Roundtable: Interstellar (2014) Part 1

The following contains spoilers so be forewarned if you haven't seen the movie and read on.

What We Loved about the Film

Anton:Interstellar cemented Christopher Nolan as an artist who speaks closely to my heart. I’m talking about those artists who we don’t simply admire, but whose artworks surprise us with feelings and ideas that we seem to have felt and thought before.

Interstellar evoked so many of my early impressions of space travel. Its efforts at scientific accuracy brought to mind flipping through National Geographic magazines that taught me how space travel actually works. Its astounding images conjured memories of astronomy books for young people, particularly the strange and vivid illustrations that were often found in those books. The wave planet and the cloud planet Interstellar envisions reminded me of those artists’ imaginings of other possible worlds. What a hospitable planet with lower gravity than Earth might look like, or one with higher gravity. Images of weird floating plants on gas giants, or night skies showing ten moons. The wormhole and rotating black hole in the film provoked similar responses: that mix of awe and discomfort, the sublime. The black hole is both beautiful and frightening.

Aren: I’m on the same page as you in this regard. Part of what makes me so affectionate towards Interstellar is how it captures that optimistic sci-fi futurism that I loved as a child. Interstellar proves to me that Christopher Nolan is the kind of guy who gets excited by the ideas of space colonies and what the future will look like and how a spaceship would look that would travel through a wormhole.

I’m not sure how young people today feel about space travel (and I know that my own generation has soured on the idea of it, essentially echoing the comments of Murph’s school teacher in the early scene that space travel is wasteful and selfish), but as a kid I thought there was nothing cooler. I still think it’s one of the most fundamentally exciting aspects of human existence and that our culture has lost a great part of what makes life vivid by pulling away from space travel. Interstellar captures that wonder of moving beyond, arguing that the impulse to explore is a fundamental human impulse and that by crushing that impulse, we not only defeat our optimistic imaginations, but our survival instinct as well.

Anton: The scene with the teacher at Murph’s school explaining the “correct” version of the moon landing was depressingly plausible. Like the near future Interstellar depicts, there seem to be too many people today who’d rather believe that the United States faked the Apollo lunar missions to bankrupt the Soviets than that Neil Armstrong actually took that giant leap for mankind.

Anders: Like both of you, one of the things that makes Interstellar a film that really speaks to me is how it captured the excitement over space travel that was kindled in me from when I was a small child. It’s a rare film today that has such high ambitions, both in the sheer scale of the production, but also in generating a feeling of awe in its audience. A film like last year’s Man of Steel certainly displayed awesome destruction and sheer power like few other blockbusters. However, Interstellar’s accomplishment is more impressive in how it draws not on emotions of fear and displays of violence to generate awe, but on the pure drive of human ingenuity and the display of the grand scale of the cosmos to generate its—as you say, Anton—sublime effect.

Anton: I love how grand the film is. Is the film pretentious? Look, if anyone were in a position to make an ambitious film right now, it’s Christopher Nolan. He’s arguably the biggest film director in the world today. He’s had a string of commercial successes, and after Inception he is one of the few filmmakers the studios trust to make a big film not based on preexisting material. He’s at the top of his game, so why not shoot for the stars!

Hell, with DC, Marvel, and Star Wars sequels in place for the next half-century, I’m game for any blockbuster ambitious enough to do something new.

The Mixed Responses

Anton: We’re clearly impressed with the film, but not everyone is.

I want to share two responses to Interstellar that I witnessed after seeing it last Friday night. While I waited for my wife to use the washroom after the movie (and yes, it’s a long movie), a hipster couple walked past me. The girl was talking loudly about how stupid it was for McConaughey’s Cooper to eject in the middle of the black hole. The talk was mocking and dismissive, and the tone conveyed an impression of superiority to the work. The second person I observed was a boy in his late teens talking on his cell phone. His talk was somewhat disordered and emotional. He was telling someone over the phone that they simply had to see the movie. He said he couldn’t quite put it into words, that he was too overwhelmed, but that he had to go see it again. There was excitement and wonder in his tone, and a sense that the film was something beyond his grasp.

In spite of the nitpicking by some, this is a movie that is truly affecting a lot of people, a lot of regular filmgoers. I don’t believe it will work for everyone, especially the jaded, but it’s the kind of movie that I want to share.

Aren: I don’t want to get into the critical response towards the film because it makes me too angry, but I have witnessed some mixed responses in my own encounters with people. Some people are blown away by the film. Multiple friends on my Facebook feed have described the experience of watching Interstellar as one of the most emotional, awe-inspiring times they’ve had at the movies. Some other people think the film is frankly stupid. They didn’t follow or simply don’t care about the film’s interest in relativity and gravity. They thought it was too long and didn’t like how the climax blurred together the scientific understanding of black holes with the fantastical notion of experiencing time in a physical manner. I think it lost some people and those people wrote off the ending as a deus ex machina of sorts, even if it follows its own internal logic of extremely advanced technology from the future operating like magic to us (to steal Arthur C. Clarke’s description of magic and science).

Anton: Man, if you walk out of this movie and you want to talk about plot holes and not black holes, you’re beyond me. You need some amazement in your life.

Aren: Those people should be shot into a black hole, for all I care about them. For me, I believe that a viewer’s response depends upon what they think about two aspects of the film: its unabashed sentimentality and its classical sci-fi conventions. This is clearly Nolan’s most emotional film, with many scenes of characters crying openly about the losses they’ve suffered and their slim chances of seeing their loved ones again. The macho dudes who loved Nolan’s Batman films and thought Inception was totally badass could have been a bit turned off by how this film hinges on the emotions of its characters. Interstellar is very cool, but it never could be described as badass or macho. If the viewer is fine with intensely emotional storytelling in this context—I’ve seen multiple people reference the intense “feels” they experienced during Interstellar—I think he or she will dig the film.

As for the second part, this film is science-fiction in the classical sense. It loves imagining how technology will impact our future, how what we imagine the future to be helps define how we live the present, and how future technology would work in a scientific manner. This is not usual stuff for sci-fi at the multiplex these days. This is more like the writings of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, and other classical science fiction writers than what is classified as “sci-fi” nowadays. Again, if the viewer likes classical sci-fi, a film like Interstellar should be a dream come true for them. But I’d wager that the average viewer who claims to like sci-fi nowadays actually just likes the technological and fantastical showcase that the genre allows.

For example, the sci-fi genre allows a man to build an Iron Man suit and fly around blasting guys with repulsors, or a human to become an intergalactic outlaw with a space raccoon as one of his teammates. Sci-fi allows fantastic things to exist in the world of the story, which viewers love, and it also allows really cool stuff to happen, like spaceships blowing up and big CGI battles. However, classical sci-fi is more interested in the ideas underpinning the fantastic than the fantastic itself. It has all these fantastic elements, but it uses those elements to explore fundamental ideas of reality, often involving science or philosophy. These same viewers that love sci-fi because it allows them to enjoy watching Iron Man suits fly around may not love the homework feel of classic sci-fi.

Anders: Yes, I agree that by and large Interstellar, for all its huge promotional campaign and positioning as blockbuster material, might not actually appeal to all tastes. The truth is that there is a lot of idiosyncratic material, genre-wise, in this film, from its decision to make its thematic interest in love and human connection explicit to its bold ending. I agree with Aren that this film is interested in ideas, and I can’t fault someone who doesn’t track with the film because they disagree with the ideas that the film is putting forward.

But it is so rare and refreshing to watch a film like this one in which the science fiction tropes are not only grounded for the most part in real science, but also in which the technology and plot are in service of advancing an idea (and not just “entertainment”). In this case, the idea is that human beings are meant to move beyond Earth in order to survive, that our survival instinct and our deep curiosity are deeply intertwined.

Nolan is a director who is very interested in using the medium of film to explore these kinds of relationships between events and places, whether in reversing our experience of causality in Memento or the various relations between the dream levels in Inception. Here gravity’s effect on our experience of time—Einstein’s Theory of Relativity—is the plot device that allows Nolan to continue his interest in unique film structures. In the final sequences of the film, when Cooper enters the Tesseract where time is spatialized, some people might find the leap of portraying such five dimensional logic breaks their ability to believe in the film. On the other hand, I was thrilled at the way that Interstellar doesn’t cheat here. It’s a direct contradiction to those who feel the film tells more than shows, and something a lesser film wouldn’t even dare to attempt to put on screen.

The Three Brothers' Interstellar Roundtable will continue with Part II tomorrow.