Thursday, January 8, 2015


There is a scene at the start of Interstellar that feels uncomfortably prophetic. Cooper, an astronaut turned farmer (played by Matthew McConaughey) is brought to his daughter's school for a parent teacher conference. His daughter, Murph, has gotten in trouble for bringing an old textbook to school. The teacher explains that they now use corrected textbooks, which accurately explain that the Apollo missions were really an effective propaganda tool to get the Russians to bankrupt themselves, but that humans have never actually been to the moon.

As depicted in Interstellar, humanity's future is pretty bleak. Blight has wiped out all but a handful of crops, and even those are dying out. The space program has to operate in secret because people don't think space exploration is a useful way to spend taxpayer money when famine is imminent. However, it appears that humanity's only hope is to begin colonizing other planets.

In the film, possible salvation for humanity comes in the form of a wormhole that has opened up near Saturn. Astronomers have determined that there are three potentially habitable worlds on the other side of it, but they do not know which, if any, is the most suitable for colonization. A team of astronauts, led by Cooper, have to decide for themselves which planet may be the key to the continuation of the human race.

The idea that humanity may have to colonize other planets to survive as a race is a possible future scenario that may await us. In fact, it may not just be probable. It may be inevitable. With that in mind, director Christopher Nolan aimed to depict the events in this movie as realistically as possible. While the film does employ some "cheats," such as having the characters go into suspended animation, it strips away a lot of sci-fi tropes in favor of brutally honest physics. As a result, Nolan has created a film that shows a version of space travel we rarely see on film. This isn't like the worlds of Star Trek or Star Wars, where traveling between planets is as easy as taking a road trip. This is a film where space travel is dangerous and untested, and missions are just as likely to fail as they are to succeed.

Although a wormhole plays a critical role in the film, space ships in the film don't have means of faster-than-light travel, so moving through space is still a long and arduous journey. The relative nature of time is also addressed, meaning that time passes differently for some characters in the film because of the effects of speed and gravity. However, the most brutally honest aspect of interplanetary colonization that Interstellar addresses is that for those first colonists, it will likely be a one way trip, and there is the possibility that nobody else will follow after.

Against this setting, Christopher Nolan crafts an intensely emotional film about humanity's drive to survive, and the consequences that come from characters forced to choose between taking actions to be with the ones they love versus possibly saving the human race. On paper, it may seem like an easy choice, that you go with saving humanity, because if the human race dies out, so do your loved ones. However, in the film it's clear that the mission has a very low chance of success, so if humanity is going to die out anyway, do you make that impossible effort to try to save it, or do you spend those last moments with the ones you care about?

Nolan is known for being an adamant supporter of using practical visual effects (meaning effects done on set, and not through computer generated imagery,) and it's something that helps keep the story as a character driven drama. The alien worlds look fantastical, but also plausible. You really feel that the actors are on these far off worlds, because they didn't shoot their scenes on a green screen trying to imagine what they look like. The result is that you're focused on the challenging dilemmas posed to the characters.

There's no denying that Interstellar is heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, instead of being a film that rips off from it's predecessor, Interstellar feels like a movie that's a response to 2001. When 2001 came out, it was the height of interest in NASA's space program. We had not yet landed on the Moon, and were already dreaming of missions to go beyond it. Computers were becoming an increasing part of every day society, but we didn't yet trust relying on machines for crucial tasks. Now, we have a space program that's fighting for funding, and has to constantly justify its existence to critics. We inherently rely on machines for every day tasks. It's other humans we've come to distrust.

This difference of mentalities over the year is reflected in both films. 2001 is a tale of wonder and exploration, where the greatest obstacle proves to be a homicidally sentient computer. Interstellar is a tale of desperation and necessity, where sentient machines are the most reliable characters in the story, and the greatest obstacle proves to be humans' ability to trust and communicate with each other.

Speaking of the robots in Interstellar, I dare say they were one of the more unexpectedly intriguing parts of the movie. Throughout the film are robots with names like T.A.R.S. and C.A.S.E., and which bear a striking resemblance to the monoliths of 2001. Yet, despite their bulky and rigid shape, their voices sound natural and human. It actually took me a moment to realize that the human voice of T.A.R.S. was not an off screen character, but the faceless monolith appearing onscreen. The result is that even though the robots are as un anthropomorphic as a robot can get, they feel as much of full bodied characters as their human counterparts. Perhaps this is due in no small part to the fact that for most of their onscreen appearances, they are portrayed by puppets that were actually on set with the actors, and directly interacted with them, and not CGI'ed in afterward.

Like Gravity, this is one of those films that is meant to be watched on the largest screen possible. The panoramas of outer space and other planets have their full effect when they take up your whole field of vision. Christopher Nolan, being the fan of analog filmmaking that he is, decided to shoot Interstellar on actual film, not digitally, so the movie looks grainier than we've become accustomed to lately, but it does add a touch of timelessness to it. The slightly old-fashioned look of the film suggests that just as 2001 is a film that is still being watched 50 years down the road, that Interstellar may be a movie that people still watch 50 years into the future.

Overall, Interstellar feels like both a thank you letter to the pioneers of space exploration, and a plea for the continued existence of space programs. The film sends the message that space exploration is hard, and as we push out further into space, it will only get harder. More will be demanded of the men and women who take the voyages into deep space than has ever been demanded of anybody in human history, but the payoffs will be invaluable.

Whatever career path you've chosen in life, it's hard to walk out of Interstellar and feel a tinge of regret for not having pursued a career in physics or as an astronaut. (Unless of course you are a physicist or astronaut, in which case this film will surely make you feel emboldened about your career choice.) This is one of those films you should take your kid to to inspire them to study science, (once you think they're old enough to sit through a three hour epic). The truth is, we need more films like this. Pulp science fiction films are fun, but we also need more films that explore hard science and that generate a public dialogue of what can it can accomplish. In other words, we need more movies that take the wonder and amazement that is found in fantasy films, and asks the audience, "How much of this can be done for real?"

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