Movie Review: Interstellar

I’d been looking forward to Interstellar for a while, going as far as to deliberately avoid trailers to really not have any idea what I was getting into.1 It was directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan, who’s responsible for three movies I liked a lot: Inception, The Prestige, and Memento.2 And somehow I didn’t get around to seeing it for a while, and started hearing informal reviews from friends.

Those were mixed: some people loved it, some people were quite disappointed, some people were kind of meh about it. I ended up in the latter camp.

Interstellar is a large-scale movie about intrepid explorers on a mission to save the world. It’s got 2001’s sense of grandeur, Gravity’s moments of spaceflight peril, and an environmentally pessimistic future backdrop that I can’t quite pin to any other film in particular. Oh, and Michael Caine. In the end, though, I felt like it most felt like an old-style sci-fi story, like some of Asimov’s short stories with Mike Donovan and Greg Powell.

What makes a three-hour movie with modern special effects an old-style sci-fi story? The last time I said this was about Alien, but the criteria I laid out in the Alien review don’t really fit here. Instead, it’s that “what if” mentality that forms the backbone of the story: let’s drop humans into a new situation and see what they do. Let’s come up with space-related problems and see how our characters try to solve them. Let’s watch them be human.

It’s not an action movie, and like most of those sci-fi stories, it’s not strictly scientific either. It’s not as clever as The Prestige, not as visually stunning as Gravity, not as mysterious as 2001. Nothing revolutionary. But as an old-style science fiction story, it succeeded, and was worth the watch. If you’re into that kind of thing, go ahead and see it.

Spoilers from here on out.

The “back on Earth” story didn’t feel so relevant once Cooper had left, though I’m glad Murph actually had some scientific agency, and it was the vehicle for the “Plan B” twist. Points also for having Tom just be a normal farmer—that’s authentic too.

When I try to draw a message from the movie, it’s something about environmentalism, or exploration, or tension between them, but exactly what it is I’m not sure. I was a little disappointed that this might be the most interesting point of discussion we’re left with after the movie ends, while Inception and Memento and even The Prestige provided a lot of deliberately open questions that are fun to talk about and play with. There’s also some of 2001’s “evolving into higher beings,” but that’s at most a comfortable secondary theme.

There was a fair amount of exposition that felt mildly forced in its delivery (e.g. the explanation of the wormhole), but the exposition itself was probably necessary for a mainstream audience (i.e. one not normally interested in astrophysical phenomena). And this was, after all, the movie whose attention to science led to at least one scientific paper, which is very cool. Rotating black holes FTW!

If I care about science, what did I think of the deus ex machina ending? Surprisingly, I was actually fine with it. It doesn’t really fit scientifically, but it does fit with “old-style science fiction”, and they’re playing by my preferred rules of time travel (one consistent universe). It’s also Nolan’s opportunity to pull one of his signature moves: showing the same scene from a different angle. As for who’s responsible for the “tesseract” (and wormhole), that also makes sense to me.

Aside: my flatmate was a bit consternated by the fact that this would require a closed time loop.3 But causality loops don’t cause any problems in classical physics; they just don’t fit with the idea of free will. Though there’s an “anthropic principle” sort of thing at work as well: in a universe where Cooper does not send himself to space, he does not go to space and Nolan has no reason to make a movie about it.

My coworker put a finger on the two biggest things I didn’t like. First, there was no reason for Cooper to come out of the tesseract. He really didn’t do anything interesting after he emerged; all of those scenes would have worked without him being there (besides repairing TARS). It would have been a better movie had he not “returned”.

Second, there was no reason for Brand (Hathaway, not Caine) to go on her momentary spiel about love. It really adds nothing to the movie, and it doesn’t fit with her character’s usual scientific outlook on life.4 It also fits in with other problems with the way the movie is set up: Cooper is the one coming up with all of the original ideas; Doyle and Romilly’s characters aren’t really developed; most of the cast is white (and there are no women of color). Characters are playing plot-driven roles rather than being people.

There were also a few “fridge logic” moments. Why didn’t Mann just admit everything once he got out of his box and learned Doyle was dead? How did Murph go for decades without realizing Prof. Brand’s theory was already complete? How did they not realize that the signals from Miller’s planet were distorted by the time-shift before they went down?

The robot design was great, especially the rolling mode. The other planets were more spectacle than plausible but still felt fun. Mann’s death was well done.

Overall, I suppose, I’m glad I saw Interstellar. But I don’t think I’m likely to get the urge to see it again.

Separately, I won’t be doing a full review of Gone Girl, which I watched several weeks ago. Thrillers aren’t really my kind of movie, but I did end up disliking almost all the characters by the end of the movie, which I suppose meant I was engaged. I guess I’ll just leave it at that.

  1. If you already know you’re going to see a movie, I highly recommend this. Even though Interstellar’s trailers were reportedly not very revealing, not watching them at all meant I had no moments of “oh, this is that scene”. Which was nice. ↩︎

  2. I hear he also directed some movies about a man dressed like a bat↩︎

  3. A well-known example of this sort of loop is the use of the Time-Turner in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. ↩︎

  4. I’m not saying scientists can’t believe in religion, parascience, or the supernatural. I’m saying that Brand has no other scenes where she behaves in this way, and that it therefore feels out of character. She is vindicated in the end. ↩︎