Interstellar (2014) ***˝
Apocalypse and post-apocalypse movies tend to get lumped together, but the kinds of stories they tell are really very different. More often than not, “After the End” is just an excuse to imagine a setting of primitive barbarism unconstrained by historical reality, and when it does serve some loftier purpose, it usually offers up some variation on picking up the pieces to create the world anew on a wiser if perhaps sadder basis. End-of-the-world movies, on the other hand, generally concern themselves with efforts to avert the end of the world. There are a rare handful of apocalypse films, however, in which saving the world simply isn’t an option, in which the best that can be hoped for is escape from a doomed Earth for some small fraction of the human race. Interstellar is the first of those that I can remember coming along in quite a while, and I think the only one I’ve seen that involved neither a nuclear war nor a collision between our planet and some hulking slab of space debris. Borrowing what is normally an After the End trope, its apocalypse takes the form of ecological collapse, made worse by the apathy of a society so inured to privation that leaders and followers alike have pretty much forgotten how to think of problems as things to be solved.
Interstellar never fully explains what the Blight is, but the details don’t matter a lot. It’s enough to say that it’s a disease that has been wiping out the domesticated plants on which humanity depends, one strain or species at a time. There’s no cure, and the only preventive measure that works is total quarantine— find Blight in your fields, and the only hope is to burn the afflicted crop where it stands before the disease can spread any further. That’s bad enough already, but the steady depletion of crop biodiversity also plays havoc with the rotation schemes essential to maintaining healthy soil, with the result that the land itself is being ruined by a runaway dustbowl effect. Most of the staple grains are already gone or in irreversible decline, vegetables are disappearing at an accelerating rate, and animal husbandry is practiced barely anywhere because the remaining fertile farmland won’t support a human race living more than one link up from the anchor point of the food chain. As we join the story, dropping in on the family of a former NASA test pilot and current Colorado corn farmer called Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, from Contact and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation), one of their neighbors has just set fire to the last field of okra anywhere on Earth.
Now it might seem odd that a pilot Cooper’s age (I don’t think he’s supposed to be quite 40 yet at this stage of the game, although McConaughey himself is well past that point) would hang up his wings and start tilling what’s left of the soil, but it’s not like he had a choice in the matter. NASA was disbanded years ago, when its leaders refused to take part in the famine wars that spread across the globe in the wake of agricultural collapse. (Again the details are hazy, but I think we’re supposed to infer that the military tried to press civilian rockets into service as bomb-carriers after emptying its own silos at the starving masses of Latin Americans clamoring against the USA’s southern borders.) Furthermore, the government has responded to the agricultural crisis by conscripting people into farming. Thus not only are Cooper and his father-in-law (John Lithgow, of 2010 and The Day After) growing corn, but his son, Tom (Timothee Chalamet), and daughter, Murphy (MacKenzie Foy, from The Conjuring and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn), are destined to grow corn, too. That’s no problem for the boy. He’s good with his hands, he has a knack for agriculture, and he genuinely enjoys the lifestyle. Murphy, however, is a scientist by talent and temperament, and she wants nothing more than to become an engineer. Cooper encourages her ambitions, even when they lead her into conflict with her fifth-grade teacher (Collette Wolfe) and the principal of her school (David Oyelowo, from Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Matters come to a head on that front when Murphy openly challenges Mrs. Hanley’s characterization of America’s 20th-century space program as an elaborate ruse meant to bankrupt the Soviet Union. As per the now-suppressed “Federal textbook” she found in her father’s library at home, Murphy contends that the Apollo missions were real, and that Neil Armstrong (among others) did walk on the Moon. Mrs. Hanley and the principal have the wrong man if they think Cooper is going to take their side when they call him in to discuss his daughter’s behavior and attitude. The Moon landings were faked? Them’s fightin’ words to an ex-astronaut like Coop. Neither father nor daughter can bring themselves to be too upset when the meeting results in Murphy being kicked out of school.
All of which is really just a roundabout way of saying that Murphy now has a lot of free time in which to pursue a pet project. The girl is convinced that her bedroom is haunted by a mischievous but basically benign ghost, mainly because things keep falling off of her bookshelves in an oddly purposeful manner, but with no apparent mechanism for doing so. When it became apparent that she was too wedded to that notion to be dissuaded with a simple assurance that there’s no such thing as ghosts, Cooper challenged her to prove the poltergeist’s existence empirically by studying, recording, and analyzing its purported activities. One night soon after Murphy’s expulsion, there’s a manifestation too showy and complicated to be ignored or dismissed by even the most hardened naysayer, an arrangement of fallen objects that unmistakably contains coded information. Murphy assumes at first that it’s Morse code, but Cooper recognizes it as a binary representation of a set of map coordinates. The site thus identified turns out to be the decommissioned NORAD facility at Cheyenne Mountain, and driving out there leads Cooper and Murphy into the clutches of some kind of conspiracy.
The next thing Coop knows, he’s separated from his daughter for interrogation by TARS (voiced by The Lady in the Water’s Bill Irwin), a slab-like robot resembling a cross between the 2001 monolith and the puzzle box from Hellraiser. Once it becomes obvious that Cooper isn’t going to cooperate with the machine’s questioning, a human appears on the scene at last. She introducers herself as Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), which gets Coop’s attention, because he knew a scientist by that name once, during his NASA days. And in fact, this Dr. Brand is the daughter of that one (Michael Caine, from Jekyll & Hyde and Dressed to Kill). For that matter, this whole place is the secret hideout of what used to be NASA. The Brands well understand that the monomaniacal focus of humanity’s current leaders upon managing the symptoms of the Earth’s death throes can accomplish nothing but to delay extinction. To prevent it, someone has to think big.
Thinking big in this case means looking beyond not merely the moribund Earth, but beyond our entire solar system. It means building ships that can travel at large fractions of the speed of light to carry scouts to far-distant worlds, on what may well end up being one-way trips. And above all, it means adopting a generational perspective, accepting the possibility that humanity’s next home will be colonized not by the present inhabitants of the homeworld, but by cargoes of frozen embryos that the explorers will carry with them into space. That’s a really tall order, obviously, for a species that decided years ago that all science not directly related to fighting the Blight was a waste of time, but it appears that somebody out in the void is looking out for us. A few years back, a space-time anomaly appeared in orbit around Saturn, which the Brands and their colleagues determined to be a wormhole. Those things aren’t supposed to be stable in nature (if indeed they exist in nature at all), so the fact that this one not only has stayed open for years, but opens onto a star cluster on the other side of the galaxy teeming with potentially habitable planets, suggests to the scientists that it was constructed by an unknown intelligence specifically to serve as an escape hatch for the human race. Ever since the Brand circle reached that conclusion, they’ve been sending people and robots out through the wormhole to investigate those planets up close. Most of the brave souls in question were never heard from again, but three have reported successful landings. Now it’s time for the next phase, an expedition to lay the groundwork for colonization on whichever of those three planets looks the best.
That brings us to the reason why Brand the Elder is explaining what he and his people are up to instead of just chasing Coop and Murphy off of his mountain. The NASA Underground has plenty of scientists, but it’s critically short of spaceship pilots. Given Cooper’s testimony about how he found the lab, Brand Sr. believes that Murphy’s “ghost” is really some avatar of the beings that opened the wormhole, and that Coop has in effect been chosen by them to fly the starship Endurance into the unknown. It’s all a lot to swallow, but a tour of the facility convinces Copper that Brand isn’t just a crackpot squatting in an disused military base. And the more he thinks about it, the clearer it becomes to him that there’s nothing in this or any other world that would be a better use of his abilities than to give Tom, Murphy, and everyone else on Earth a chance at a better life by accepting the scientist’s invitation to pilot the ship. Murphy disagrees, however, and Cooper’s departure on his mission to save the human race leaves her feeling so betrayed and abandoned that she never even bothers to watch the video postcards that he periodically beams back Earthward from the Endurance.
It’s going to be a long trip, you see, or at least it will be from Murphy’s perspective. You know how it is with relativity. But although Murphy grows up into Mama’s Jessica Chastain before she forgives her dad for leaving, she throws herself into the space colonization project just as wholeheartedly in her own way. While Coop, Brand Jr., TARS, another pair of scientists by the names of Romilly (David Gyasi, of Cloud Atlas) and Doyle (Wes Bentley, from P2 and The Hunger Games), and a second robot called CASE (Josh Stewart, of The Collector and Transcendence) seek out a planet that doesn’t suck too much, she joins Brand Sr. working on a rather significant unsolved piece of the problem. Obviously it would be nice if instead of just thawing out those embryos in the Endurance’s cargo hold, the NASA Underground could give everybody currently living on Earth a lift to whichever world Coop and his colleagues settle on as the best of the options before them. The trouble is, a ship big enough to carry that many passengers— or even a meaningful fraction of that many passengers— could never escape from Earth’s gravity well on the power of any currently extant propulsion system. To do that, you’d have to be able to manipulate gravity itself, and the mathematics governing how that might be done are… let’s call it “challenging.” The effort to crack that code occupies Murphy and Brand for decades before a deathbed confession from the old scientist puts a different and rather darker spin on the enterprise.
Meanwhile, Coop’s interstellar house-hunting is hitting snags of its own. The first planet they try, scoped out initially by one Dr. Miller, seems nice enough at first glance. The gravity is a bit much, to be sure, and having a black hole for a sun has to be considered a liability, however stable Planet Miller’s orbit around it appears to be. The atmosphere is breathable, though, and there’s certainly plenty of water. As the explorers discover upon landing, however, there’s actually rather too much water. Planet Miller has no dry land surface at all, although the global ocean is only about ankle deep at the spot where Miller planted her transmitter, and where Coop, Brand, and Doyle set down one of the Endurance landers to look for her. What they fail to realize (and what Miller must not have realized, either) is that the ocean’s local shallowness is caused by the colossal tidal pull from the black hole. Most of Planet Miller’s water is bunched up in a single mammoth wavefront that circles the globe endlessly with no shore to break against. Doyle is killed when the wave arrives, and the lander gets pretty banged up riding the crest until it finishes passing. Worse, the black hole squeezes and stretches time so much that the days it takes Cooper and Brand to make repairs equate to more than 20 years aboard the much more distantly orbiting Endurance, and presumably even longer back home.
That delay also consumes a lot of fuel, so that now the explorers must choose between Planet Edmunds and Planet Mann, rather than investigating both like they planned to. It’s a rather fraught decision either way. Edmunds is closer, and Brand has personal reasons for favoring it, because the eponymous astronaut is her lover. The preliminary data in the report from Mann are more promising, however, with regard to temperature, atmosphere chemistry, and so on. In the end, Brand is outvoted, and the Endurance sets course for Planet Mann. What they find there seems rather at odds with the data on which they based their verdict. The planet proper is hidden from view completely by a complicated, multi-layered maze of clouds made from frozen-solid who-knows-what, and the air above them is too thin to breathe for any length of time. Neither condition betokens a fit home for human beings. However, Dr. Mann (Matt Damon, from Elysium and The Zero Theorem) is still alive to explain his findings, which he says reflect conditions down on the surface. He’s never been there himself, mind you, but his automated probes have, and they tell him it’s quite nice. There’s just one problem— Mann is lying. His data are all fabrications meant to lure somebody into picking him up from this hellish iceball, nevermind that he went into the project knowing full well that by doing so he risked sentencing himself to a prolonged and lonely death. And if the Endurance crew won’t just do that, then Mann is quite prepared to kill them and seize control of their ship. Put Mann’s betrayal together with what Murphy learned from the dying Brand Sr., and this starts looking like a good time for those unseen aliens to put their thumbs on the scale again.
Interstellar isn’t a polemical film as such, but it is one that invites you to ponder where we as a species are headed. Its world is populated by people determined to live in the past, clinging to ways of life that are just barely possible any longer, and are in no way viable going forward. Its authority figures attempt to lie their way to success, falsifying history and misrepresenting the present on the theory that ordinary people can’t handle the truth. Its heroes, villains, and bystanders alike are driven by narrowly personal (if not necessarily selfish) motives, and neither bravery nor intelligence serves them as any guarantee against the chattering of the stupid, spiteful monkey that lives in the cellar of every human mind.
Interstellar’s examination of these issues feels uncommonly honest because the crucial flaws and failings are so widely and believably distributed. It’s easy to condemn the authorities (stood in for here by Murphy’s teacher and principal) for their myopic focus on treating the symptoms, or for their willingness to deceive people into getting with the program, but Brand Sr. is no more truthful in the way he drums up support, and while his objective is more far-sighted, his defeatist acceptance of the harshest and most unpalatable route to achieving it isn’t far preferable to the government’s defeatist acceptance of near-term human extinction. It’s easy to condemn the adult Tom (Casey Affleck, of Soul Survivors and The Killer Inside Me) for refusing to leave the family homestead even after he and his family begin suffering the respiratory effects of dust and ash borne on the wind from the surrounding dead farmland, simply because he knows no other way to live, but take a close look at Coop and Murphy. Murphy spends almost 30 years resenting her father for trying to save the human race, believing that deep down, the opportunity to be an astronaut again means more to him than she does, and although she’s completely wrong about that, Coop’s first instinct upon receiving word of Brand Sr.’s deathbed confession— to abandon the mission and race home to spend whatever time remains to Murphy with her— doesn’t exactly cover him with glory, either. But if I had to pick a poster child for Interstellar’s take on human character, it would have to be Dr. Mann. Early on, Brand describes Mann as the best and bravest of the NASA Underground, and there’s every reason to imagine that it was true before he set down on that awful planet. It’s one thing to face death with equanimity, but something else again to face life in total isolation, on the wrong side of the galaxy and with no hope of rescue, in a place just hospitable enough to rule out a swift and merciful demise. It’s a self-serving justification, obviously, but when Mann admonishes Cooper, “Don’t judge me— you haven’t been tested like I have,” he isn’t wrong.
All that probably makes Interstellar sound incredibly depressing, and honestly it kind of is. But at the same time, it’s a hopeful movie, too, because its main purpose in harping on all the aforementioned human limitations is to make sure we understand just how much it means when Coop, Murphy, Brand Jr., and the rest rise above them. It’s also noteworthy that rising above means something rather different here than I was expecting. Interstellar comes dangerously close in the end to the infuriating old “Man is a feeling creature, and because of it the greatest in the universe” routine, but what it really means by invoking the power of love is that the key to transcending ourselves (and our selfishness) is for each of us to extend the circle of our empathy as far as it will go. That stupid, spiteful monkey I mentioned before will go down fighting for its clan, after all, so it’s a matter of training it to see as many people as possible as part of the clan. The characters in this story who can take the risks and make the sacrifices necessary to ensure human survival beyond the death of the homeworld are those who have someone they care about counting on them— or who had someone they cared about, whose sacrifices will lose all meaning unless somebody else comes forward to make them mean something.
Another tired trope on which Interstellar puts a commendably unusual spin is the benevolent, godlike alien. Remember that none of the NASA Underground’s plans would be viable without that convenient artificial wormhole, and that Coop and Murphy are pushed to discover and join up with the escape effort by instructions from Murphy’s “ghost,” also assumed to be an aspect of the wormhole beings. Interstellar offers a uniquely convincing rationale for an extraterrestrial intelligence to take such an interest in the fate of our species, and a rationale that eventually dovetails perfectly with the cosmological ideas explored closer to the surface of the story. I won’t tell you what it is, but I will say that Brand Sr. and his colleagues are at best a third right in their assumptions about the creatures that built the wormhole. And when Cooper learns what’s really going on at their end, it provides an exceptionally strong excuse for a 2001-style mindfuck sequence, with a meaning that isn’t radically dependent upon the audience being stoned out of their minds. Interstellar’s advertising campaign gave me hope that we’d be seeing a genuinely brainy (as opposed to Wachowski-brainy) sci-fi movie to make up for the existence of four Michael Bay Transformers films. Awfully considerate of Hollywood not to disappoint me on that score.