Odyssey Three: When Surfer Dudes Boldly Go…
In his 2014 Oscar speech, Matthew McConaughey told us his hero was “himself, in ten years’ time.” Everyone thought he was a narcissistic jackass. Until INTERSTELLAR, when he travels to the future through a wrinkle in time and meets – himself!
Standing lofty on the shoulders of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and CONTACT, INTERSTELLAR is writer-director Christopher Nolan‘s modern masterpiece. A journey as much into the mind as into the farthest reaches of spacetime; a pondering of purpose, a savaging of the senses, an epic odyssey, urgent, terrifying, thrilling and intense; soundless space, boundless ideas, binary code in gravitational beams, a tesseract in a bookshelf, and the glittering organ from 2001…
As Earth dies, astronauts follow three beacons through a wormhole, seeking new habitable worlds, seeking the pioneers who went before them, and, led by the World’s Greatest Surfer Dude, seeking the Ultimate Swell, brah.
Written by Nolan and brother Jonathan, INTERSTELLAR is ultimately about salvation, but like all Nolan films, it is not salvation in the prosaic Hollywood sense, endorsed by the Gutless MPAA. For Nolan’s idea of salvation, we must journey through a glass darkly…
McConaughey (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB) is Cooper, engineer, ex-Shuttle pilot, loving father and begrudging farmer. In a lightspeed first act we meet his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), named after Murphy’s Law (who claims there is a “poltergeist” in her room communicating via Morse and gravity beams), his grounded son (Timothée Chalamet) and sad father-in-law (John Lithgow). We learn of Earth’s planetwide crop blight and Professor Brand’s (Michael Caine) theory:
“We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.”
We follow Cooper and his astronaut team (Wes Bentley, Anne Hathaway and David Gyasi) into a wormhole near Saturn, created by entities known simply as “They,” following beacons sending back pings from 10 years prior. Habitable worlds? Signals from dead astronauts? All Cooper knows is, the time dilation of this journey will rend from him the life he knows and all those he loves; in essence, all that he is trying to save will be lost anyway…
McConaughey in a role that – ahem – rockets him to another stratosphere of acting, exemplified in one of the most searing scenes of his career, as he drives away from home for the final time, his face a mask of desolation, tears edging his eyes; his daughter having cursed him for leaving her, his heart lost, his world broken. On top of all that, he forgot his surfboard.
A bravura jump cut to the launch of Endurance. We are not cavemen anymore (you know, like people from the 1950s) – we don’t need to see Cooper arriving, suiting up, entering the craft, flicking switches… Nolan’s ingenious filmmaking efficiency shines through in every frame of this epic adventure quest. When we see exteriors of the craft, it is mainly from one truncated angle, sluicing through space or atmosphere; when we see docking maneuvers, we see only the clamps that latch onto the main ship. These funny little props could have been constructed in some corner of a studio set for $13.75 – we never see any other angles, but they convey what needs to be conveyed – either they lock or they don’t, creating the impetus for the next scene.
And I love that the spacecraft is called – Endurance! Tough gig, tough name. We have come to accept ridiculously platitudinous spacecraft names (Discovery, Explorer, Endeavor, Challenger, Intrepid, et al), yet none describe what a space journey of this magnitude truly is.
On Cooper’s team, Doyle (Bentley), last seen in THE HUNGER GAMES sporting a beard that cried, “Take me roughly from behind”; now with fully grown bush that cries, “Bearcub seeking daddy.”
Brand (Hathaway, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), with lips too big for her eyes and eyes too big for her face, and a pageboy hairdo funnier than Wes Bentley’s beard in THE HUNGER GAMES; orating a scientific soliloquy on “love” and how it compels her to follow the beacon that belonged to her lover… Wait, the fate of the Earth depends on this chick’s itchy loins? Luckily, Cooper throws a bucket of water over her.
Romilly (Gyasi, CLOUD ATLAS), the team physicist, who utters the film’s most devastating line. When Cooper and Brand descend to a planet near a black hole to find a beacon, Romilly warns them that each minute spent on the surface is seven years of Earth time, due to time dilation. (It reminds us of Nolan’s own INCEPTION, where the deeper the dream level, the longer each minute drags to eternity.) Tragedy strikes on the planet (because they encounter mountain-sized tidal waves – perfectly feasible on a planet so close to a gravitational monster – and, as mentioned earlier, here’s Cooper without his longboard), and when they claw their way back to the Endurance, they ask a slightly gray Romilly how long they were gone:
The world spun, my heart fell into my shoes. Endurance. Now we had a movie!…
Laughing/weeping inconsolably, Cooper watches 23 years of backlogged messages from his growing kids, as they slowly lose the will to communicate with him. Many critics call Nolan cold-hearted. It may be because he can pull plot stunts like this and then sit back impassively and watch his characters suffer their agonies, but I look at it the other way – if you can watch these characters impassively, you are ice, not Nolan. His powerful human relationships are all the more poignant because we feel every bladed nanometer of their losses.
This time dilation plot point is the grim difference between INTERSTELLAR and every science fiction movie ever made. It gives weight to relativity – the crushing obstacle to Mankind’s travel plans. Our lifespans are not long enough. We cannot travel to even our closest star (Proxima Centauri, merely four light years away, with no known habitable planets), let alone even communicate with our closest galaxy (Andromeda, 2.5 million light years away). The round trip for a light-speed message to Andromeda is five million years… Cities, civilizations, planets will birth and die in the interim. That is the rationale in the plot for the wormhole, and probably what many may consider the wormhole in the plot – if it weren’t for this wormhole, there would be zero hope of attaining another planet in one surfer dude’s lifetime, yet this wormhole throbs as a blatant deus ex machina…
It’s all about relativity. (Yup, that’s why McConaughey meets his relative – himself.) INTERSTELLAR is where Einstein’s relativity, Sagan’s terraforming and Hawking’s event horizon converge. What I like about Nolan’s films is that, like master filmmaker Woody Allen, he doesn’t take us for idiots, and no one in his movie is an idiot either. All the principals are scientists! Let me say that again: all the principals are scientists. And they’re not B-characters, played off as dweeby comic relief (although McConaughey always has a notebook and a pen protruding from his breast pocket, because, uh, that’s how dweeby scientists dress, right?), rather they are the drivers of civilization’s forward momentum. There are no military drogues to argue with over examine-or-kill, no politicians to red-tape progress, no civilians giving the army orders to shoot at Godzilla, no Annoying Kids. These scientists are fully formed, empathetic characters. INTERSTELLAR comes at the same time Stephen Hawking is being honored with the biopic, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. (Think about it: even Tony Stark is an engineer, Bruce Banner is a geneticist, Barry Allen is a forensic expert…) Synergy for a new movie trope: scientist as hero.
Cooper’s daughter understands Morse code and physics, without having to explain why; one whole wall of her bedroom is stacked with books. I love it! No astronaut gives dopey exposition dialogue to other astronauts that should already know that information. Matter of fact, the first act is a little off-putting, as we are not accustomed to such smart characters in a tentpole movie.
Everyone speaks “universally” – of Mankind as a species, of the world’s fate, of generation-spanning solutions for humanity. People just don’t talk that way. (Let’s hope they start.) We humans are not wired to think past our own eyeblink lifetimes; the frailty of our minds reflects our bodies trapped in finite mass and function. As one character observes, “Evolution has yet to transcend that simple barrier” meaning thinking beyond your individual comfort, to the longterm welfare of the species.
Nolan presumes our general knowledge of spacefaring dialect in 2014, and doesn’t insult us with baby explanations of time dilation (a black hole’s mass creating extreme gravitation which affects even time itself, slowing it down), or terraforming. [See POFFY SEZ: Leggo my Eggo.] And there is minimal didactic talk about wormholes and event horizons. That doesn’t mean INTERSTELLAR is carved from ignorant fluff: CalTech physicist Kip Thorne (friend to Sagan and Hawking) is employed as consultant and exec producer to keep the physics honest.
And lo, INTERSTELLAR produces the most authentic black hole ever committed to screen, a startling void surrounded by a luminous accretion disk. It’s ALL theoretical speculation, even with the mathematics to support it, so the striking visuals for this and the spherical wormhole refracting star fields are anyone’s guess, yet Nolan and his effects team render visually what is hardly comprehensible even intellectually.
All we need to know is that Einstein was right all along when he said, “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” Oh, and he was also right about all that physics gobbledegook as well…
“Open the pod bay doors, TARS.”
Cooper’s team have another member, a homage to 2001 in myriad ways – an artificial intelligence computer named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), an oblong monolith that speaks like HAL and walks like Gumby. Programmable for variable levels of Honesty (90%), Humor (75%), Sarcasm, etc., he can also assume various shapes to fulfill deus ex machina plot points. Even his demise is played like HAL’s sacrifice in 2010: ODYSSEY TWO (presumably with his Equanimity setting on 100%, as he goes without any complaints or metaphysical rap like “Will I dream?”). We imbue him with the same inexplicable screen-love we grant all anthropomorphized inanimate objects. He is Wilson, he is Hobbes, he is Number 5, and yes, he is even HAL. And Gumby.
“Now we’re just here to be memories for our kids.”
Cooper’s kids as adults are Casey Affleck (with a DUCK DYNASTY beard) and Jessica Chastain (ZERO DARK THIRTY) with enough angular thinness to slice bread. I know the future is short on food, but eat something, honey! She returns to her bookcases to crack the code for the film’s magnificent time-loop/poltergeist payoffs. With the aid of Topher Grace (desperately miscast as a fellow scientist), she tries to convince her brother to abandon the dying family farm. And to get her a sandwich.
Nolan makes two excellent counter-intuitive casting choices, specifically to throw the audience. Michael Caine is one of those choices (as old Dr. Brand), who cajoles Cooper and his team into the wild black yonder. We’ve grown accustomed to Caine playing the lovable lump comic relief, but watch carefully how he cloaks his agenda in the palliating Dylan Thomas verses, “Do not go gently into that good night…” The other surprise casting appearance is for the same purpose.
Soundtrack by Hans Zimmer bashes us over the head, then kicks us in the liver when we’re down.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is like THE GODFATHER of its genre. Untouchable. Undoubtedly, it is a movie for the ages, but no one dares unseat it as the cosmic yardstick by which all other space movies are measured. INTERSTELLAR unseats 2001. I said it. Deal with it. It’s not “better” or “more eternal” but unlike recent contenders (CONTACT, MOON, GRAVITY), it can be held up as a new yardstick. It entertains, terrifies, saddens, inspires, educates, intrigues; its production values are cosmic, its design celestial, its performances stellar; it moves us to ponder, to grieve, to examine our humanity in the farscape of eternity; and it makes a helluva lot more sense than that art film with the Monolith that nobody understood unless they were half-baked… McConaughey looks up from his new introspective ethos, “Did someone say ‘half-baked’?” He’s always been about the time dilation. Was anyone paying attention? “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man: I get older, they stay the same age…”
Glittering organ crescendo. Cut. Hall reverb out.