Interstellar (2014) Director: Christopher Nolan
“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” -Dylan Thomas
Interstellar is another compelling yet highly complex epic, science-fiction film from Christopher Nolan. And once again he wrote the screenplay together with his brother, Jonathan Nolan, who spent significant time studying contemporary theoretical physics at Cal Tech, and the film was co-produced with Christopher Nolan’s wife Emma Thomas. It stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, and others. The scope of this film is utterly astounding as are the visual effects, score (Hans Zimmer), and perhaps most importantly, the theoretical science behind its immensely complex ideas.
Interstellar takes place in a dystopian future where food and the prospect of human livelihood on planet Earth for humans is grim (frequent dustbowl scenes were inspired by Ken Burns’ documentary on the American Dust Bowl as well as scenes of Clark Kent’s home in the Superman films). One former NASA astronaut named Joseph Cooper has become a corn farmer with his daughter Murphy “Murph” because the old days of space exploration are now considered wasteful (all the old textbooks from the age of exploration have been revised). However, one day Cooper begins to notice strange geometric patterns of dust in his home and that they represent a binary code for the geographic location of NASA. Murph thinks they are messages from “ghosts.” At the secret NASA location, Cooper learns of a wormhole that has opened near Saturn which leads to distant worlds which may be habitable for the human race, or to be precise, he learns of one system with three potentially habitable planets located near the pull of a blackhole aptly called “Gargantua.” He meets a NASA scientist named Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) who has conducted work on a theory to harness gravity to save the possibility for human life. His Plan A for the future of humanity was initially to send a group of 12 volunteers on a mission through the wormhole each to test a separate a habitable world, but only three fed back data to NASA of having reached potentially habitable planet. Now, Dr. Brand’s Plan B is to send 5,000 frozen embryos on a ship called the “Endurance” to one of these three (hopefully) habitable planets. Cooper is selected to pilot the Endurance, along with crew members Dr. Romilly (David Gyasi), Dr. Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Dr. Brand’s daughter, Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway). Before leaving, Cooper gives his daughter Murph his wristwatch in order to measure the relative time of his trip.
When the Endurance travels through the wormhole and finds the wreckage of the previous “Plan A” crew on an ocean planet, where time is dilated due to the proximity of the blackhole, they believe they have arrived only moments after the initial crew was killed (we hear a strange ticking noise on the surface of the planet at a distance of 1.25 seconds apart, with each being one full earth day that has passed). Brand disobeys the directive and begins searching the barely surviving ship which leads to a giant wave killing Doyle. When Brand and Cooper quickly return to the Endurance moments later, Romilly has aged considerably. The time dilation actually means they have been gone for 23 years.
Next, they power the Endurance onto the second potentially habitable planet, a frigid snowy planet where one of the previous volunteers Dr. Mann (surprisingly played by Matt Damon, whose role was hidden from the release since he often played heroic characters) is awakened from cryostasis but we learn he was traitorous. He sent falsified data back to NASA about the habitability of the planet in order to be rescued. When a scuffle ensues, both Romilly and Mann are killed, while Cooper and Brand narrowly make it back aboard the somewhat functional Endurance. Cooper regains control of the ship and since the ship’s fuel is severely limited, they use a slingshot maneuver to allow the Endurance to pass around the Gargantua onto the next planet, but the time dilation will add another 51 years. However, in order to shed weight off the ship Cooper decides to eject himself along with the ship’s robot TARS in order to give Brand the speed necessary to arrive at the third planet. In doing so, Cooper passes back through the event horizon and finds himself in a fifth dimension at the singularity which appears as an M.C. Escher-esque tesseract. Cooper sees layers and layers of his daughter’s bookcase in her childhood room and he realizes he was in fact the “ghost” sending her messages through the bookcase. He tries to send a message to his former self through Morse Code to “STAY” and not venture out into the lonely depths of space. The struggle to reach out and explore new worlds during the first half of the movie now becomes a desperate longing to return home in the second half of the movie. Now in the fifth dimension, he looks through the bookcases of his old house and transmits quantum data using Murph’s wristwatch, data TARS was able to collect inside the blackhole. Cooper is then shot out of the fifth dimension and he awakens on a space station named after his daughter located just outside Saturn. Humanity has been saved thanks to his quantum data provision, and Dr. Brand’s gravitational propulsion theory has been solved, thus allowing humanity to venture outward off earth. Cooper decides to visit his now elderly daughter at this space habitat. Nearing death and surrounded by her own family, they share one last moment together, but she tells Cooper to return to Amelia Brand and the Endurance at the third planet. The film ends with TARS and Cooper commandeering a ship in the hopes of meeting up with Brand on the (hopefully) habitable planet. The closing scene shows Brand walking freely and peacefully on the third planet beside a small human outpost.
In an age where scientific discovery for its own sake is being questioned, Interstellar reaffirms the importance for humanity to continue to inquire, to reach out, explore new worlds and find new ways of life amidst the vastness of space. It is optimistic about the future of science and human life. It deals with many themes addressed in its predecessor science fiction films like Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and even Star Trek; but unlike Star Trek Nolan introduces a greater degree of complexity: the notion of different time signatures due to relativity. Whereas Captain Kirk could beam down to different planets without problem, in Interstellar a few minutes on the surface of one planet can translate to months or even years off-surface. Contra other science-fiction films, the humans who survive in Interstellar are the compassionate, self-sacrificial, lovers of their fellow people. Indeed the strange beings we learn about in the film, perhaps future humans who opened the wormhole and also saved Cooper, are compassionate people, their ties to one another overcome the cold and unforgiving nature of space. In contrast to the cold, vast, emptiness of space there is still an inter-dimensional consistency of human love. Interstellar is a film about generations and humanity’s unique place in the cosmos.
Interstellar is a mind-bending, reality-jarring romp through space and time. While Nolan’s Inception explored the deep recesses of human psychology, Nolan’s Interstellar pushes the bounds of the human body into deep space and across time. 2001: A Space Odyssey plays a notable influence on the film. Interestingly, Interstellar was praised for its “scientific accuracy” by a slough of theoretical physicists especially Kip Thorne, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who played an important role in helping the film maintain a mostly authoritative sense of accuracy when pertaining to complex theoretical physics, relativity, and quantum mechanics. He later wrote a book about the science behind Interstellar. The absolutely incredible visual effects are deserving of the highest praise in Interstellar as well as Hans Zimmer’s inspiring, otherworldly score. Apparently, Nolan merely handed Zimmer a one-page rough script about a father leaving his family for work. From this Zimmer crafted a transcendent score using the organ at Temple Church in London. Somehow Christopher Nolan has managed to develop a winning formula by creating utterly complex thriller/epics that are successful at the box office as well as among critics alike.