'Interstellar': A Missed Opportunity: Movie Review
'Interstellar' promised a science-filled, epic space adventure. But it didn't deliver.
WARNING: Huge spoilers below.
I'm conflicted and annoyed.
On the one hand, I was impressed with Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar." It was an epic movie with wonderful visuals that attempted to bring some tough astrophysics to a general audience. It was an opportunity to showcase some real interstellar science in the public domain.
But the "Dark Knight Rises" director's space adventure failed to deliver, even though I was trying to see past its scientific shortfalls.
Although there were science errors, that wasn't the reason why I walked out of the IMAX theater dazed and confused. The movie's storyline, editing and script were clumsy at best.
Matthew McConaughey's acting was as to be expected; deep, emotional and well executed. As was Anne Hathaway's character, Amelia Brand. In general, the casting and everyone's acting was good. It was a movie with all the right elements. Michael Caine, playing Professor Brand (Amelia's father), was even on hand to do physics and quote Dylan Thomas! I'll never read Thomas' work again without hearing Caine's rendition of "Do not go gentle into that good night."
We also got to know the characters' histories, their family ties and enduring challenges. Some of the back story was overdone, but ultimately it was forgivable.
But those elements were as churned-up as the matter falling into a black hole's accretion disk and even a team of Academy Award-winning actors couldn't pull it out of the event horizon's clutches.
"Interstellar" missed an opportunity to do brilliant science fiction. And that's why I'm annoyed. It had potential, but that potential was needlessly squandered.
We Need to Explore
The story begins in the future on a dying Earth. There's no time for space exploration, life on Earth is all about fighting disease, hunger and crippling climate change. The message is clear: If we stop exploring, we die, it's that simple. In Interstellar's future we stopped looking to the stars and we paid the ultimate price.
NASA has been driven 'underground' as a kind of secret organization - the public has zero tolerance for the 'excesses' of exploration, so Congress pretty much de-funded the US space agency. But it is still operating off the books, building rockets to save humanity.
So far so good, this was an obvious criticism of how NASA is funded; money is cut, projects canceled all because the critical importance of exploration is misunderstood by the government and public alike. Interstellar uses this ambivalence as its cornerstone and the IMAX audience cheered when engineer Cooper (McConaughey) shot down his daughter's teacher for telling him the moon landings didn't happen and the Apollo spacecraft were "useless machines."
Although this message pervades the entire movie, things quickly started to get unbelievable.
Prof. Brand explains that humanity's only hope is for Cooper et al. to launch on a rocketship through a wormhole, discovered 50 years prior, to explore a handful of potentially habitable worlds in a different galaxy. Cooper, you see, was a test pilot - the best NASA had - until he experienced a test flight accident and quit the space agency.
Immediately he has to say goodbye to his family, try to convince his sobbing daughter Murph that he's doing the right thing and then, bye bye Earth! In the future, it seems, astronauts need no training or preparation for spaceflight.
The whole movie is fraught with these sudden discontinuities, leaving the audience asking the person next to them, "what just happened?"
For example, as Cooper, Amelia Brand and crew hastily jumped on a spaceship to Saturn, we were quickly introduced to cryogenics. Awesome, cryogenics, a real piece of future science that we need to develop if we're going to do multi-year interplanetary journeys. I felt happy, things were looking up.
Each of the crew slipped into their high-tech bathtubs where we are led to believe that they would sleep in for the 2 year transit to the ringed gas giant. But Cooper didn't appear to go into cryosleep. Suddenly the spaceship Endurance arrives at Saturn, plus wormhole, and Cooper is still watching messages from home.
Did he cryosleep at all for the 2 year transit? Did 2 years even pass? We have to assume that he did hibernate, but there was no hint in the movie. Even a little bit of cheesy text at the bottom of the screen saying "2 years later" would have done the trick.
These editing discontinuities caused a jolt in my rising annoyance for the bizarre plot that seemed to shift in focus every 5 minutes. It only made the 3 hours drag. If this was a lesson in time dilation, I could feel it.
One bit of praise I do have for the movie is the realization that Earth gravity may be simulated through a spinning spaceship. We were treated to a wonderful, if dizzying, sequence when the Endurance 'spun up' and the crew suffered a bout of motion sickness as they quickly regained artificial gravity.
Then the crew arrived at the mouth of the wormhole; a beautiful CGI orb refracting starlight from the other galaxy. After a brief lesson about how wormholes work (another jolt as we realize Cooper is being given a physics lesson on Einstein-Rosen Bridges - shouldn't he have been briefed on the physics of spacetime before launching to save humanity?), the Endurance races toward the wormhole and bang! Like ripping down from the apex of the biggest, most thrilling rollercoaster, we ride through the wormhole.
Forgetting the science for a moment, I genuinely enjoyed this part of the movie. It conveyed what a traversable wormhole could do in a way that was both understandable by non-physicists while making it a thrilling ride. The visuals were better than any Star Trek CGI set piece.
I know that traversable wormholes are at best improbable and I know that fitting a spaceship into one probably wouldn't turn out so well, but this is sci-fi! Disbelief put on hold, all good, and wow, what a ride!
Sadly, my excitement was tempered again and again by a plot and a crew that wanted to philosophize about space, time and love. Does love know no bounds? Is it a multidimensional signal? Does love transcend space, time and black hole drama? According to Amelia Brand, sure! And sure enough, that emotion became the contrived backbone to Cooper finding his way home again. Egh.
Black Hole Badness
Then there's the black hole.
I was so excited to see the black hole (or 'Gargantuan' as the crew called it), especially after all the hype of it being the most accurate black hole in movie history.
Unfortunately, Nolan decided to get a little loose with the physics at this point, which left me wondering: Why bother going into so much detail, even employing the help of Kip Thorne - one of the most famous black hole experts in the world - to create a scientifically accurate black hole when you're going to run roughshod over the physics of basic planetary and orbital dynamics?
After arriving near Gargantuan, with potentially habitable worlds (apparently) heated by the black hole's bright accretion disk, Cooper is only just then informed that NASA and the rest of the crew knew a black hole was there but Cooper was obviously not briefed.
Did they really leave Earth so quickly to not bother mentioning to their ace pilot that they might be encountering a black hole? I know that storytellers need to explain things along the way, but this was getting lame. It left our hero looking clueless.
One of the worlds the crew needed to visit was covered in shallow water. Visually, I thought it was compelling. As they tried to seek out the flight recorder of a lost mission that went before them, the crew, up to their knees in water, encounter waves... inexplicable waves that are a mile high.
Time Dilation and Tidal Destruction
I can only explain why the monster waves were that big as the planet is orbiting deep inside the tidal shear of the black hole just outside the event horizon. Yep, a planet orbiting a black hole just outside the event horizon, a region that would not be physically stable for any planet to form, let alone orbit. CORRECTION (Nov. 10): As mentioned by Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, who also made the assumption that a stable orbit so close to a black hole was not possible, Gargantuan was actually a rapidly spinning black hole that, as mentioned in the movie, actually allows for stable planetary orbits. My mistake.
Being so deep inside the black hole's event horizon came with another issue for the crew - time dilation.
Compared with people back on Earth, who are inside a weaker gravitational field than Cooper and co., each hour on this water world meant 7 years are passing on Earth. This is basically a variation on Einstein's Twin Paradox thought experiment (only swapping special relativity for general relativity) and a realization that time is a commodity. I quite enjoyed its inclusion in the story, you could feel Cooper's fear that the more time he spent on that planet, many years would separate him from his family.
Einstein's general theory of relativity predicts that time will run differently for two observers in and out of a gravitational well. The closer you are to a massive object, the slower your time will run. An everyday example is the slight time difference GPS satellites have to compensate for - time runs faster in orbit than down here on Earth.
But if the time dilation on the water world was that strong, you have to wonder how the crew survived in such a deep gravitational well.
But wait just a minute, how is the planet even there? The black hole tidal shear should have ripped it to shreds.
OK, it's Just Fantasy
Rather than harping on about how scientifically unreasonable the worlds the crew visited were - one even had 'frozen clouds'; how does that work? - I decided to throw all the planetary dynamics into a box labelled "fantasy." These worlds and the much-publicized black hole were no longer science fiction, they were fantasy. So I got out of my science ivory tower and re-tried to get back to enjoying the film.
Then, Matt Damon happened.
For me, the appearance of Damon's character, Dr Mann, was as unnecessary as it was surprising. Mann is basically a jerk whose purpose was to ramp up the drama. He was one of NASA's first team - a member of the Lazarus Mission - to explore this new galaxy and habitable worlds and was waiting to be rescued, but behind all his annoying philosophizing, Mann is a bad and cowardly man.
Yet another lesson about humanity's ineptitude, thanks Nolan.
As if there wasn't enough drama - you know, exploring black holes, alien worlds, the meaning of life and multidimensional theory - we needed Matt Damon to create some havoc.
Damon's character, who obviously isn't that smart, eventually has a tangle with the Endurance's airlock, which triggers a sequence of events that leads to a scene more at home in the "Fast and Furious" movies.
I was exhausted by this point.
Gravity, Meet Quantum Physics
Then came the central idea to save humanity: we must reconcile gravity and quantum dynamics. Yes, Interstellar went there too and, if I'm honest, I was excited about how Nolan would deal with it. Cue: the black hole dive.
The discussions about the reasoning for being able to see beyond the black hole were interesting and it started to re-awaken my hope that the movie would end on a high note. It certainly ended on a CGI high note - Cooper flying over the black hole's accretion disk and then eventually through the event horizon. By doing so he was hoping to find the answer to quantum gravity. Unfortunately, we were back into fantasy land.
There was no mention of the black hole's tides, no mention about warped spacetime (that would have subjected Cooper and his spaceship to some extreme spaghettification) and instead we were treated to a prolonged light display ripped straight from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."
One may argue how such a messed-up thing like spaghettification could be represented in a movie? Of course, it can't (if you want your central character to remain in one piece that is), but completely botching the science of a black hole when also declaring that the black hole is the most accurate representation of a black hole in movie history is just, well, an annoying contradiction.
Multidimensions... and Love
To describe Interstellar's ending would require an article in itself, but just imagine Nolan's "Inception" meeting Robert Zemeckis' adaptation of Carl Sagan's "Contact." But in true Interstellar style, everything had to be laboriously explained by Cooper as he tried to fathom the multidimensional nature of being locked inside a black hole's event horizon.
Suddenly, we find out who "They" are (as if you hadn't worked that out already) and Cooper expertly navigates 5 dimensions in his spacesuit locked behind his daughter's bookshelf. And love is what guided him through. Oh yes, and gravity is a dimension that transcends time and space just like love. Or something.
Visually, Nolan did well when portraying multidimensional space; worlds wrapped within worlds, dimensions unfolding to reveal an infinite number of other possibilities. This mindboggling sequence was great, but by this point in the movie I just wondered how long it was going to be until the houselights came back on.
At some point, weeks later, the movie did end. But I'm not going to tell you how. Let's just say I let out my hundredth sigh and rolled my eyes, summoned the strength to stand and limped out of the theater.
I certainly have more criticisms about the movie that I do have praise. That's because this movie had so much potential, but rather than trusting good science could be carried with good storytelling, it kept slipping into fantasy and baffling soul searching. All this while being dressed up as an epic story of science and exploration, a promise "Interstellar" certainly could not keep.
Disclaimer: The opinions in this review do not necessarily reflect the official views of Discovery Communications.