Distant planets are not immune to ennui.


25 November 2014

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Plot summary

With our time on Earth coming to an end, a team of explorers undertakes the most important mission in human history: traveling beyond this galaxy to discover whether mankind has a future among the stars.

Interstellar needs to be three hours.  The wonderful Nolan touch of making the incredible credible is here, making the fantastic mundane (The Dark Knight was less comic book than believable psychological drama, with no fait accompli supervillains, but character development [or disintegration] worthy of Cassavetes). He gives us the sense of entrapment and doom by taking the time to linger, helpless, as the earth begins to expire.  We also get the slog of galactic travel, the time in distant space that feels like we’ve been somewhere remote and mostly boring. Distant planets are not immune to ennui.

Matthew McConaughy’s Cooper (like his namesake) is an American he-man, a cowboy with The Right Stuff, bucking at the bridle, as all he-men do, itching to get back in the saddle, fire off a few rounds, and boldly go where no man has gone before.  Unfortunately, he’s been sidelined by global environmental devastation (nicely handled, a post-digital world dustbowl) and he tries to work up an enthusiasm for growing corn and, you know, doing stuff women do.  But a homestead is not for the likes of him.  He refuses to be neutered by the ignorance and short-sightedness of folks too bureaucratic to know that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, and soon gets to start manifesting destiny again.  He has a family, a son, who’s a natural with corn, so that’s all right, a gruff father-in-law played by John Lithgow, and a daughter named Murph, bright like her dad, who reads astronomy books, like some kind of space genius, though she does suddenly turn stupid or developmentally delayed when there’s a cute moment to be milked, like when they down an unmanned drone and she says, ‘Let it go—it wasn’t hurting anyone.’  It’s not a butterfly.  It’s a machine, and she would know better.

So Cooper is soon enlisted by magic gravity telegrams to go to a secret bat-cave where scientists, including Cooper’s old Professor Brand, (Michael Caine) toil selflessly (this is a world where science is bad and a lie, and agriculture is good—a dystopian future that sounds exactly like modern-day Kansas).  Cooper also meets Professor Brand’s hot theoretical physicist daughter, also Brand (Anne Hathaway), and is told a wormhole has appeared just beside Saturn, so why the hell not.  And soon off they go, dipped in fluid and put on ice for a while before they get to what appears to be a new Disneyland attraction and then roller coaster to another dimension.  Here they follow the leads to three potential habitable planets.  Cooper and Brand don’t believe that they’ll make it to all three, but we do, we believe that they’ll visit them all before the three hours is up, despite the jeopardy and hand-wringing they go through about not enough fuel, not enough time, too much gravity.  The planets are in the Goldilocks Zone of actual science (or the Circumstellar Habitable Zone), and the metaphor actually becomes narrative template, The Rule of Three: this planet’s far too wet, this one is far too cold, and this one is juuuuuuust right.  We believe it because we believe in love!

The problem was that this was a movie about hard science.  This was about physics, quantum mechanisms, Einstein’s relativity; proudly so, and determinedly did not go in for finding dinosaurs on distant planets, or planets with remarkably earth-like gravity and atmospheres, with wild-haired go-go girls running around in fur bikinis. Nor did it have aliens who speak remarkably good English, though for some reason sounding like robots.  No.  This was about lonely distances, about how water and atmospheres perform with different gravity, and it makes the relativity of time devastatingly, emotionally, tangible.  It also touted that there were top theoretical physicists and ex-astronauts on set keeping it real (or real in the theoretical sense). But clouds that freeze, and still stay aloft?  Icebergs don’t float like balloons!  But even in 80 per cent gravity they wouldn’t be clouds anymore, they’d be crashing glaciers. Even a lone snowflake, when it freezes, can’t even help falling.  Even in 50 per cent gravity. And we know it’s not less, because the astronauts are falling into the ice just as hard as they would on earth and not floating away.  Which scientist was on set?  L. Ron Hubbard?  And wormholes, of course, are only theory.  But it’s still hard science theory.  Wormholes don’t stay open and stable like convenience stores.  From what I remember from that cute man on a BBC programme about space, wormholes shut tighter and faster than a Mormon’s asshole in prison.  Either it is hard science fiction or fantasy science fiction.  You can’t have it both ways.

And then, spoiler alert, but you’d have to be a medical idiot not to know it was going to happen, there’s the business of  ‘no one’s seen beyond an event horizon’ of a black hole.  Because there’s nothing to see.  Light can’t even escape, so we wouldn’t see the photons bouncing off of McConaughy’s temple veins and clenched jaw.  The gravity of black holes rip everything apart, and not just into atoms but sub-atomic particles. It’s not an elevator shaft behind bookshelves and lined with flat screen TVs showing ‘This Is Your Life’ on a loop.  Someone, say, Matthew McConaughy, might actually pass through (into a whole new universe) but not in any recognizable shape to attend a family reunion, but as cosmic plasma, a soup of muons and neutrinos with, hopefully, a few Higgs Boson particles thrown in.  We’d be waiting awhile for a sequel.

I feel like I’m getting picky and obsessive-compulsive here, like some shut-in with a subscription to Physics Today and a high-speed Internet connection, but I’m not.  I will gladly believe sword fighting skeletons, Devil Women from Mars, or even Starship Troopers’ giant cockroaches with nuclear farts.  And I do.  Because I’m asked to.  I’ll suspend my disbelief, I’ll suspend logic, if that’s what’s required.  But this film didn’t ask me to; this film rammed it home that it was based on hard science, and theoretical physics.  If black holes are just halls of mirrors, if worm holes are just roller coaster rides, then why not just have the astronauts travel faster than the speed of light (it was good enough for Captain Kirk and Han Solo) and save all the faffing about with hibernation?  And then there’s that moment, that Anne Hathaway moment, where she says ‘Maybe we’ve spent too long trying to figure all this out with theory.’  Well, yes.  You’ve sort of based the movie around it.  And it has been, like, two hours already, and we’re still in the second act.  Maybe it’s time to lower the IQ around 50 notches and go for the mawkish cliché.  It worked for Gravity.  So, we get this: ‘Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.’  Love is only half way down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Why doesn’t hunger, or need for shelter, transcend time and space?  There were open guffaws in the capacity audience I sat with.  ‘Love is observable’?  Love is an artifact of other dimensions?  So, love as the unifying theory, solving the General Relatively/quantum mechanics quandary that has eluded the most brilliant physicists of our or any age?  So love is more permanent and stronger than the Strong Force that holds atoms together?  Love?  But surely, then, every break up would be a megaton nuclear explosion, and we’d have been dust long before Romeo and Juliet ever cooed in Verona or any swan ever pair-bonded.  Cooper isn’t the only one concerned about harvesting corn.

Rating analysis: Three stars? Five Stars, if you close your eyes during some Anne Hathaway scenes, and accept a genre change in the third act.  One Star if you close your eyes for all the bits except the Anne Hathaway speech, and third act betrayal.