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Entry updated 29 September 2020. Tagged: Film.

Film (2014). Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros, Legendary Pictures. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan. Cast includes Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Timothée Chalamet, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, Mackenzie Foy, David Gyasi, Anne Hathaway, Bill Irwin, Matthew McConaughey. 169 minutes. Colour.

There is some lip service here. The involvement as scientific advisor of Caltech academic and media figure Kip Thorne, a pioneer theorist in gravitation physics, generated a publicity claim that the Physics underpinning Interstellar would not transgress the limits of contemporary speculation on the nature of Time and Space and their governance by Gravity waves, a sobriety soon observed in the breach, after a manner familiar to readers of Hard SF, as hymnlike hints of Transcendence towards the end of the film, after the science has begun to fail to carry its own weight, substitute for a genuine Sense of Wonder; Thorne's own intrusive distinctions between real and Imaginary ScienceTime Travel and Wormholes are OK, while Faster Than Light travel is verboten – are grating. The film is also ostensibly optimistic about the road forward for Homo sapiens (given a little help from our descendants, who have mastered time travel), but this Hard-Sf-ish can-doism is subverted both by the timbre of the film as a whole and by the extremity of the planetary crises it depicts. Finally, perhaps due to its American provenance, distractive obeisances are paid to the nuclear family, and there even a reunion of sorts at the end, though in this case profoundly ironized. In the event, however, these various gestures create more noise than substance, and can be filtered out. At its heart, and despite a sophisticated gonzo score by Hans Zimmer which drowns out several scenes in sub specie aeternitatis epical uplift, Interstellar is a quiet film about the death of us.

In a Near Future America devastated by Climate Change, with nitrogen levels in the air approaching extinction level, ex-NASA pilot Cooper (McConaughey) struggles to maintain his increasingly dysfunctional high-tech farm as the climate deteriorates, Pollution intensifies, and feckless attempts at thought control on the part of a failing government result in his own career as an astronaut being treated as part of a hoax. His son Tom (here played by Chalamet) is a bright but ordinary teenager; his daughter Murph (here played by Foy) may well be a genius, and is haunted by what seems to be a Poltergeist who uses gravitational waves (see Gravity) to create binary instructions in the High Plains dust. Once deciphered these guide her and her father to a secret surviving NASA base where Professor John Brand (Caine) tells Cooper that unknown benefactors – perhaps an Alien civilization – have opened a Wormhole near Saturn leading through Hyperspace to a massive Black Hole called Gargantua, so enormous that only another galaxy, to which the expedition is bound, can contain it – a gargantuism (see Great and Small) which partially exempts Interstellar from a habit typical of Hollywood sf movies of referring to galaxies when almost certainly constellations or even solar systems are meant. Several potentially inhabitable planets orbit Gargantua, to which an expedition had already been sent a decade earlier, inspired by the charismatic Dr Mann (Damon), who now awaits reinforcements on the planet of his choice. Brand recruits Cooper, with his archaic skills as a space pilot (echoes here of Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys are surely deliberate) to head the required follow-up mission in spaceship Endurance. Cooper cannot refuse, even though he understands that due to time dilation (see Relativity) his children will age more rapidly than he. Murph, who understands everything fully and deeply, and who is profoundly bound to her father, is savagely afflicted. It is a marker of the ultimate relentlessness of Interstellar that her pain is never smoothed over, or deemed curable.

The long voyage by Spaceship to Saturn – which the crew passes in Suspended Animation – is filmed soberly. The trip through the wormhole is spectacular, Interstellar being axiomatically evocative, here and elsewhere, of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey; this sequence shows the benefit of computer-augmented verisimilitude as mentored by Professor Thorne. In the crew is Brand's daughter, biotechnologist Amelia Brand (Hathaway), who strongly resembles the adult Murph (see below), a resemblance not noticed by Cooper (but clearly intended by Nolan). Once Endurance is in the grip of Gargantua, the film tips further into the darkness that shapes, in the end, its every moment. A seemingly necessary expedition to one of the possibly inhabited planets orbiting the dark hole causes unexpectedly intense time dilation, so that when Cooper and others return to the Endurance fully twenty-three years have passed back on Earth. Ravaged by the knowledge that he is losing his family, Cooper watches a video transmission from Murph (here played by Chastain), now in her mid-thirties, and now a scientist aiding and guiding Brand in his increasingly frustrated attempts to attain a breakthrough in gravitational physics that will allow Homo sapiens to leapfrog properly into interstellar space. Murph's awareness of the tragedy of her separation from her father is anguishedly conveyed, with rage and an incestuous intensity subliminally underlined for the viewer by the fact she wears one of her father's old jackets (and will always); Cooper himself is similarly affected.

On board Endurance, the decision is taken to go to the planet Dr Mann has been claiming, through transmissions, is livable. He is lying. There is a fight between him and Cooper, including action in space. He dies, almost soon enough. An AI Robot plunges into the black hole to gain necessary data about gravitational fields. Amelia Brand departs for the third planet (which will turn out to be inhabitable), while Cooper discovers – at this point we have left speculative science, as even Professor Thorne feels comfortable applying it, far beyond – that the universe is five-dimensional, with Time and (it seems) Gravity added to the normal three, that the "aliens" responsible for the wormhole are in fact our descendants who have voyaged backwards through time matrices to instal it, and that he, Cooper, is the Poltergeist who gave his daughter directions all those years ago, having traveled back to the home farm through tesseract-like matrices of Time to do so; simultaneously (as it were), he conveys to the adult Murph – at some point after her video message – essential data about the nature of the universe supplied by the robot.

All is well, in a sense. The actual Cooper gets back to our solar system, docking in a vast Space Habitat near Saturn, where he finds Murph (here played by Burstyn) hugely old, and dying. Earth has been abandoned, though Baseball survives within the great habitat, which has been named Cooper after Murph, not her father. Cooper and Murph and younger members of the family enjoy an emotional reunion. Amelia Brand is then seen on the new planet in the other galaxy smiling at an array of quonset huts: though the home planet is a goner, Homo sapiens, armoured with new knowledge, will survive elsewhere. Cooper and the robot leave in search of the daughter-like Amelia.

Every technical aspect of Interstellar, whimsically based or not, is richly and minutely conceived and filmed. The uplift sentiments about human survival do not divert the eye from the central tragedy – our enforced abandonment of the home planet we have destroyed – which is conveyed to us sotto voce but with absolute clarity. The querulously unctuous family scenes do anything but veil an incestuous subtext which pre-echoes and amplifies the sense of impoverished claustrophobia conveyed by the closing minutes of the film: Homo sapiens are now waif biota, restricted to one space habitat and one planet trillions of miles distant which may be ready for the plow and the sickle; or may not. The ironies are unspoken, but seem clear enough: we will continue to cost the universe more than we give. It seems highly likely that the Nolan brothers intended their accomplishment in Interstellar: that in this exemplary attempt to adjust the conventions of sf cinema to twenty-first century conditions, they had with hypnotic intensity and great skill created an oxygen-hungry flare against the vacuum to come. [JC]


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