A couple days ago Rachael and I found ourselves with an abundance of free time and no immediate urge to go outside and catch virtual creatures on our phones, so we watched a movie instead. We settled on watching Interstellar, since we both generally like Christopher Nolan’s movies, and this latest one had the bonus of being relatively hard science fiction.
For anyone who might not have seen it, Interstellar is a movie about a pilot and his daughter’s work to find a way to help humanity escape Earth as it becomes progressively less and less hospitable due to climate change and an escalating plant blight that’s slowly wiping out all the domesticated crops. Most of the movie follows Joe Cooper, who is recruited by the remainder of NASA following massive budget cuts to pilot a ship through a stable wormhole in order to determine if any of a handful of potential worlds in another star system are viable places to establish a human colony. Intermittently, we get to see what’s going on with Cooper’s daughter Murph, who is a child when he leaves on his mission, and due to relative time distortion grows up to become a researcher at NASA trying to help solve the “problem of gravity” needed in order to establish satellite colonies for the human population still living on Earth during the few years Cooper experiences while away.
From here I’ll be discussing spoilers for the movie.
The nifty parts of the story come from the way Cooper and Murph’s plots converge in the third act. In order to make sure at least one of the explorers who’ve come with Cooper on the mission survives to establish a colony on one of the nearby planets, he jettisons himself into the black hole around which the planets have been orbiting and which has caught their ship. Against all theory regarding what would happen to a human body in a black hole (it would crush you to death before you got anywhere near the singularity), Cooper survives and finds himself inside a five dimensional tesseract centered on Murph’s childhood bedroom. He eventually realizes that he’s the “ghost” that was trying to communicate with her, and in this space he can figure out a way to deliver the coded information that Murph needs to solve the gravity problem and get the surviving people off of Earth (it’s revealed a little earlier that the gravity problem was intended as a distraction meant to keep all the doomed people on the planet occupied while Cooper and his team fulfilled the real mission of setting up a seed colony elsewhere). It’s a nice little iteration of the stable time loop trope, and the movie ends with Cooper being reunited with Murph as an old woman before he heads back off into space to meet up with his surviving teammate Amelia Brand and the colony she’s overseeing. Happy ending, everybody who’s still alive gets what they want, including Cooper’s AI buddy TARS who also survives the black hole intact thanks to the tesseract.
Now, I have seen Interstellar once before myself, and on the first viewing I thought it was a pretty good movie. Watching with Rachael highlighted just how many things I overlooked that are definite weaknesses with the film.
Firstly, this is a white movie. There are a grand total of two Black characters with speaking roles (one of them only appears for a single scene), and no Black background characters as far as I or Rachael could tell. It’s an example of the
fine old racist habit of envisioning a future without people of color. If you look at a lot of old science fiction, there’s a creeping feeling that the authors simply failed to imagine their worlds as inhabited by anyone other than straight white men. Interstellar isn’t quite as bad on female representation front, but it still clocks two major women and a couple of minor female characters in its cast against seven major male roles (and let’s not split hairs over the fact that Murph appears at three different ages so that requires three different actresses; she’s still one character carrying the majority of the female representation of the movie). Naturally, because this is the way things go in movies with high stakes, the Black member of the exploration team, Romilly, dies about three quarters through the movie. In the context of the situation, where the environment is extremely hazardous and everyone understands the possibility of death, it’s not an unexpected result. What’s infuriating is that there are no other Black characters in the movie at this point; it’s pure tokenism, and the character isn’t even given the dignity of being spared a violent death.
Circling back to the women in Interstellar, I have a small beef with the way Amelia Brand is portrayed. At a key point in the movie, when the team has to decide which of two remaining planets to check out following a catastrophic visit to the first planet on their list, Brand advocates for going to the planet staked out by her lover, who left on the initial mission a decade earlier. Cooper badgers Brand into admitting that she prefers that planet because she wants to have a chance at seeing her lover again, and then once she caves he orders that they set a course for the other planet instead, as though her admission of an emotional investment invalidates the rest of her opinion (the information presented at this point in the movie makes the decision between the planets mostly a toss up, and Cooper’s point that the other planet might be preferable because it was staked out by Dr. Mann, the superstar of the previous cohort of astronauts, is also based largely on intuition over a clear advantage in the data). Brand acquits herself decently well, though I find her speech about love being an unquantifiable factor in physics grating; this isn’t a dis on love as a significant part of the human experience, but my experience of Christopher Nolan movies is that he just doesn’t do sentiment well, especially when it’s coupled with his signature bombastic soliloquies (usually, but not always, delivered by Michael Caine). The scene feels like Nolan’s grasping to attach some kind of emotional anchor to his physics thought experiment, but he’s just not terribly deft at the trick. Having Amelia Brand, whose character could best be described as “woman who Cooper sees as making bad decisions for the mission, but also he wants to sleep with her,” deliver this thematic beat poorly serves an already ill-devised character. Even her eventual vindication feels shallow, because the reveal that Dr. Mann lied about his data only underlines her as the intuitive scientist (scientific thought is the opposite of intuition) who gets things right based on something unquantifiable (much like how Murph is the genius who’s able to see how Brand’s father back on Earth is just running in circles with his useless equation).
Besides all that, there are a few bits in the plot that don’t make the absolute best sense, like why gravity needs to be “solved” in order for NASA to get the space stations off of Earth, or even how getting away from the planet will solve the problem when food scarcity’s still an issue. Of course, none of this is obviously what Nolan cares about here; he made a movie that’s highly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in its movements and visual feel, but with a plot that’s significantly more accessible than what Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick assembled in their movie.
And also with giant metal box robots.