Interstellar (2014) Review
Have you ever looked up at the sky on an exceptionally clear night - one where massive planets and stars long departed punctuate the endless darkness? If you’re anything like me, when you look up at those stars, nebulas, and distant galaxies, you are overcome with awe. Life gets so overwhelming on this planet sometimes that we often forget to look up. We are solemnly reminded of the scale of our existence in the scheme of this infinite universe. Our day to day ongoings swallow us up and we forget about the deeper inquisitions of this life. Few films have been able to capture the vast expanse of space in the way that Christopher Nolan has in his mind-bending, 2014 film, Interstellar. Film has long been a platform to explore the seemingly unanswerable questions of the human condition. Interstellar is a brilliant musing on these subjects; not only does it explore the possibilities of space and time, but it prompts us to look within ourselves and ask what is most important. What drives us and moves us most as we journey throughout this adventure called life?
[*Get ready to get PHILOSOPHICAL folks...*]
Many have searched for the key to human existence, and for the “answers” to the greatest questions we face as a species: what is the meaning of life, why are we here, and what happens when we die? While many claim to have the answers, scientists and theologists alike would agree that there is a great deal in this universe that is beyond our comprehension. This is where the science fiction genre thrives; right on the line between dreams and reality; grasping for glimpses of the truth. There’s certainly something to say about the time spent in that headspace, and how we emerge differently than when we entered the cinema. Seamlessly blending science with fiction, Interstellar captures the mental, physical, and emotional experience of plunging head first into the unknown.
A Little Background on Director Christopher Nolan:
While countless films and series have entertained the idea of space travel (Lost in Space, Alien, and Raised by Wolves, to name a few), few have dared to explore the realities of space and time travel in the same caliber as Interstellar. Known for his mind bending visual effects and non-linear storytelling, Nolan is well respected as a filmmaker for his Academy Award winning works such as Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Memento (2000). Nolan is known for existential themes in his works, and his ability to skirt the edge between reality and fiction with ease. A prodigy who began shooting film at the age of 7, Nolan’s work demonstrates a love for real world, documentary style filming over studio-created work and CGI graphics. His cinematic works include well crafted practical effects and a diverse array of flavorful characters. Nolan’s preference for realism in cinema has generated worldwide renown, and was particularly well-lauded in 2012 following the release of Interstellar.
Relativity and the Realities of Space Travel in Interstellar:
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of this film is the “realness” that is achieved by Nolan by limiting the use of CGI and other key stylistic choices. This included decisions such as having a human puppeteer a robot named TARS, rather than making it completely computer generated, or shooting a scene in the harsh, unforgiving landscape of Iceland to convey the sense of a uninhabitable, foreign environment. One particularly interesting facet of authenticity in this film involved Nolan’s choice to consult a real life theoretical physicist named Kip Thorne.
In an interview with NPR, Nolan discusses an occasion where Throne would not allow him to have a character travel faster than the speed of light. This comes back to Albert Einstein’s groundbreaking idea of relativity. According to the theory of general relativity, objects in our universe with a lot of mass - and thus more gravity - can warp space and time around them. One of the most basic examples is in our very own solar system. The Sun - an object with great gravitational pull and mass - warps space around it, causing the planets (Earth, Mars, Neptune, etc) to orbit. Though we cannot see it, gravity is dynamic and powerful, and it greatly it affects how objects move both through space, and here on Earth.
According to an article written by NBC titled, “What is Relativity? Einstein’s Mind Bending Theory Explained,” author Dan Falk explains that, “This warping affects measurements of time. We tend to think of time as ticking away at a steady rate. But just as gravity can stretch or warp space, it can also dilate time.” Many experiments have been created to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity, including examples such as observing light from distant stars. This is explained in an article by author Calla Colfield, where she says, “A ray of light normally travels in a straight line through empty space, but if the ray passes close by a massive object, the curve in space created by the star acts like a bend in the road, causing the light ray to veer away from its formerly straight path.” This “lens” appearing over a star - a somewhat recent discovery in science (2017) - has since been named an Einstein Ring, and it allows us to better calculate the mass of an individual star.
In short, what this and other experiments have helped to prove, is that Einstein’s theories of relativity are a huge factor when considering the possibility of space travel for humans. Relativity is the same reason why rockets, after launching and leaving the atmosphere, have to drop off sections. To get away from Earth’s gravitational pull, a rocket has to lose weight. The less mass and gravity an object has, the faster it travels through space.
Still, even with the most cutting edge technology, travel through space is a remarkably slow process. In Interstellar, it takes the crew about 2 years in hibernation to reach the planet Jupiter. If we could travel at the speed of light, it would only take 45 minutes. 2 years is what it took Voyager 1 & 2 to reach Jupiter on a straight route in 1979. To show you the importance of considering relativity in relation to space travel, a more indirect path (manuevering around the Mercury and other objects) taken by Galileo in 1989, took 6 years to reach its destination. Other objects in space such as asteroids, moons, or even a black hole, could complicate the space travel timeline dramatically. No matter how prepared, an astronaut faces an infinite number of unknown variables once out there. Black holes are among one of greatest mysteries to humanity and modern science. Here, exists a mysterious invisible giant with undocumented mass and gravitational pull; we have no idea how it functions, or what exists beyond it. We only know that it exists because we can see the evidence of it pulling other objects in. For many of us here on Earth, this is both an exciting and terrifying concept. For Christopher Nolan, it was the foundation on which the Interstellar was born.
In Interstellar, we become aware of the life-threatening impacts of relativity when the main characters - pilot Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and scientist, Dr. Ameila Brand (Anne Hathaway) - make their first landing on a foreign planet after traveling through a wormhole. Shortly after landing on the unknown planet, the crew discovers NASA wreckage, assuming the worst of the researcher (Dr. Miller) who was stationed there. Dr. Brand’s naive insistence on recovering data costs one crew member their life, while the remaining few narrowly escape certain death. In the time it takes to repair the lander on the foreign planet - a total of 45 minutes - 23 Earth years pass. When they arrive back at the “Endurance,” - their larger ship constructed for deep space travel - fellow crew member, and physicist , Dr. Romily appears at the door aged 23 years. For me, this is truly one of the most crushing moments of the film. Cooper and Brand, in a state of shock, anger, and hysteria, race into another section of the ship where they can watch the messages sent by their loved ones back on Earth. 23 years of hopeless messages await the defeated Cooper and Brand, as the remaining crew attempts to find a way to rescue the colony from Earth, with limited time, fuel, and the future of the human race weighing on their conscience.
Characters & Narrative Development:
Though the film is well known for delivering an arsenal of all encompassing effects and intense action that captivate the viewer from start to finish, there is an enlightening narrative that serves as a background for the film and its characters. The story centers around astronauts Joseph Cooper and Dr. Ameila Brand, who are played by two actors I don’t usually particularly love, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. In fact, in the many times I watched the trailer for this film, I had often decided against it because of McConaughey’s major role. What I soon found out, is the trailer leaves much to be desired, and that’s ultimately for the best. No one wants to watch a trailer that shows you the whole movie in 2 minutes. However, after being ridiculed by my roommate for not having seen a movie that shared the same name as my business all these years, I finally decided to give this film a chance, and I was glad I did.
Among my favorite characters was Cooper’s daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain), who is named after Murphy’s Law. The more common translation of this popular adage is, “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” and it’s something we say in the music business a lot. However, when Murph asks her dad Cooper why her parents named her after something bad, Cooper reassures her by saying that the true meaning of Murphy’s law is something along the lines of, “anything that can happen will happen.” In changing, “what WILL go wrong” to “what CAN happen,” Cooper makes an important differentiation.This exchange between Murph and Cooper is a crucial one, because it foreshadows Murph’s limitless potential, and her ability to alter the course of human history.
Contrast to Murphy is her brother Tom. Unlike Murph, who is curious, driven, and adventurous, Tom represents the stubborn and dying mentality of the human species that is unwilling to adapt. Giving up on the idea that his father will return from space, Tom tries to make the best of his situation on Earth by getting married taking over the family farm . In contrast to Murphy, who works tirelessly at the NASA facility following in the footsteps of her dad, Tom seems to have his domestic “human” needs covered. As years pass, he routinely ridicules Murph for holding on to hope that their father will return. Ultimately, Tom’s inability to be open minded and optimistic results in the demise of his family and his life. Soon, his corn crops - the last crops on Earth - are beginning to fall to a sweeping blight caused by environmental climate change. The situation on Earth continues to become more and more desperate.
Meanwhile, up in space, there are some interesting interpersonal dynamics going on. I have to admit that for not being a fan of her acting style, Anne Hathaway did an excellent job with the role of Dr. Brand. A bit naive but intuitive, empathetic and certainly intelligent, Brand hopes with all her heart that the Endurance crew will be successful in their mission to save the human race. She is met with resistance by Cooper, a die-hard realist who struggles to see beyond his short term goals to save his children. Things get especially interesting when - after much debate in regards to limited fuel and flightpath - the crew decides to travel to the foreign planet where Dr. Hugh Mann (Matt Damon) landed decades (30 years) earlier. Captain of a mission to find planets habitable for human life, Dr. Mann had sent communication to NASA that his planet was suitable for colonization. To their utter horror and disbelief, Cooper and Brand quickly discover the truth about Dr. Mann and how years of isolation drove him to insanity. The events that follow are both wild and relatable in all the best ways.
Nolan does an amazing job of filling Interstellar with complex characters and unexpected plot twists, manipulating typical chronology and setting up a level of comfort only to strip it away from you later. There were numerous scenes I felt I was gasping for air, clinging to the edge of my couch - allowing for a surrender of disbelief I found to be truly cathartic. I would even argue that the film leans heavily on a first person perspective in many of the shots, putting you at the front of the rollercoaster for this intense emotional experience.
Philosophy & Lasting Message:
A whimsical warp through space combined with terror, horror, and a sense of limitlessness that is rarely experienced, Interstellar is an experience that leaves you contemplating existence. I applaud Nolan for his courage to take on such a heavy subject matter, and for achieving the final result with such finesse. I found the interpersonal narrative of Interstellar to be very powerful in regards to what I believe to be the largest crisis currently facing the human race: climate change. If we can save the planet instead of trashing it beyond repair, we won’t need to create a new colony in space that comes with countless dangers. On the other hand, the space exploration side of Interstellar properly lauds the hero, Cooper, who was extremely courageous, and had no fear of the unknown. His daughter Murph also represents another optimistic hero and an inquisitive mind in the story. She gives me faith that my generation and the generations beyond mine will find a way out of this puzzle we have found ourselves in. It’s an interesting thought to think that some of answers to our questions are beyond our comprehension. Then again, when one looks into the greater insights of human existence, you tend to get more questions than answers. I do feel there is a great deal we do not know, and may never know. Maybe it’s just me but I’ve always felt like I wanted to know more. Perhaps the greatest message of all in Interstellar is that adventure and connection are key to the human condition, and that these things are key to unwraveling the mysteries of the universe. There are some things that are so powerful that they transcend dimensions, and perhaps love is one of them. After all, it was the incredible Carl Sagan who once said, “The cosmos are within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”