Monday, December 8, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: Interstellar

Interstellar was written by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, and directed by Christopher Nolan.

I was very much looking forward to this film, as the trailer promised a compelling hard sci-fi story, rather than the typical explosion-packed science fantasies that litter the cineplex these days. Something along the lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact. It delivers on that promise for the most part until the third act, when unfortunately it becomes bogged down with new age mumbo jumbo and outright magic to resolve the plot. Just like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact, now that I think about it.

Like most of Nolan's work, the plot is convoluted and sometimes vague, demanding multiple viewings to sort it all out. He reminds me of British pop band Duran Duran. Way back in the 1980s, they pumped out a series of baffling music videos that made little sense at first glance. When asked about the meaning of them, the band said they purposely made them enigmatic to encourage viewers to watch them over and over. I'm convinced Nolan does the exact same thing in his films (I'm lookin' at you, The Prestige and Inception). Sometimes I wonder if even he can unravel his tangled plots.

I'm generally terrible at solving mysteries and foreseeing plot twists in books and movies. Not so in Interstellar. Half an hour into it I correctly predicted every upcoming twist. You could see them all coming down the street from blocks away, like a parade. In fact I even called the "Cooper stays young while his daughter Murphy ages back on Earth" reveal just from seeing the trailer.


The Plot:
Sometime in the near future, humanity is slowly dying as a crop blight wipes out the world's food supply. Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot turned farmer who apparently can't afford a first name. He's raising his teenaged son Tom and ten year old daughter Murphy. Murphy believes there's a ghost in her room that's trying to communicate with her, in what is possibly the most obvious bit of foreshadowing I've ever seen.

Using gravity and Morse code (don't ask), the "ghost" sends a series of coordinates to Cooper and Murphy, which they follow to a secret NASA base headed by Professor Brand (Michael Caine, who's apparently contractually obligated to appear in all Christopher Nolan films). 

Brand has discovered an artificial wormhole near Saturn that opens into a distant galaxy. Ten years ago his team sent several explorers on one-way trips through the wormhole, and they've identified three potentially habitable worlds on the other side. Brand wants to send a larger crew through the wormhole to discover which planet is the best choice, so the rest of humanity can follow shortly after in a giant space ark. Yep, a space ark. 

Cooper's chosen to pilot this exploratory ship, but he's reluctant to leave his children, knowing he'll be gone for years, possibly even decades. He eventually decides that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and agrees to go.

Cooper and a team of astronauts, including Dr. Brand's daughter Amelia (played by Anne Hathaway) fly through the wormhole and investigate a planet orbiting an enormous black hole they name Gargantua. The planet turns out to be uninhabitable, due to its charming thousand foot tidal waves. Because of science, when they get back to the ship they find that although just three hours passed for them, over twenty years have passed on Earth. Murphy is now a grown woman working with Professor Brand.

They try another planet and meet Matt Damon, but his planet's no good and he's crazy. He damages their ship and Cooper sends Amelia to the third planet, while he's captured by the massive gravity of Gargantua and falls into the black hole.

Because of science again, he's not crushed by the hole's immense gravitational forces, and finds himself floating in some kind of weird Inception-style tesseract world. He figures out that inside this world he can see into the past, and— you guessed it— he begins communicating with ten year old Murphy. Yep, he was the "ghost" in the room all along, in a plot twist that I'm betting Nolan thought would blow the audiences' collective mind, but which everyone figured out in the first ten minutes of the 169 minute run time.

Apparently pretty much everything in the film has been orchestrated by advanced humans in the far future, who've discovered how to manipulate time and gravity and everything else to make sure the species survives.

Cooper somehow uses Morse code to communicate the equation that will allow humanity to launch its giant space ark. Amazingly he then wakes up on the ark station near Saturn and sees that Murphy is now an old woman on her death bed. He says "Sorry about that whole missing your entire life thing," and goes off into space to find Amelia.

• I'm suspicious of some of the science presented in the film, but Nolan worked closely with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who insisted on as much accuracy as possible. Since he probably knows more about science than I do, I'll have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Thorne was also a scientific consultant on 1997's Contact.

• Kudos to Nolan for setting the film in an unspecified future year. One of my pet peeves is when a sci-fi film features incredibly advanced technology, but is set only fifteen or twenty years from now, which instantly dates it.

Keep the year of your futuristic film vague, directors.

• When Cooper's driving his kids to school, he spots an unmanned drone flying through the sky and takes off after it. He drives off the road and through his own fields in pursuit of the errant drone, completely destroying tens of thousands of corn stalks.

First of all, he covets this thing so badly because he says its solar cells could power an entire farm. That seems unlikely, as we see there are about four feet of solar cells on each of the drone's wings. Doesn't seem like they'd be able to generate all that much power. Are solar cells in the future exponentially more powerful than the ones we have today?

Secondly, this is a world on the brink of starvation. We're told that corn is one of the few crops that will still grow. So it only makes sense that Cooper would flatten several acres of this precious commodity just so he can get his hands on the drone. "Sorry we won't have enough to eat for the winter, kids, but hey, look at this bitchin' drone I found!"

• Tom teases Murphy about her name, and she tearfully asks Cooper why he named her after something bad ("Murphy's Law"). Cooper tells her that Murphy's Law doesn't mean that something bad will happen, but that "whatever can happen, will happen."

NOPE! Sorry Cooper, but you're full of crap. The official definition of Murphy's Law is indeed "anything that can go wrong will go wrong."

It's possible that Cooper knows this and he's just trying to make Murphy feel better, so I'm willing to give them this one.

• Professor Brand's headquarters also doubles as a giant space ark that will save humanity, provided he can solve the "gravity problem." He plans to load the ark with people and lift it up into space, abandoning our dying planet.

Oddly enough this ark looks more like the interior of a mall instead of a space ship, complete with giant concrete support columns. Do they really make space ships out of cement? I'm guessing no. No they do not.

• This space ark is a massive undertaking and no doubt requires a vast amount of manpower, resources and energy. 

Early in the film Cooper mentions that if they still had MRI machines, his wife's illness would have been diagnosed sooner and she'd still be alive. From his statement it's obvious that technology and resources are stretched thin. So how in the name of sanity would a society on the brink of starvation be able to engineer and construct such a station? It would be like the Irish putting a man on the moon during the Great Potato Famine.

• The Endurance spaceship consists of twelve modules on a ring, and looks a lot like a clock. I wonder if that was intentional, given the importance of time in the story?

• Kudos to Nolan for insisting on using practical special effects and as little CGI as possible. All the scenes of the Endurance and the Ranger spacecraft were filmed with models, which is pretty rare these days.

• I really liked TARS and CASE, the robots in the film. Their design was very simple— they're basically just four black rectangles stuck together— but they were amazingly emotive.

For most of the scenes the robots were large puppets manipulated by the voice actors, who were digitally removed from the scenes in post.

• Once the Endurance has lifted off from Earth, the crew beds down in their cryosleep chambers in order to doze away the two years it'll take to reach the wormhole next to Saturn.

Two years? Hmm. If you traveled at the speed of light you could get from the Earth to Saturn in about 75 minutes. The Endurance must be going very, very slowly.

• Once they go through the wormhole, the Endurance crew decides that Miller's Planet is their best shot, because they've been receiving telemetry "pings" from it for years. When they get there, they discover that due to the time dilation effect, the first exploratory ship was torn apart by massive waves just a few hours ago. The "years" of transmissions were actually just a few minutes' worth of data. 

Wait a minute... OK, this is complicated, so bear with me. I get all the relativity stuff, and how an hour on Miller's Planet equals seven years to the rest of the universe. But Professor Brand said that because communication through the wormhole is problematic, each explorer was to send out a thumbs up or thumbs down signal from their respective planet once a year. Apparently they've been receiving an annual ping from Miller's for the past ten years.

I can't figure out how that's possible. First of all I don't see why Miller would send out a thumbs up in the first place— her planet was ravaged every few minutes by thousand foot tidal waves. But even if she did send out one the instant she landed... she didn't live there for a year. She died an hour or so after landing. So how was NASA receiving pings from her for the past ten years?

Did they receive her one and only ping, and the black hole distorted it so it was one ten year long ppppiiinnnggg?

Maybe I'm missing something or I'm not as smart as I like to think, but it seems like a pretty serious error on the part of the crew. Not to mention the screenwriters.

• When the giant wave hits the Ranger on Miller's Planet, one of the Endurance scientists (Doyle) is washed away. His death was very poorly filmed. In fact I wasn't even sure he'd died for a good five minutes or so after the wave hit.

• Professor Brand says the initial expeditions can only send rudimentary data (amounting to the aforementioned annual "ping") through the wormhole. Yet Cooper receives several videos of reasonably high resolution from his rapidly aging kids back on Earth. Do transmissions through the wormhole only work one way?

• As stated before, Professor Brand is feverishly trying to solve the gravity equation so that if and when Endurance finds a suitable planet, the population of Earth can colonize it.

Does it seem odd that the survival of the entire human race is dependent on one old man? Every time we see him he's sitting alone in his office staring at his scribblings on the blackboard. All it would take is one slip in the shower and humanity is doomed.

Sure, later on Murphy begins helping him, but why isn't there a huge team of scientists and mathematicians helping him solve his equation?

• Murphy comes off as a very schizophrenic character in the film. When Cooper tells her he's going on the mission, she angrily snubs him, which is what a real ten year old girl would most likely do. 

The next time we see her she's in her thirties, and she sends a withering message to Cooper (her first ever). Believe it or not, she still resents her father for leaving her. You know, her father, the guy who had the gall to leave her in order to save the whole goddamned human race. Child Murph could get away with acting like that, but it makes Adult Murph look like a bit of an asshole.

After Asshole Murph sends the message to Cooper, we see that she's now working for Professor Brand, helping him solve his gravity equation. This is Noble Murph, and she's incredibly chummy with Brand, possibly even seeing him as the father she never had. It's obvious from these scenes that the movie now expects us to unconditionally like her. Nice try, movie.

Later when Professor Brand dies, she finds out his work was all a sham, and turns into Asshole Murph again. Then she figures out the messages that Cooper sent to her in the past, and suddenly she's Noble Murph again. 

It's almost like there are two versions of her, each coming to the forefront depending on the whims of the script.

• Play the Intersellar Drinking Game! Take a shot every time Professor Brand says, "Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light!"

You'll be dead of alcohol poisoning somewhere around the hour and a half mark.

• After the disastrous Miller expedition, the crew decides to visit Mann's Planet. They touch down on the icy world and find Dr. Mann is alive and well and in cyrostasis. They thaw him out and lo and behold, he's played by Matt Damon!

Kudos to the production team for keeping Damon's presence in the film a secret. He's not in the trailer or any of the promotional materials, and I was honestly surprised when he showed up. In these days of the internet and spoiler sites, keeping such a secret is a minor miracle.

• When Dr. Mann is brought out of stasis, why is his fluid-filled cryo-chamber steaming? Isn't it supposed to freeze him? Or does it instantly switch from cold to hot when you push the "thaw" button?

• I could have done without all the new age bushwah at the end of the film. Ameila posits that "love" is a quantifiable force like gravity, that transcends time and dimension. Um, no. Love is an internal emotion and nothing more. Is she trying to make us believe love would still exist even if there were no people to experience it?

I'm betting Kip Thorne didn't come up with that particular bit of "science."

• I was with the movie right up to the point in which Cooper falls into the black hole and then finds himself in a weird Escher universe in which he can communicate with Murphy in the past. At that point all the hard science flew right out the window, to be replaced by outright magic pulled straight out of Christopher Nolan's ass.

• It turns out that Cooper was the "ghost" that communicated with Murphy in the past, knocking books off her shelf in binary patterns and signaling her with a watch, whose second hand tapped out Morse code.

We're told that super-evolved humans from the far future constructed this artificial universe for Cooper, for the express purpose of allowing him to communicate with his daughter in the past and save the human race.

If the super humans have that much power, why not just give Cooper a microphone or something so he can tell Murph exactly what to do? Why screw around with binary and Morse code? What if she wasn't able to figure out such a convoluted message? Why risk the future of the race on such a long shot?

• Near the end of the film Cooper wakes up inside Cooper's station, named after his daughter. It appears to be an O'Neil cylinder, which is a real thing. Well, not a real thing, but a real idea for a space colony. Basically it's a large hollow tube with living space on the inner surface. The cylinder spins to simulate gravity.

As Cooper walks around inside the station, he sees lush green foliage and vegetation. That's odd. I thought the Blight had destroyed every crop on Earth except for corn. Moving off Earth wouldn't end the Blight if the seeds were already infected. I guess NASA must have squirreled away some un-Blighted seeds for safe keeping?

• Just as I predicted the first time I saw the trailer, at the end Cooper is finally reunited with Murph, who's now over a hundred years old.

Old Murph is played by Ellen Burstyn. Apologies to Ms. Burstyn, but I was honestly shocked when I saw how old she is now. I didn't realize she's 82! Seems like just yesterday I saw her in The Exorcist.

• Right before the credits roll, Cooper and a repaired TARS steal a Ranger spaceship and fly off to rescue Amelia. 

Are there cryo units in those little Rangers? I hope so, because if not, Cooper's going to be sitting in his little chair for two years while they make their way to the Saturn wormhole. His butt's going to be more tired than mine was at the end of this overlong film.

A typical convoluted Christopher Nolan tale, Interstellar starts out as a well made hard sci-fi story before degenerating into outright magic in the third act. I give it a B-.

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