s have been denied as a hoax.

We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt. – Cooper. Insterstellar (2014).

Anne Hathaway as Dr. Brand in Interstellar (2014). © Warner Bros. Pictures.

Murph has another problem, she thinks there is a ghost in her room, but it’s not a ghost. Instead it’s a gravitational anomaly that leads Cooper, and his stowaway daughter, to a secret location where Doctor Brand (Anne Hathaway) and her father Professor Brand (Michael Caine) are working on a plan to save the world. This plan involves space flight, wormholes and a whole lot of relativity, and now this plan needs Cooper’s skill as a pilot and engineer.

Interstellar is a proper science fiction film, using real scientific principles to tell its story. Something that most of Hollywood has forgotten. These days the science in science fiction is very cursory and thin. While this can make for an entertaining film, all too often it leads to massive plot holes because even this veil of science is poorly understood by the film makers.

Interstellar, in contrast, has made science central to the plot and pulls no punches in using it. This is both a strength and weakness for the film. Its strength comes from the fact that it makes what you are experiencing much more palpable, especially if you understand what the characters are saying, at least in a general way. Its weakness comes from the fact that Nolan may have used too much science for the average film goer. Maths aside, most people, thanks to shows like Star Trek, have heard of special relativity, general relativity, and wormholes, but that’s where the knowledge stops for the most part, so time dilation is a step too far for most viewers I think. Unfortunately, though, time dilation is part of what provides the essential tension of the plot. Personally, I loved that aspect of the film.

Spaceship Endurance from Interstellar (2014). © Warner Bros. Pictures.

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway both give excellent performances overall I thought. Their roles immediately brought to mind McConaughey’s work with Jodie Foster in Contact (1997), another film that relied on brain rather than special effects brawn to do the film’s heavy lifting. In fact I sort of see Cooper as the anti-character to the one he played in Contact, Palmer Joss.

The robotic characters of TARS and CASE are a couple of the highlights of the film. TARS, voiced by Bill Irwin, and CASE voiced by Josh Stewart, both give surprising performances. Especially difficult to do since their on screen characters were essentially silver boxes.

Image of the robot TARS (Bill Irwin) from Interstellar. © Warner Bros. Pictures.

Unquestionably, Interstellar is a visually stunning film, and there are nods to some classic science fiction films, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) certainly and also, to my mind at least, Alien (1979) in particular. Not in the story, but in the way Interstellar was filmed. These were films with huge visuals and Interstellar follows likewise.

The Nostromo moving into orbit around LV-426 in Alien (1979) © 20th Century Fox. Did you see a similar scene in Interstellar?

While Interstellar is a great film, it is by no means a perfect film. There are scenes where Nolan fails to capitalise on what could been some absolutely heart wrenching moments. If Nolan had done so Interstellar could have been lifted from a fantastic science fiction film, to simply a fantastic film. Perhaps one worthy of award contention. Nolan shouldn’t have pulled any emotional punches the way he didn’t with the science.

We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us. – Cooper. Interstellar (2014).

Of the few flaws in the film, one that will stick out with non U.S. audiences isn’t a flaw with the film itself, but rather with Hollywood in general. Hollywood has a rather narrow view of the world and this comes through in Interstellar. With the end of the world looming, apparently only the U.S. has the ability or drive to save it. No involvement of the ESA, FKA/RKA, ISRO, or CNSA. No international input at all. Narrow minded to be sure, but typical of a Hollywood film. Sigh.

In the end Interstellar is an intelligent and thoughtful film that assumes the viewers are smart enough to understand what is going on and what it has to say. It doesn’t spoon feed its ideas or its message, but neither does it patronise the audience. Interstellar is wonderful film that will, I think, unfortunately fail to grab the attention of the general film going audience.

Nolan has taken a wonderful risk with Interstellar and he succeeds far more greatly than he fails. I can only hope that this risk is rewarded so that we can look forward to a future where intelligent science fiction films are produced with far more frequency rather than as an experiment now and again.

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