Movie Review: Interstellar

November 27th, 2014

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This month I went out of my way to watch Interstellar three times (yes, I liked it that much)! There’s so much going on in this three-hour movie that it warranted several viewings to grasp its significance. In this post, I will go over the movie’s plot in enough detail to recap the main events of the story. After that, I will share my thoughts on this modern Noah’s ark tale.

Summary

*** Spoiler alert: this is a fairly descriptive account of the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I strongly recommend you watch it before proceeding! ***

Interstellar (directed by Christopher Nolan) is a story that takes place several generations into the future. At this time, Earth is ravaged by crop-destroying blight, dust storms, and drought. Cooper, the protagonist, was once an astronaut but is now a farmer making ends meet for his family and reminiscing about a bygone era.

As part of the “caretaker” generation, Cooper resents the post-innovation culture and longs to venture out beyond the confines of Earth. When his ten-year-old daughter, Murph, serendipitously discovers longitude-latitude coordinates from eerie gravitational interferences in her bedroom, they both travel to the location given by the coordinates. What they discover changes everything.

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Cooper and Murph happen upon a secret NASA facility in the middle of nowhere. Cooper reunites with an old physics professor, Dr. Brand, and meets his daughter, Amelia Brand.

From Professor Brand, Cooper learns that the future for humankind is dismal. By his projections, Murph’s generation would be the last to survive on Earth; either the last to starve or the first to suffocate. For that reason, NASA is secretly funding a space exploration program called the Lazarus Missions to search for a new home for humankind.

Cooper learns that a wormhole had mysteriously appeared thirty years ago near Saturn. This wormhole leads directly to a distant solar system with seemingly habitable planets. Ten years ago, astronauts were sent through the wormhole to individually inspect these new planets.

As Cooper takes this all in, Professor Brand asks him to pilot the “wakeup” mission. In this mission, Cooper and his team would visit the new planets and awaken the astronauts from their hibernation and to analyze each prospective new Earth.

Cooper agrees to lead the mission and has a difficult parting with his daughter, realizing that he may not return for decades. As difficult as it was to part with his children and miss out on many years with them, he realized it was the best chance he had of saving them and the future of humankind.

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Cooper and his team set out on a dangerous and mind-bending adventure as they travel through the wormhole and experience firsthand the effects of relativity. Due to the intensity of the gravitational pull, time passes more slowly for those near it. For Cooper and Amelia, several decades disappear in the span of a few hours when they search for a deceased astronaut on the planet closest to the black hole, Gargantua.

With one crew member named Doyle is killed by the massive tidal waves, Cooper and Amelia return to the main ship empty-handed. While they were away for what seemed like only a few hours, several years of messages from Earth reached the main ship, dubbed The Endurance. The one crew member that stayed behind (Romily) had visibly aged. They look back at stored interstellar communications from family back home. Cooper learns that his son, Tom, has grown up and started a family of his own and was still living in in their old farm house. Cooper also learns that Murph is now the same age as he was when he left Earth.

With only enough resources left to visit one more planet, Cooper has to choose carefully. Amelia insists that they go to the planet where her long-lost lover resides. For a moment, she sets aside her scientific mindset to suggests that, perhaps, love is a powerful thing worth abiding to. In that moment of vulnerability, Cooper shuts her down, saying that she could be wrong. Angrily she walks out of the room. In the next room she checks on the frozen embryos. She gets back at Cooper by suggesting that he would choose saving his own children over leaving them behind to start a new population. “I trust you’ll be just as subjective,” she quipped.

Due to the mysterious nature of the wormhole, the crew can only receive messages through the wormhole; they can’t send any messages back to Earth. This lapse in communication causes a rift between Cooper and his children. They think that he’s never coming back and that he isn’t even receiving their messages. Cooper helplessly stares into the screen, perhaps regretting his decision to leave them, realizing that he may never reunite with them.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, an adult Murph and an elderly Professor Brand work together to solve the enigma of interstellar communications. Murph notices that Professor Brand’s equation is nonsensical as it tries to prove itself through many iterations. She carries on, determinedly trying to solve the enigma.

On his death bed, Professor Brand confesses to Murph that he had lied about her father coming back and that the real plan of the Lazarus Missions was to start a new colony on another planet. Meanwhile, the people left on Earth would be left to perish. Mistakenly, Murph thinks that Cooper and the rest of his crew knew about Professor Brand’s real intention with the Lazarus missions.

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When the crew receives Murph’s message about Professor Brand’s passing and the lie that he told, everyone is surprised except for Dr. Mann, a key proponent of the Lazarus missions. In a calm manner, Dr. Mann justifies Professor Brand’s intentions, arguing that human beings are too selfish to look out for anyone but those closest to them. By his rationale, the the people on Earth would not be able to work together to save themselves. Therefore, he reasoned that it was futile to try to save them. Dr. Mann also admits that Professor Brand had, for the most part, solved his equation years ago. All that was missing to make it functional was quantum data about the inner state of the black hole.

Dr. Mann gives Cooper a tour of his planet. As they walk along the barren and icy landscape, Dr. Mann philosophizes on why robots weren’t sent in place of humans to accomplish the Lazarus missions. He suggested that robots would be less driven than humans since robots lack a survival instinct. Dr. Mann relates this to the fact that Cooper is a parent, and as a parent, Cooper would be even more driven to succeed because his survival instinct extends to include the survival of his children.

Suddenly, Dr. Mann rips out Cooper’s intercom device and pushes him down a cliff, attempting to kill him. In an instant, Cooper learns that Dr. Mann is corrupt with a desire to save only himself at the expense of Cooper and his crew. He reveals his true intention: to make a name for himself as the savior of humanity. It was all an egotistical ploy.

When Cooper calls Dr. Mann a coward, Dr. Mann agrees and proceeds to punch the living daylights out of Cooper. Their conflict erupts into a rather childish-looking fist fight. As Dr. Mann bashes him in the face, Cooper’s helmet cracks. As a result, he nearly suffocates from the methane-rich air outside. Just in the nick of time, Amelia saves him. Meanwhile, another crew member named Romily dies in an explosion while trying to repair a rigged robot.

Before Cooper and Amelia realize it, Dr. Mann is about to hijack the main ship. Before he can seal the airlock to get onto the ship, the faulty seal causes an explosion, killing Dr. Mann and nearly kill everyone else. Fortunately, the protagonists reach the ship in one piece. After they gain control of the main ship, they decide to head into the wormhole on their way home, hoping to catch a glimpse at the mystery within Gargantua. Cooper ventures alone into the event horizon. Then things get trippy.

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Through the cinematic effects of audio distortion and eerie sparks, it’s evident that Cooper has entered a space beyond three-dimensions. As he hurtles through space, he falls into a seemingly infinite grid that resembles the space behind Murph’s bookshelf. Through gaps in the bookshelf, Cooper sees a ten-year old Murph looking inquisitively at the bookshelf. By tapping on the bookshelf, Cooper is able to send her messages in Morse code. When he watches the scenario of his departure replay, Cooper desperately taps out the message “STAY,” urging his former self to stay behind, knowing now that he will probably never see his children again.

Suddenly, Cooper is able to communicate with the robot, TARS, through the spacesuit intercom. TARS says, “They didn’t send us here to change the past.” Cooper realizes the significance of that statement and concludes that he had brought himself to that place in order to save the world. In his epiphany, Cooper asks TARS to relay the data needed to solve the equation back on Earth, encoding that data as Morse signals and placing that sequence as an infinite loop inside the watch he had given Murph.

Simultaneously, an adult Murph places the watch on the bookshelf back on Earth. Somehow, she knows that the “ghost” in her bookshelf is her father trying to communicate with her from another dimension. She recognizes the movements of the second hand of the watch as a message from beyond.

Excitedly, Murph decodes the message and uses it to solve the equation needed for two-way interstellar communication. After the communication gap is bridged, the eerie bookshelf dimension dissolves and Cooper is ejected from the wormhole. A spaceship finds him unconscious near Saturn. He awakens in a hospital room in a space station named after his daughter. In spite of several more decades passing while he was in the heart of Gargantua, Cooper is thrilled to know that Murph is still alive and on her way to see him.

The movie concludes with a father-daughter reunion with an elderly Murph and a barely-aged Cooper. She appears to be on her deathbed, surrounded by family, including children of her own. Murph smiles as she holds up her hand. She wears the same wrist watch Cooper gave her before he left on the mission; the watch that allowed them to communicate across space and time, and ultimately, to save the human race.

My Thoughts

Overall, I thought Interstellar was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. The dialogue was laced with profound ideas, the actors were convincing, the plot was interesting, the science was plausible, the graphics were state-of-the-art, and the music intensified the emotion of the film. I was surprised by how emotionally moving this film was. In addition to being an epic tale about saving the future of humankind and exploring new horizons, it was also the heart-wrenching story about about family; most notably, the bond between a father and daughter.

Similarities to 2001: A Space Odyssey

In many ways, it’s similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey in its realism and mind-bending moments. Unlike many popular space films, 2001 and Interstellar realistically convey the vastness of space, the costs of space travel, and most obviously, the fact that there’s no sound in a vacuum! Unlike 2001, however, the robots in Interstellar have human-like personalities and behave in a prosocial manner. In 2001, HAL 9000 had an eerie lack of emotion in his voice. He also betrayed the humans aboard the ship by trying to kill them. TARS and CASE, on the other hand, demonstrated a sense of humor and goodwill towards the humans they were designed to serve. Besides having a faceless and squared appearance, the robots TARS and CASE were nearly indistinguishable from the humans in the film. I wondered if it was a coincidence that the robots had a similar appearance to the monolith (that mysterious black box) in 2001.

Theoretical Wormhole Travel

My favorite scene in Interstellar was the part when Cooper and his team approach and enter the wormhole. Romily did an excellent job explaining wormholes and three-dimensional space-time to a layperson audience, with just a pencil and paper! Seeing the three-dimensional window into another galaxy after that explanation took my breath away. The sphere of light and darkness was stunningly beautiful, and I gripped the armrests of my seat as the ship teetered on the edge of falling into it.

We circled the sphere, closer and closer, until – bam – the whole theater rumbled violently as we entered the wormhole. Sirens beeped as the ship hurtled through the rift in space-time. Romily commented that they were now in a place beyond three dimensions and that all they could do was record and observe. If I were there, I would have been recording the shit out of that ride! Sadly, such an experience is highly improbable and very dangerous.

Love: The Grand Unifying Theory?

At key moments throughout the film, love appears to be the driving force of, not only the plot, but of the universe itself. Love seems to be the reason for the emergence of the wormhole; a gift that seems to appear from benevolent beings looking out for the welfare of humans. Love seems to draw Amelia to the most viable planet to inhabit and away from the one full of bleakness and crazed despair. Love seems to be the immutable thread keeping Cooper and Murph connected between all those years and across billions of miles. Love seems to etch itself as Morse code from father and daughter across space and time in a little girl’s bookshelf.

Although this all really sounds nice and I wish it were so, I strongly doubt that the universe works so neatly in our favor. Things happen for reasons, certainly, but I doubt its always intentional. Like Stanley Kubrick, director of 2001: A Space Odyssey, once said, “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent.” His full quote beautifully captures the sort of hope I live by as a non-religious (but highly romantic) person:

“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

In light of the film, Interstellar, love may be the most worthy thing to live and die for. Perhaps its love that inspires the very best in us. Perhaps it’s our highest motivation in art, science, and adventure. To make a positive contribution and to be a part of something bigger than ourselves seems to the underlying motivation for the protagonists, and even the disillusioned villains, in this film.

Lingering Questions

  • Who are the notorious “they” (the five-dimensional beings who apparently set up the wormhole for the benefit of humanity)? Are they human beings and/or artificial intelligence from the future? Are they aliens? Are they even conscious beings at all?

  • Whoever “they” are, why would they want to save humankind? If “they” have no relation to humans, why would they be interested in prolonging human survival?

  • How exactly did Cooper encode the watch with “quantum data” by tapping on the simulated bookshelf? If Cooper had the ability to exert a force across that weird interface using his hands, how did he manage to control the delicate movements of the watch hand without knocking the watch off the bookshelf the way he pushed out books? How was he able to direct the force so precisely?

  • Where did TARS get the “quantum data” from? Could TARS be privy to what the five-dimensional “they” were up to? What is the real significance of this data? What did it quantify, exactly?

  • How did Cooper get the watch to repeat the Morse code sequence as an infinite loop in the watch? Could the watch be construed as a perpetual energy machine of sorts?

  • Dr. Mann gave a rather unscientific excuse for why the Lazarus missions required human beings to scout out new planets to inhabit instead of robots. He said that, unlike humans, robots lack a survival instinct and, therefore, wouldn’t be as effective at accomplishing the task at hand. Why would he say this given that the robots seemed more effective at piloting the spacecrafts and steadfastly carrying out commands than humans? Given that he had been in hibernation and isolation for so long, it makes sense that Dr. Mann might have gone a little insane. Therefore, his reasoning would be somewhat skewed by his fragile state. Was Dr. Mann a well-intentioned person who went crazy or did he harbor evil intentions to hijack the mission all along?

  • Instead of risking precious time, money, and human capital on an impractical mission to terraform planets in a distant galaxy (by sending human beings through a wormhole, no less), why not just terraform Mars? Better yet, why not engineer blight-resistant crops on Earth to ensure that people had adequate food and oxygen? In a world so ravaged by wastefulness and ecological instability, why would the government implore its citizens to turn away from the one thing that most consistently yields viable solutions: technology? After all, the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) are not just playthings for the elite; they build and sustain the systems we depend on for modern survival. I just can’t believe that future generations would be so cynical about science. Then again, it’s possible that anti-science ideologies could spread and, eventually, induce another Dark Age.


Categories: culturescience