My 2 Cents on Interstellar

What’s new, readers? Travis Scott recently teased “The Plan,” his theme song for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Obviously Nolan is a filmmaking genius, but it helps that he’s a marketing wizard too—casting Harry Styles in Dunkirk to draw in One Direction fans, dropping the Tenet trailer on Fortnite to catch the attention of gamers, and now his collaboration with Scott. The Internet is joking that Scott will rap backwabrds, which doesn’t sound too far-fetched to me. Let’s see, what else has transpired? Well, Ben Affleck and Michael Keaton will both return as Batman from parallel dimensions in The Flash movie, Olivia Wilde is hinting that she may direct a Spider-Woman movie, Steve Bannon was arrested over the money he funneled from his crooked “We Build The Wall” fundraiser, Trump is trying to obliterate our U.S. Postal Service while also boycotting Goodyear in retaliation for their banning employees from wearing MAGA and Blue Lives Matter attire in the workplace, and the MyPillow guy is pushing the deadly plant toxin oleandrin as a COVID cure (it’s precious watching Anderson Cooper take him down).

Okay then, that’s it for the news. Let’s start in on Interstellar, both the eighth film directed by Nolan and his third to have a title beginning with the “in-“ prefix. In spite of the divisive reception it received from audiences upon its release on November 7, 2014, I was optimistic ahead of my first viewing. It isn’t as though I expected it to reach Inception-level mastery, but I was hoping for a decent time at the very least. And you know what? I came out of this feeling quite enthusiastic. Grappling with matters of the cosmic and the personal, exploring the hopes and obsessions and morals that drive us as human beings, almost every beat of Interstellar throbs with some sort of emotion—exhilaration, suspense, poignance, grief, love. Yes, it suffers from some weak spots—exposition, for instance, is handled far less deftly than in Inception—but they didn’t detract much from my viewing experience.

Compared to other entries in Nolan’s filmography, the plot is relatively simple. In a dystopian future where blight has engulfed the Earth, Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), a widowed ex-pilot-turned-farmer, becomes enlisted by an underground NASA agency as the commander of an astronaut crew that will launch into space and travel through a wormhole close to Saturn—the objective being to survey three planets orbiting Gargantua, a supermassive black hole, and decide which of them are habitable enough for everyone on our dying Earth. However, this extraordinary undertaking isn’t Cooper’s only concern; he’s equally determined to go back home and reunite with his daughter and son.

It’s fitting that Nolan, after years of keeping his visionary tales grounded on our planet, reached for the stars (space pun!) to create such a hugely ambitious space epic. As should any good movie in this genre, it filled me with a sense of sheer discovery and awe at the astronomical scale (second space pun!) of the cosmos and our mortal existence in it. Adding another layer to Interstellar is the relationship between Cooper and his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy as a child, Jessica Chastain as an adult, Ellen Burstyn as an elderly woman). Similarly to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb in Inception and his goal of returning to his children, all Cooper really cares about throughout the enterprise is coming back home to Murph. That’s what Nolan excels at here—intertwining the concepts of something as colossal and exalted as a space mission to rescue humanity with the personal and delicate facets of an intrinsically affecting father-daughter relationship.

None of the science that Nolan employs here is wholly innovative—the theory of relativity, time dilation, wormholes, multiple dimensions. We’ve seen those tropes countless times before, and in fact, Nolan cited 2001: A Space Odyssey, Metropolis, Alien, and Blade Runner as his inspirations. But it’s the way he integrates those ingredients together to shape his final product that radiates originality. It’s compelling that Interstellar portrays a future that takes place against an anachronistic Dust Bowl backdrop, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the blight that’s forcing people to wear masks that protect them from dust and the pandemic we’re tackling in real life. I wonder what caused the blight in the first place—disease, overfarming, GMOs, climate change? There’s also little coverage for the subject of propaganda that gets introduced when Cooper learns his daughter is being taught at school that the Apollo missions were a hoax. Not that I needed the plot to encompass those ideas, but it’s nice to contemplate entire storylines founded on such subplots.

The quality of the production design shows through in the stunning visuals for the cosmos as Cooper’s team traverses it, especially when they’re combined with the thunderous sound effects, Hans Zimmer’s mesmerizingly haunting score, and the creative environments of the planets they explore. I was surprised by how much I ended up loving TARS (Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart), the astronauts’ robot companions. TARS in particular is the primary source of humor in an otherwise solemn film, which is notable when you consider that Nolan’s movies are generally wanting for mirth. His unconventional look, inspired by the obelisk in 2001, initially struck me as tacky, but the way it was utilized grew on me over time. TARS rolling into an asterisk to save fellow astronaut Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) from an incoming gigantic wave on the water planet is one of Interstellar’s most memorable beats.

McConaughey, Foy, Chastain, and Irwin stand out for their inspired performances. McConaughey in particular was perfectly cast, bringing out Cooper’s earnestness without burying his emotional beats in schmaltz. In general he’s an extremely charismatic star, and I hope he’ll be able to climb out of this current valley in his career someday. All he’s given a crap about the past few years is cashing in his chips with such offerings as The Dark Tower, Serenity, and The Beach Bum(speaking of Serenity, another movie where he costarred with Hathaway, I recommend you look up the synopsis, because it boasts one of the most bizarre movie twists ever. Not necessarily idiotic, like the twist at the end of Now You See Me, just plain bizarre). Hathaway is quite solid as Brand despite the mediocre material she has to work with. The rest of the cast—Michael Caine, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace (how the hell did Eric Forman pop up in a Nolan film?)—is satisfactory too, though their characters are essentially exposition machines. As I said before, expo is not Interstellar’s forte. People discuss, expound, and debate the quantum mechanics behind the space quest, but it can be a slog to follow without eye-catching visual cues—something that Inception, which spends the entirety of the first act setting up its world, benefitted from. Plus, I think Inception’s cast is more well-rounded and magnetic—Tom Hardy, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard—which allows me to forgive the one-note quality of their characters.

One more thing I need to talk about before diving into spoilers: Zimmer’s score. Eerie, existential, mournful, and beautiful, I’ve listened to the entire soundtrack numerous times since watching the movie. What makes it amazing is that Zimmer didn’t even get a screenplay or any plot details; all he had to base his score off of was a one-page story Nolan gave him of a dad leaving his daughter for work.

I’m raising the spoiler alarm from now on, because I need this space to go into deeper detail as to why I had such a positive experience with Interstellar—which, at the 87th Academy Awards, won for Best Visual Effects, and was nominated for Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading right now, go watch it, form your own opinions, and then come back here. If you have seen it, then read on.

Windup score: 94/100


All right, all right, all right, as our leading man might put it. First, let’s get into the cameo that comes up when the crew lands on the ice planet with the frozen clouds, the second of the three planets they’re charged with evaluating. There, they awaken Dr. Mann, who made camp on this world years earlier, from cryosleep. Frankly, I was astonished to see Jason Bourne rise from that tank. It’s funny, because my mom was constantly telling me, “Matt Damon is in this, when’s he gonna show up?” and I wrongly insisted, “Mom, I don’t know what you’re talking about, he’s nowhere in Interstellar.” This is another performance I enjoyed immensely, as Mann plays a vital role that adds more layers of intrigue to the story. When it’s revealed that Caine’s Professor John Brand misled Cooper’s crew about the true intention of their mission—instead of saving everyone on Earth, they’re supposed to abandon them and kick-start a fresh human colony on whichever planet they inhabit—Mann defends the doctor for his lies, even lauding him for the considerable sacrifices he made and the courage he summoned to realize goals greater than the astronauts themselves. Of course, Cooper and company aren’t yet aware that Mann is pulling off his own sham; desperate to escape his planet, he activated his beacon to lead the astronauts there, even though it’s unfit for humans, making the trip a complete waste of time. Like Insomnia’s Will Dormer and Inception’s Ariadne, there isn’t much subtlety in the meaning behind Mann’s name—someone who wrestled with failure, isolation, depression, and the prospect of death, who has committed ethical sacrifices and rationalized his deceit, and therefore embodies the fallibility of mankind. Enhancing the humanity of Interstellar is how the storyline, which has been juggling all these weighty questions and themes, builds up to a point where the future of our kind boils down to a physical brawl between Mann and Cooper, two men with clashing principles. While Mann appears to triumph at first, the selfish and reckless choices he continues to make as a victim of his own deep-seated despair prove to be his downfall when he unsuccessfully attempts a manual docking maneuver with the Endurance spacecraft. Admittedly, a part of me sympathizes with the bastard, even though he bashed in Cooper’s helmet, killed Gyasi’s Romily, and almost single-handedly screwed up the whole damn mission. The internal moral struggle that Damon conveys through his performance further strengthens his character.

Let’s move on to how ingeniously the screenplay applied the theory of relativity and time dilation. You get a taste of it when it’s explained that every hour the astronauts spend on Miller’s planet, due to how close it orbits Gargantua and the drastic slowing of time that results, equals seven years passing here on Earth. But you don’t fully appreciate how high the stakes have been raised until they depart the planet and find out a total of twenty-three Earth years have gone by. Then Cooper starts watching all those years’ worth of video messages sent by his son Tom, and within seconds our hero, imperturbable up to this point, is turning on the waterworks. The ramifications hits you harder when you see Tom progress from Timothée Chalamet as a kid to Affleck as an adult. He also has a baby, but then the baby dies. Oh yes, and then Chastain makes her first appearance in the film as Adult Murph. In a message she sent her dad, she tells him it’s her birthday and she’s the same age that he was when he left Earth. God, Nolan just yanks us so mercilessly into a scene where McConaughey practically spasms with helpless anguish the whole way through, and somehow none of it feels mawkish. The sincerity of these gripping emotional beats is testimony to the well-written screenplay and McConaughey’s enthralling performance.

I’ve commented a few times on how well Interstellar captures emotion. Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply to the monologue Amelia Brand gives when she tries to persuade her colleagues to steer the Endurance toward Edmunds’ planet. She goes on and on about the innate power of love and how it transcends all dimensions of our universe, including time and space. You can see her team pretty much rolling their eyes at her cornball speech, and that’s how the majority of us viewers feel as well. After giving the matter some thought, however, I’m actually ambivalent on it. On the one hand, it’s annoying that the whole point of her character is to represent this hippyish belief in cosmic love. On the other hand, it does gain narrative and thematic value in the third act, somewhat redeeming her monologue.

Speaking of which, let’s get into the climax—Cooper and TARS passing through Gargantua’s event horizon and ending up in a tesseract, a physics-bending space that TARS says was engineered by “them,” or multidimensional beings from the future. Cooper is able to peek through the bookcase of Murph’s room across various time periods. He realizes he’s his daughter’s “ghost,” the entity who manipulated the gravity in her room to form binary coordinates out of dust, which he himself then followed twenty-three Earth years ago to locate NASA. He even watches himself spend his last moments with Young Murph and give her his wristwatch before leaving for the expedition (and once again, he’s in Anguish Mode, howling for Murph to look at him). Wielding gravity to control the second hand of that watch, he sends Adult Murph a message in Morse code communicating the quantum data that TARS gathered inside Gargantua.
The ending had a major impact on the space flick’s contentious reception, and I understand why some people can’t get on board with it, why they see it as an absurd and illogical conclusion to a movie that Nolan backed up with hard science for the most part. Personally, it hit the spot for me, culminating in a cathartic explosion fueled by the enormous tides of emotion surging through the narrative. The way I see it, we need to circle back around to Brand’s love spiel, because that’s I believe what this cosmic library is built upon: the unshakeable love between a father and his daughter, made tangible by the multidimensional beings who seem to comprehend it in a far broader scope than us. What if love is much more than something that’s been commodified with flowers, jewelry, Valentine’s Day cards, and sappy romcoms? What if love actually exists as one of the strongest substances in the universe, a fundamental force that emanates as much might as gravity?

As Cooper confers with TARS in the extradimensional space, he then has an epiphany about the fact that he was being selfish when he ditched his daughter in search of adventure, thinking he was the focal point of this revolutionary enterprise. But he’s not. Instead he’s an instrument of the greater individuals who constructed his tesseract. Not only that, but the revelation that he is Murph’s ghost calls back to his remark about parents being the ghosts of their children’s past; he comes to realize that her future, not his, is all that matters, and he has a responsibility to do whatever is possible to help her under the circumstances.

No matter how you write a time-travel plot, people will always pick them apart and turn up plot holes. Back to the Future, Terminator, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Avengers: Endgame—they all have their issues. The time-loop trope—which has been used in Arrival and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, among other examples—is equally problematic and prolific. However, I think Nolan blasts you with such heart-wrenching magnitude that all you’re meant to care about in that moment is the family narrative rather than the mechanics behind Interstellar’s time loop. A couple other things I admire are the visuals of the tesseract collapsing on itself around Cooper and the reveal that he was the one who gave Brand the space-time handshake.

I’m going to close out the spoilers with the denouement, where Cooper comes to in a hospital at age 124 (time dilation—whoo, what a doozy) and learns humans are living in a space habitat named Cooper Station that orbits Saturn. After a brief reunion with Ellen Burstyn’s Old Murph (trivia fact: the film both opens and closes with her lines of dialogue), who is 86 years old, he takes off into outer space again to meet up with Brand on Edmunds’ planet. This is the only part of the film that I find truly underwhelming, since it registers as a hollow way to wrap up this relationship in which we’ve become so keenly invested. After being separated for several decades, Cooper and Murph should have spent a few hours reconnecting. But no, she abbreviates their reunion far too soon, shooing him away and telling him to go to Brand, even though that relationship is far from being our main concern. Also, where’s Tom? I’m a little curious as to what happened to him.

Those are my thoughts on the heavy concepts and riveting fervor of Interstellar. Soon, we’ll be blessed with the much-anticipated Tenet, which is being called “Nolan’s best movie since Inception” by the lucky few who’ve already seen it at the international junkets. Just so you know, Nolan shot every scene twice—once forwards, then once with the actors doing everything backwards. Honestly, my brain is being crushed underneath the weight of all my time-inversion-related questions.

All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy and stay strong.

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