Roundtable: Interstellar (2014) Part 2

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

Does Interstellar Make Sense?

Anton: I’m no scientist, but I found the film very clear, and this is precisely because of all the exposition some people are complaining about. Look, for the most part I agree with Hitchcock that you should try to show and not simply tell in film, but you can’t simply show a wormhole or the effects of relativity and have people understand what’s going on. You have tell them, or else you’re purposely confusing most of your audience. And confusing the audience may be a legitimate tactic for a film, as in the case of, say, Primer, but Nolan’s desire here is to move not distance his audience, and to do that he has to explain the complex stuff the film is about. I for one am thankful for all the exposition.

I’m also peeved that critics who say Interstellar needs to show and not tell are also complaining about the dialogue. They can’t even get their movie-measuring sticks to match up.

Aren: If you didn’t understand Interstellar, I don’t know what to tell you. The film goes to painstaking lengths to explain its heady concepts to the audience. Nolan knows that the average viewer isn’t familiar with how wormholes operate or how time stretches when the gravity amplifies. So to complain about this exposition seems to overlook that it’s necessary to understand the film, and also, that it’s a convention of this kind of science fiction. I could see someone being a little baffled by the ending, but again, Nolan has supplied the groundwork for the conclusion in the early scenes with the “ghost” in Murph’s bedroom. In fact, like many of his films, Nolan kind of gives away the ending in the opening line of the film. Like The Prestige’s “Are you watching closely?” with the images of the duplicated hats, the opening lines of Interstellar outside of Cooper’s dream sequence are Murph saying “I thought you were my ghost.” The ending may be a departure from the scientific focus of the film, but it makes sense emotionally.

Anton: —And thematically.

Aren: It weds the two together by emphasizing the “fiction” in science fiction.

Anders: One thing that I also love about Interstellar’s ambitions is the way that it pushes the science fiction aspects far enough that we run up against the limits of what we know. Inevitably, that means that its going to be hard for some people to understand what’s going on in the end. Some might fault the film in its final acts for going too far in its speculation, but again, I like that daring. But it also fits with the film’s thematic notion of human ingenuity and the spirit of overcoming great odds.

Nolan has done this before in his films, in both The Prestige and Inception, where in the final act he pushes the rules of the film that have been established further than what the characters initially thought possible, but in each case it drives home the central themes of the respective film. In Inception, the final descent into “limbo” means that the rules of the dream no longer apply. In Interstellar, Cooper and Brand’s belief about “who” created the wormhole and the relationship between the past and present is shattered. In addition to Clarke and Asimov, I’d be surprised if the Nolans didn’t read Robert Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” as well.

The McConaissance

Anton: Perhaps the least disputable facet of the film is Matthew McConaughey’s performance. He is certainly keeping the roll he’s on alive!

Aren: At this point I would love McConaughey to be in every movie. He continues to knock it out of the park. He grounds the film in an emotional reality that makes the fantastic familiar. Because we’re witnessing all these amazing things happen like wormholes and black holes and fifth dimensional tesseracts through the eyes of someone as emotionally relatable as McConaughey, everything is a bit easier to believe. That scene where Cooper watches the 23 years of video messages after returning from Miller’s planet kills me, mostly because of the complete devastation on McConaughey’s face. There are a lot of little grace notes like this in Interstellar that make it so emotionally affecting.

Anders: I agree, the casting of McConaughey was a brilliant stroke. He does ground the film, and I’m not sure the film would work without him. McConaughey is a cool guy, but unlike Bale or DiCaprio, to mention two of Nolan’s other recent leading men, McConaughey can sell the everyday stuff. You believe him as a farmer, and as a Chuck Yeager-type rocket jockey. My only disappointment was that with all the talk of relativity, he didn’t reuse his “Time is a flat circle,” line from True Detective.

Matt Damon’s Cameo

Anton: The other actor everyone is talking about in Interstellar is Matt Damon. I thought Damon worked in the role and that his character was an important counterbalance in the film’s presentation of human potential. Our drive to survive is both a boon and a bane.

Aren: There’s also an all-American virtue to Damon that makes him the obvious choice for the role. After everyone talks up Dr. Mann as this amazing embodiment of the best of American science and adventure, it makes perfect sense for Damon to then show up in the role. We associate Damon with this type of exemplary American individual. Nolan then plays with this naturally trustworthy quality of Damon’s to make us not expect Mann’s betrayal of the other characters. It’s a nice directing maneuver. He plays into the convention and then twists the convention, catchings us off guard. It’s also nice to see Damon in a big, good movie these days. It seems like he hasn’t been around much lately. I was glad to get as much of him in Interstellar as we do. It may technically count as a cameo because he’s not credited, but we probably get around 20 minutes of him.

Anders: A part of me was disappointed that Damon’s Dr. Mann turned out to be a villain, since without his betrayal this would be a massive blockbuster without an actual villain. Still, his character actually fits into the film’s theme of survival instinct, as Anton says.

Anton: But even 2001 had HAL. I suppose Interstellar’s other villain would be twentieth-century humankind.

The Female Leads

Aren: There are also the two female leads to talk about. Some people have said that they think both the parts of Brand (Anne Hathaway) and Murph (Jessica Chastain) are underwritten, but I think they’re given plenty of good points, and Murph, in particular, is a huge focus of the film. I like how the emphasis on Murph as the saviour also plays into the film’s optimistic futurism, that a woman can be the big hero who saves the world. The space cowboy Cooper may be the one to go into the black hole and get the necessary data, but it’s his daughter, the whiz kid, who gets to save the world by solving the gravity equation. One begets the other. And I really like Chastain’s scenes, even if they’re not as awe-inspiring as the space stuff. Particular the moment where she is telling Brand that her father died over the video message, but can’t help but attack Brand and Cooper for lying to them. It’s another one of those heartbreaking moments.

Anders: What’s interesting about both Brand and Murph is that they are both the active agents, ultimately fulfilling the promise (or broken promises) of their fathers, Dr. Brand Sr. (Michael Caine) and Cooper.

Casting Jessica Chastain as the grown up Murph was another clever casting decision, since it taps into elements of both of Chastain’s most famous roles, as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty—the determined, unwavering force that will solve this puzzle—and the saviour, or at least Marian, figure of the mother from The Tree of Life. Nolan has spoken of his admiration for Malick in the past, but here in Interstellar we see some of this. I might even add that Nolan corrects for the idealization of Chastain’s character from Tree of Life, making Murph both a hero and a real hurting human being. I don’t get the underwritten bit, since she’s arguably the other central character in the film. The difference is that we see her over a larger portion of her lifespan compared to Cooper, thanks to the effects of relativity.

Anton: Yeah, I wouldn’t call Murph underwritten, since there’s plenty of screentime with her back on Earth.

I also like that the film doesn’t make a big deal about her being a girl interested in science (and later a woman scientist). It’s presented as something natural and plausible. I also like that as a child, she’s not this super-precocious annoying thing like so many “smart” kids in movies. She’s believably earnest, and interested, and stubborn.

Aren: Brand, on the other hand, gets a little less meat, but Hathaway is a great actress and she makes me invested in this role.

Anders: Hathaway was perfect as Brand. She comes across as capable enough to survive space and also open to emotions when she needs to be as well.

Anton: I thought Hathaway was well-cast as Brand. Some people dislike Anne Hathaway since she tends to come across as a try-hard (her good acting is always on display), and I think that quality plays into her character in Interstellar. Brand is a good person, but at first she’s supposed to rub Cooper, and thus the audience, the wrong way, and Hathaway does a good job of eliciting first mild dislike, then empathetic understanding (during her love speech), and eventually admiration (especially in the final shots of her alone on the third planet).

Aren: Brand’s speech on how love transcends time and space is especially great, really letting the audience know how much Brand loves Dr. Edmund even if we never see them together. In fact, that speech, and its importance to the ending of the film, gives Interstellar an almost spiritual dimension as well. If love is a physical thing that transcends the dimensions, as it is in Christian theology with love being God who exists outside of our reality, there’s a religious meaning to its effect on our universe. I would love to do a theological reading of that line in relation to quantum mechanics, which sounds like something our dad would get a kick out of.

Anton: Murph is the other crucial piece (along with Cooper) in the film’s exploration of not just spacetime, but space, time, and love.

Some might think that the film’s talk of love is pure mush, but I think it holds up well, especially if one compares it to the overwrought sentimentality of another recent sci-fi epic, Cloud Atlas. That film was just a bunch of tired platitudes. Love’s interconnections were celebrated, but always in awkward “I’m saying something important now” lines. In contrast, Brand’s line that “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space,” delivered in the context of the film in which the relations between time and space are being explored and tested, is rather insightful.

Interstellar’s Place in Film History and in Science Fiction

Anton: As you might sense, I’m often pretty pessimistic about humanity, but I found Interstellar pretty inspiring. For one thing, despite it’s strong optimism about what humanity can achieve, it’s not blind to what that same potential and power means in negative terms. Earth has been destroyed by humanity in the film, after all. John Lithgow’s father-in-law character perceptively critiques our human ability to progress, to do and think new things. Cooper is lamenting the utilitarian “caretaker” world he’s living in, and I think the audience sympathizes with his lament. His father-in-law replies that he remembers back when it seemed like someone thought up a new idea or made something new everyday. Everyday was like Christmas, he says, but he also adds ominously: “Imagine 6 billion people wanting it all.” I like that the film is hopeful about humanity without being blind to our faults and broken tendencies.

Aren: I’ve already touched on how this film plays into the classical science fiction tradition instead of our modern conceptions of it. It’s a film born out of the optimistic science fiction of the 1950s and 60s. Looking back at these other optimistic sci-fi writers, not all of them were blind to human evil. For example, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is a very moving account of humanity’s colonization of Mars, but it also features humanity wiping out the martians that live there and destroying Earth in the process through nuclear war. Interstellar reminds me of these writings, what with its intense focus on science and exposition, its old-fashioned emotion, and its American notions of adventure and discovery. Kind of like Cooper in the film, I think Interstellar is a film outside of its time. It uses today’s technology to tell a story that draws on our past to look to our future. The people of our present aren’t too enthralled with such things.

Anton: We’ll see. It’s only been out a week.

Anders: There are two films that Interstellar reminded me of the most that weren’t actually 2001, and I think they help me to figure out both this film’s place in cinema history and the kind of science fiction that it’s dealing with. The first is Robert Zemeckis’s Contact. For one thing, it has Matthew McConaughey. But seriously, Carl Sagan’s tale of first contact with an alien race is rooted in the kind of hard science fiction tradition that Interstellar is drawing on. For both Cooper and Ellie (Jodie Foster) the quest to explore also takes the form of a quest for the transcendent, and in both cases the characters go through something that they can’t quite explain. The same people who wrote off Zemeckis’s film as corny, who didn’t see how rare it was that a film took the quest for ETI’s seriously are probably the same ones who find Interstellar lacklustre despite its taking the ideas of relativity and gravity seriously. Yes, in the final sequence Interstellar goes beyond science fact and into speculation, but that’s the fiction part, as you said earlier. And it works: thematically it actually ties the film together.

The other film it reminded me of was Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, in its ambition and willingness to deal with raw emotional moments in a science fiction story. Ironically, Spielberg was criticized for ruining Kubrick’s vision (a myth, since Kubrick was on board with Spielberg’s vision for A.I., including the ending); in this case, Spielberg is the Kubrick figure, since Interstellar was originally attached to him. And, like A.I., Interstellar has been less than embraced by the critical community. I contend that the long view is showing A.I. to have been a masterpiece, and it’s too early to tell for Interstellar, but I can envision a critical reevaluation one day.

Interstellar (2014, USA/U.K.)

Directed by Christopher Nolan; written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck, Mackenzie Foy, Ellen Burstyn, Topher Grace, John Lithgow, and Michael Caine.