Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Big Ross weighs in on the latest film from Christopher Nolan. SPOILERS, obviously.
Interstellar is a divisive film. It seems to have a “love it or hate it” vibe, as reviews have definitely been mixed with some praising and others dismissing this near-future scifi adventure starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Caine. I definitely found myself divided over how I felt about the movie after seeing it. Certainly, Interstellar is beautiful and stunning with its visuals, its depictions of space travel. And to be sure, Interstellar depicts some pretty dense theories and ideas from physics and quantum mechanics like no film before. Everyone’s favorite astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson went on a bit of a Tweetathon praising some of what you’ll see in Interstellar.
But I think these are my favorite tweets from Neil deGrasse Tyson regarding Interstellar:
That last one gets at the major complaint that a lot of people have about Interstellar. It gets at the heart of a major complaint I have about movies in general these days. It seems that filmmakers and screenwriters don’t trust themselves anymore to simply make a good movie. Their efforts to create smart, sophisticated, bigger-than-anything-before narratives are derailed by overly convoluted, logically inconsistent, plot-hole-ridden stories. Interstellar is no different. There is a satisfying narrative lost somewhere in the labyrinthian plot of Interstellar. If we could only get past the Minotaur (Nolan), I’m sure we could find it. Let’s try, shall we?
Interstellar tells a story set in the near future (50-100 years or 1-2 generations), in which Earth will no longer be capable of sustaining our human civilization at its current (and ever expanding) state. There is a population crash, and those left alive have committed themselves to farming to provide enough food for the survivors. To make matters worse, the climate has become more inhospitable (which is alluded though never specifically stated to be the result of global warming), and something called The Blight is wiping out the few remaining crops that can still be cultivated. Humanity is headed for extinction, and this is a course that cannot be corrected or even altered. The only hope is to look for another planet to colonize, which is precisely what NASA has been doing. The mysterious appearance of a wormhole near Saturn has allowed NASA to extend this search to another galaxy. A series of exploratory missions called the Lazarus missions have given them several candidates, but another expedition is needed to determine if humanity will have a new home, and there is only enough time and resources for one more trip. So a team of scientists will travel to survey three exoplanets in a single star system on the other end of the wormhole. While they are away NASA will continue construction of giant space station/ships that will convey as many people as possible to their new home, provided Professor Brand (Caine), a brilliant physicist can solve the physics problem of how to get these giant structures, too large to launch with conventional rockets, off of Earth. Professor Brand recruits Cooper (McConaughey), an engineer and former pilot turned farmer who serendipitously learns of NASA’s efforts, to join the final expedition as pilot. Brand (Hathaway) and two other scientists comprise the four-person team who will take their last ship through the wormhole. Professor Brand promises Cooper that he will complete his work and find a solution to manipulate gravity to get the stations off planet, which is Plan A. Plan B isn’t concerned with survival of the humans on Earth, but with survival of humans as a species. Assuming Professor Brand fails in his efforts, the final expedition will carry human embryos that will be used to establish a new human colony. Cooper, a widowed father of two is far more dedicated to the success of Plan A than B, for obvious reasons.
Upon reaching the system, they begin surveying the candidate planets, which I should mention are perilously, ridiculously close to a supermassive black hole named Gargantua. Survey of the first planet is a disaster, resulting in death of one of the crew and loss of 23 years for Cooper & Brand relative to Earth, due to Gargantua’s effect on time explained by Einstein’s theory of relativity. It’s actually handled incredibly well; DeGrasse Tyson was right to praise it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen relativistic theory addressed in a manner as cool and impactful as in Interstellar. Survey of the second planet is also an abject failure, leading to the climax of the film.
Cooper and Brand are the only survivors, on a severely damaged space ship, low on fuel. And to make matters worse and up the stakes even more, Cooper & Brand have learned that Professor Brand has been lying about solving the gravity problem. Turns out he “solved” it years before, but it “won’t work” without additional data from inside a black hole. Since it’s impossible to travel into a black hole and get back out again, let alone survive, the entire effort has been futile. Plan A was a sham from the beginning, and they’ve been betting on Plan B the entire time (unbeknownst to Cooper or Brand). Cooper uses the last of their fuel and Gargantua’s gravity in a maneuver to slingshot their ship around the black hole and set it on a course to the third and final planet, humanity’s last hope. It works, but in order to lose enough weight to give the ship enough momentum to actually reach the planet, Cooper and a robot jettison themselves and shuttle modules from the ship. They fall into the black hole, fully expecting to be obliterated.
Instead, Cooper and the robot not only survive, but find themselves in a crazy massive construct of nearly infinite iterations of his daughter’s bedroom inside their home on Earth. Cooper learns that he is now perceiving time as a third dimension, and can use gravity to interact with and manipulate that reality.
Time out. Did I mention there is a ghost in Interstellar? And aliens? Well, Cooper’s daughter Murph is convinced as a child there is a ghost in her bedroom that knocks books and things off of her bookshelf in her bedroom. She’s not afraid of it, but rather is convinced it is trying to communicate with her. And the scientists at NASA are convinced, or at least speculate that aliens are responsible for a bunch of weird gravitational anomalies on Earth as well as the appearance of the wormhole. And this crazy alien thing reaches out through the wormhole and Brand touches it, quite literally making first contact.
Turns out Cooper is both the ghost and the aliens. I think. He’s definitely the ghost, and I’m pretty sure he’s responsible for most of the alien gravitational anomaly stuff, and he even says to the robot something like, “There was no ‘them’. We’re ‘them’”, i.e. the aliens. But I honestly don’t know if he created the wormhole, and if so, how, or if there are still aliens, or maybe humans operating from the distant future to create the wormhole. I. Honestly. Have. No. Clue. Regardless, Cooper figures out that he can use gravity to manipulate the second hand on a watch he gave his daughter, which she left in her bedroom, but has returned to as an adult for reasons I can’t remember. Cooper codes all of the data his robot collected from inside the black hole into Morse code and “programs” it into the watch. Murph, who turns out is a brilliant physicist who has been working with Professor Brand for years (also unaware he was lying the whole time), takes the watch, notices the Morse code, decodes it, and uses the data to solve the gravity problem that allows humanity to escape Earth on those massive ships.
There’s more, a little more to the movie. But this is what I want to focus on. This is where the plot of Interstellar completely unravels. Everything hinges on this sequence, on getting Cooper inside the black hole and finding the “time as a third dimensional construct” thing. It is both the cornerstone upon which the narrative is built and the wrecking ball that brings it crashing down. While it looks really, really cool, I can’t justify it being in the movie. It’s just not worth it. So, the title of this essay is “How to Fix Interstellar”. So, how do we fix it? As in the movie, there’s a Plan A, and a Plan B.
We eighty-six the black hole sequence. Get rid of the whole thing. Interstellar would be so much simpler, so much more elegant without it. And it’s not like the film needs this sequence. The idea of humanity looking to the stars to escape a dying planet Earth is certainly nothing new or original. Yet inflating that story with all this timey-wimey craziness isn’t necessary. Bringing this story to life in a big-budget film with the special effects employed in Interstellar is more than enough to create a satisfying, entertaining, and great film experience.
So, just triple click and delete. Presto Chango, we now have a much improved movie. Think about it, without the black hole sequence, there is no need for the plot to jump through the hoop of having Professor Brand trying to solve a “gravity problem” to get the ships they’re building off of Earth. Why is NASA even building the ships on Earth, anyway? Don’t any of these guys remember Star Trek? (Yes I realize in the reboot the Enterprise was built on Earth, but this makes no damn sense. Obviously you would build something that massive in space, as they did in the original show). Also, here is an excellent opportunity to present yet another famous idea from science fiction that could one day be science fact in a manner like no film ever before.
A space elevator.
Wouldn’t that just be the coolest fucking thing ever? Have Professor Brand be the guy who figured out how to mass produce the carbon nanotubes or whatever required to build the space elevator. Cooper was a pilot who abandoned his dreams to take care of his family and do his part on the farm after his wife died. Professor Brand simply shows up one day to recruit Cooper back for the last of the Lazarus Missions.
Then, the uncertain fate of humanity comes not from Brand’s struggle to solve some “gravity problem”, but from the very real logistical nightmare of deciding who to take on the ships when there’s not enough room/resources for everyone. Do you value people differently, taking only the best and brightest? Do you value people equally, employing some sort of lottery system to choose? Are the mega-rich going to be able to ensure their survival by buying spots on these ships? Do you try to ensure those that escape Earth represent every race and culture? Do you abandon the sick, the old, the infirm? And once they even decide who to take, and granted they get them on these ships, survival is not guaranteed. These are ships that have not been thoroughly tested, now being inhabited by untrained civilians. There won’t be enough stasis pods to put them all to sleep during the journey to the wormhole near Saturn, so these ships will have to be functional for the 2+ year journey. And not only functional, but entirely self-sufficient. Giving audiences just a glimpse of these sorts of questions could blow their minds more than any made-up “gravity problem”.
So we reach the end of the film, and most everything that happens in the film happens in our new version. Cooper and Brand are left limping along, trying to reach that third and final planet. Only now, let’s say the tension is ramped up by a message from what’s left of humanity that something dire has happened. Maybe the ships are experiencing problems. Maybe terrorists targeted the space elevator and the evacuation has been delayed. Or maybe there’s a total lack of any communication whatsoever, and Cooper and Brand are left to wonder if they really are all that’s left of humanity. Regardless, they simply have to make it to that last planet. Cooper jettisons his module to give Brand enough momentum to make it, and he’s crushed into oblivion as he approaches the black hole. Brand lands safely, and starts setting up a new colony. If you want a little Inception-style ambiguity, have a signal light start flashing or an instrument panel start beeping, cut to Brand’s stunned and slightly hopeful face (maybe humanity survived after all?).
Go with everything in PLAN A, but we’re going to keep the black hole sequence, at least in part. In general, I liked the idea of Cooper crossing the event horizon of Gargantua intact. And once he’s inside the black hole, well I’ll admit that’s just a great opportunity to have some fun. And I sort of love the visuals of that sequence, and the idea that he’s achieved some sort of 5th dimensional awareness that allows him to perceive time as a 3rd dimension. Where I started having problems with this wasn’t that it happened, but that the entire plot rested on the idea that he can and does interact with and affect his own timeline. Maybe it’s a linear way of thinking (hey, I’m human, it’s how we think) but because of this Interstellar suffers from a Terminator paradox.
Time out. Let me explain. At the end of The Terminator we learn that Sarah Connor is pregnant from a one-night stand with Kyle Reese, who is sent back in time by John Connor (Sarah’s son) to protect her. If Reese doesn’t get sent back in time John isn’t conceived, but he must be to send Reese back. See the paradox? There is another one in Terminator 2, when we learn that Cyberdyne Systems recovers scraps of the first terminator (from the first movie) and research on those fragments of advanced futuristic technology leads them ultimately to build Skynet. So Skynet has to send a terminator back in time to come into being, but there has to be a timeline where it hadn’t yet sent back a terminator and so can’t exist. I think. Makes your brain hurt, right?
In Interstellar a similar paradox is created where Cooper, once inside the black hole, creates a gravity anomaly in his daughter’s bedroom that turns out to be coordinates for NASA’s secret base, which his how gets involved in the last space mission. His involvement in the mission is entirely dependent on him receiving a message from his future self, already involved in the space mission. This is a matter of personal opinion, but I absolutely hate this kind of plot development/trope. I. HATE. IT.
Anyway, as I said everything that happens in PLAN A happens, so if there’s no gravity problem that Cooper has to help solve, what is he going to do in that black hole? Well, I don’t know exactly. Maybe he dies. Maybe he exists forever. Maybe he transcends the human condition to become some sort of higher-dimensional super-being, like the guy at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, though that’s a little on the nose. Maybe we just leave that unresolved. He certainly doesn’t come out the other end of the wormhole near Saturn to be picked up by human spacefarers and reunited with his now elderly daughter, because none of that makes any damn sense.
Besides, I like the idea of our hero sacrificing himself for greater good. The needs of the many, and all that. So he drops himself into the black hole, thinking he’ll die, but instead discovers he is alive (or at least persists) and can perceive time, specifically his own timeline, as a third dimension. He focuses in on those days leading up to his heartbreaking farewell to his daughter. And then, maybe through the power of love or whatever, he starts following his daughter’s timeline. He gets to see her grow up, gets to see her and the rest of humanity survive. He gets to see them make it through the wormhole and reach that third planet. Brand is there, she made it too, and he gets to see their reunion. And maybe then, when he has found a sense of peace, he can decide his own fate. And as his existence comes to an end, the existence of humanity goes on…amongst the stars.
Sidenote: Another thing that bothered me was just how poor the world-building was in Interstellar. I thought the Nolan brothers really dropped the ball there. What exactly happened? How much of the world’s population has survived? What the hell is the Blight? They just gave up on technology? There are no more armies? What is the state of government? Are there no more countries? These are many of the questions that came to my mind, and none of them are answered. We’d fix that in our new version (obviously), but exactly how is the subject of another article.