Interstellar (2014)


Recommended, but with caveats.

Let’s get the science stuff out of the way first. I’m not going to quibble about the science in this film at all. Not a bit.

Even if this film represents a new era of scientific realism in blockbuster filmmaking, I do not enter ANY SF film with an expectation of total fidelity to the laws of physics.  I expect a good story and I’m cool with suspension of disbelief within the boundaries of the world that is presented.  If the science and the storytelling are both good, then I’m satisfied. If the science is weak, but it tells a good story and the liberties taken make sense within the story, I’m equally satisfied.

If you want hard science, then read a science book or watch Cosmos. If you’re someone who simply can’t enjoy a SF film which doesn’t adhere fastidiously to the laws of physics, you should probably skip this film. Seriously. Don’t bother.

That being said, this is the cinematic equivalent of literary Hard SF. All of the fanfare is warranted because there is plenty of real (and speculative) science! The film touches on relativity and the accompanying time dilation effect, wormholes, black holes, and the possibility of higher dimensions of spacetime. All of the heady shit that makes cosmology, astrophysics, and quantum mechanics so mind blowing makes it into this movie and is dealt with very convincingly.

Among other things, the characters travel through a wormhole, land on a planet near with extreme gravitational tides, and journey through a black hole which passes into higher dimensions of spacetime. All of it is way cool, beautifully rendered and gives you plenty of mind candy to ponder with or without bong hits. I haven’t a single issue with any of these aspects of the film.

My beefs lie elsewhere.

I have two essential gripes with the film. It is presenting a tortured confluence of collectivism and individualism and its economics require a far greater leap of imagination than any of its wildest scientific speculations.

First and foremost, it is trying to have it both ways with respect to its view of humanity’s redemption of itself.  It is presenting a near future dystopia where environmental devastation has decimated the food supply. This shortage precipitates a genuine need to seek alternatives, but the film sends a conflicting message about how we achieve salvation.

The government has imposed mandates through the public schools which require that the majority of the population enter into agriculture in order to meet the global demand for food. History books are being rewritten to exclude space flight because humanity simply cannot afford such extravagance.

So far, so good.  Collectivism run amok.

The hero of the film, Matthew McConaughey, is a former pilot and engineer and teaches his kids to be independent thinkers. Acquire self knowledge, appreciate the scientific method and be self-sufficient individuals. He’s the kind of father who insists that they know how to change a car tire, but has a healthy enough irreverence for government property that he would remotely down a drone and dismantle it for parts.

A cast of independent minded protagonists are being established as be a countervailing force against encroaching mindless authoritarianism.

Again, so far, so good.

Where the film starts to go off the rails is through some mysterious observations made by Cooper’s daughter. They discover NASA hard at work engineering humanity’s interstellar salvation.

The government has imposed dystopian mandates around employment, the food supply and education, yet they are still funneling billions of dollars into NASA programs which are completely secret. Also, this band of enlightened government scientists aren’t militarized, experience no budget overruns or shortfalls, are rational and pleasant people, and are quietly working on spacecraft which can traverse interstellar distances completely beyond the view of the press and the public.

AND the lead scientist played by Michael Caine serves as a mentor to Murphy so that she may fulfill her intellectual potential and solve the mysteries of spacetime.

So our intrepid, individualistic, free thinking heroes are able to fulfill their purposes and buck the system by…wait for it…working for the government!

Alrighty then!

Furthermore, for all of Nolan’s scientific detail, the film’s economics are about on par with Star Trek.  Wildly speculative to put it mildly. The film presents not just one, but multiple manned flights through a wormhole which is located near Saturn! This is not a cheap endeavor nor is it one with an economic payoff on the other side.

There are, of course, the requisite collectivist sentiments which surround it. “Then get out there and save them. We must reach far beyond our own lifespans. We must think not as individuals but as a species. We must confront the reality of interstellar travel,” says Dr. Brand.

This is a classical collectivist sentiment. The only difference being that it’s being applied as a rationale for going into space in order to achieve humanity’s presumed salvation. The film ultimately reconciles this and its wilder scientific speculations by positing that love is the unifying force which transcends the barriers of knowledge and science.  Sounds a little like faith, people!

Don’t get me wrong. None of this destroys the film nor does it diminish my enthusiasm for the idea of interstellar travel. Christopher Nolan works very hard at credible world building and the film never fails to engage.

The visual, musical and thematic allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey are myriad and the comparison is fully warranted.  The two films are companions through and through and Interstellar is arguably an update of the ideas which 2001 introduced.

Spoiler alert.  The film’s big visual payoff is neither the passage through the wormhole or the black hole. It’s a visual representation of a tesseract, and it’s pretty bitchen.

Do it.


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