Futurist’s review: Interstellar


InterstellarInterstellar, the Christopher Nolan movie (co-written by himself and Jonathan Nolan), is the sort of science fiction movie that comes along very seldom these days… unfortunately for all of us.  In an entertainment market that will go out of its way to throw boy wizards, zombies and Klingons at ravenous audiences—but turn up its nose when someone offers real scientific content—Interstellar strives to hit some notes that are rarely touched by Hollywood anymore.  But as those science notes are nested within some of the more well-known notes preferred by Pop Movie 101 aficionados, this movie does a great job hitting the right notes at the right times.

(Spoiler-free review follows)

The basic premise is pure Pop Movie 101: Apocalypse.  Simply, the Earth is losing its ability to feed humans, so the remnants of NASA decide to look for a new home for humanity, thanks to a wormhole that mysteriously appeared near Saturn.  Explorers have already gone through to explore the planets on the other side, and this new mission is to find out what happened to them.  Though the trip out there could take months for our heroes, it could take decades for those on Earth, so it’s a serious sacrifice for ex-pilot Cooper to leave his family in order to lead the mission to another galaxy.

The Endurance orbits the wormhole in Interstellar.

The Endurance orbits the wormhole in Interstellar.

Though much of the movie’s “action” tends to be more cerebral than physical, leading some to perceive it as slow in spots, in fact very little of this movie is wasted space.  Elements of the movie are often introduced and, without a preamble or mini-exposition by a character explaining something to the audience, the story moves right along, forcing the audience to pretty much accept what they’re seeing and move right along with it.

And then, just when the lazier of the viewers are thinking about sneaking out for more popcorn, the movie will slap a very exciting physical moment in the middle of the drama, kicking everyone’s heart into gear and reeling them right back in.

Lest you think that this movie is all science and the occasional surprise, there is a wonderful side-story regarding the astronauts’ families back at home; not just whether they will see them again, but whether the astronauts’ efforts will actually help those at home, or leave them to die with a dying Earth.  It is this side-story that ties everything together and hits the movie out of the park.

Here is where the Nolans shine: Taking what is essentially a simple premise, and crafting an excellent script, with strong and realistic characters, some interesting twists and turns, plenty of emotion and an incredible climax.  Interstellar provides all of that in a very entertaining and satisfying story that left me thinking of Person of Interest, another Jonathan Nolan vehicle that wonderfully combines action with scientific conjecture and social examination.

Interstellar black hole

The KipThorne-approved black hole in Interstellar. It’s design was rendered by the special effects crew based on Thorne’s calculations; and reputedly, when Thorne saw it, he said: “Yes, of course it would look like that!”

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that physicist Kip Thorne is the movie’s scientific advisor, and Nolan put him to excellent use working out the mechanics of wormholes, black holes and visiting other planets (the movie was given Neil deGrasse Tyson’s approval in this more spoiler-y article).  The engineering is equally well-developed: The spacecraft look futuristic, but practical.  Even the effectively non-anthropomorphic robot works, seeming very realistic while not projecting the usual kind of “man-in-a-suit” smoothness or “toy bot” cuteness that audiences are now fully acclimated to.  At no point during the first two hours (yes, it’s a 2.5-hour flick) do you doubt the physics of anything seen in this movie; in this way, Interstellar is sure to be compared to movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact in bringing as realistic a scientific background to the screen as possible.  (I wish I could add Gravity to that august list, but as its basic premise is based on much shakier physics, I’m sorry to say it doesn’t measure up here.)

I (and Tyson) were also glad to see that the main characters here are all scientists, engineers, astronauts, extending across generations.  Like 2001, Contact and Gravity, Interstellar is a movie about nerds… and they handle themselves just fine, they don’t stutter or fret or step into the shadows when a heavily-muscled hero takes center stage.  Those of us who feel like science, technology, engineering and mathematics are usually given short shrift in entertainment will be very happy to see them taking center stage here.

Though the bulk of Interstellar tends toward scientific accuracy, the climax is much less so, giving viewers a resolution that tends toward the “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” kind of sci-fi that fans of Doctor Who would appreciate.  To be fair, though, the climax is centered around pure scientific speculation regarding space and time… and it’s not as if 2001 or Contact didn’t take a few liberties around theoretical physics for the sake of entertainment.  Though the resolution is thoroughly Dues ex machina, it does serve to bring the audience to a much more satisfying ending (maybe even more logical than they expected to get).

Production-wise, the movie is nigh-meticulous.  Parts of the movie were filmed in IMAX, and it shows, primarily in the space scenes.  Most of the Earth-based scenes were not filmed in IMAX, and as the scenes often depict a gritty, dust-covered world, that’s just fine; but in a world that, it is suggested, is almost literally choking on dust, there were occasional scenes of beautiful sunny days, blue skies and a few wispy clouds, leaving the audience to wonder exactly how bad this Earth is supposed to be… because it often doesn’t look bad at all.

I saw Interstellar in an IMAX presentation; naturally, this meant the theater projectors felt it was their duty to shove the speaker volume up to 11 to fit this “big” movie.  I was occasionally surprised to discover that the rumbling of a rocket engine or other similar sounds had my trouser legs vibrating.  At times, the action or background score reached such a constant and unrelenting crescendo that people were leaving the theater for auditory preservation.  (I’m old.  I bring earplugs to movies now.  Otherwise, I’d’ve left with the others.)

I could ask a question or two about the movie’s scientific elements… but of course, I’m no physicist (despite not being a Republican), and am in no position to tell Kip Thorne that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  One thing I definitely wondered was: If this wormhole was “sent to humanity” by someone ostensibly helping us to find a new home, why did they need to put it all the way out by Saturn?  Is there some reason it couldn’t have been a few weeks out beyond the Moon?  But given the rest of the experience, I’m fully prepared to give that one a pass and move right along.

So, overall, I’d give Interstellar 5 stars, and I look forward to adding it to my DVD collection (I’ll take blu-ray, please) when it is available.  If you like movies with plenty of scientific accuracy, check this one out.  If you’re interested in more action, adventure and explosions… just sit tight, the next Star Wars movie is right around the corner.

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