By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
The vast majority of science fiction writers, producers and directors—along with all the detachments of set designers, cinematographers and lighting designers—face a simple, yet inescapable conundrum: Stanley Kubrick forever changed the template for sci-fi on the big screen. Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s masterful, sweeping novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey raised the bar for sci-fi, then, deftly set it permanently in place.
Just as no screenwriter or director can fully escape the rules of gravity set down by Francis Ford Coppola with The Godfather, no director ventures into the world of science fiction without some degree of homage or outright obedience to Kubrick’s vision. Deviate or disregard those canons if you like, but expect the risk factor to increase exponentially—as was the case with the increasingly unpleasant and pointless Alien sequels in a franchise that should have ceased after number two; likewise, with the Predator brand, each film becoming a little more absurd.
The stand-alones can be worse—Event Horizon, for example, which backfired despite great ensemble casting and what appeared for the first 20 minutes to be a great plot. Prometheus was even worse: Ridley Scott and unlimited, dazzling digital special effects did not prevent the movie from becoming the biggest rehash of previously tread visuals and themes from the vast Ridley Scott portfolio. Avatar, while sumptuous and layered and filled with gorgeously-executed effects, likewise failed for its lack of originality: Dances With Wolves meets The Abyss, or something like that. James Cameron poured all his known tricks into one colorful epic, and the result at times is pure boredom, with brief moments of visual originality and genuine beauty.
Only in recent years have the sci-fi writers attempted to challenge Kubrick’s monolithic laws of film gravity and attraction—by understanding and obeying those laws just as if they were in the physics classroom. And that brings us neatly to Alfonso Cuaron’s appropriately-named Gravity, which starred Oscar winners George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. What makes Cuaron’s masterpiece so masterful is its scrupulous adherence to—well—the laws of gravity, and all other manner of physics as well. Though some complained the movie was essentially a vertigo-inducing amusement park ride, its fidelity to scientific principle, while still infusing genuine action and thrills, made Gravity a joy.
The recent release of Interstellar proves that some writer/directors still have the cajones to challenge our minds while attempting—wherever possible—to not venture off the pages of that astrophysics textbook. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception; Batman Begins), Interstellar makes what appears to be a self-conscious effort to place itself on the same level—or close to the level—of Kubrick’s great 1969 masterpiece. It falls a bit short, of course, but what is surprising perhaps is how close Nolan comes to achieving the impossible: redefining sci-fi for a new generation of movie-goers. (By the way, I do not count George Lucas’s epic Star Wars among the players in this dogfight, since it stands alone very nearly in a class by itself—a genre which Lucas basically reinvented).
Interstellar starts out with a modest enough premise: for reasons unclear to most of humanity, crops are failing on Earth. Top soil is being replaced by dust, water is scarce, and few things other than corn are left to grow in barely sufficient quantities. Society in the United States and a few allies remains upright, but only marginally, and much of the planet is facing famine. Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), our protagonist single-father, is, like almost everyone in the heartland, a farmer of corn. He is also a former pilot and one-time astronaut—handy skills, as it will turn out. Thanks to an antiquated military drone left wandering the skies, which crashes near Coop’s farm, and in large part because of what appears to be messages arriving in some paranormal fashion each day in his daughter’s book-filled bedroom (more about that later), he and his pre-teen daughter stumble upon a top secret NASA facility where scores of the best American scientists work around the clock to save the planet.
Now, take a deep breath: yes, screenwriters Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan have made things absurdly convenient at this point in the story (what are the odds that a skilled former astronaut would live two farms and a cornhusk toss away from an underground NASA workshop?). But the coincidences don’t end there: one of his old NASA colleagues runs the secret facility, where, among other things, scientists and engineers have constructed a massive rocket/transport/space-station whatchamacallit—stocked with supplies and ready for launch. All that’s left is for Cooper to say his goodbyes and convince his daughter that he’ll return from space on what already seems a long shot for humanity.
The good news is, once you’ve accepted all of this neatly arranged setup, things start to go well in the sci-fi department. Predictably, Cooper and his carefully picked team are sent into space with a sort of Hail Mary pass mission—find a hospitable place in which to restart/reboot humanity. But, as we all know from physics 101 and a hundred viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey, you can’t just hop into your rocketship and speed off to an inhabitable world. Even those stars with demonstrable evidence of orbiting planets are an immense distance from our Earth—hundreds, thousands, even millions of years away. (Real-world example: it took a well-designed NASA spacecraft three years just to reach a comet right within our neighborhood, and now that it has arrived, its batteries have died).
So now things start to come together, science-wise. The trouble with the Earth’s crops, we understand, may have something to do with gravity, and gravity is being affected by the arrival within our solar system of what appears to be a wormhole—a passage through the space-time fabric which, NASA hopes, will allow a few select explorers to venture to a handful of star systems with planets that could, just maybe, meet the requirements of supporting human life. In fact, we learn, a few other missions have already been attempted using the newly-discovered portal through space. The gang at the secret NASA facility have no way to know for sure if any of the previous missions have succeeded; each one has been a gamble, each a roll of the dice that humans may survive in some distant place. Each mission has two optimal outcomes: astronauts return to Earth intact with news and data about a distant planet worth human attention; or, if things go wrong with the space-time deal—they become colonists; stay put on the new planet, and begin the human race anew.
Most of the explorers already sent on these missions are single, with few family members. In Coop’s case, he must make a decision: there is the profound risk that he will never see his two children or his doting father-in-law again.
Nolan works the angles of the space-time paradox well from this point forward. Like his mind-bender, dream-world movie Inception—in which a team must go into layers of shared dream states to engage in industrial sabotage—Nolan appreciates that some things are absolute, while others are not. Coop and his team are sent toward an area known to contain a black hole. Here, the laws of Earth-bound physics do not always apply, and the minutes and hours do not tick off at the same perceived rate as back home. A couple of hours spent on a planet covered in waist deep water, and a mishap recovering evidence of a previous NASA mission, roll more than 20 years off the Earth clock in less than 120 minutes. Now, Coop’s preteen daughter and teenage son are grown-ups, and Coop has already become a grandfather. Thus director Nolan bends time even as he bends the minds of his audience, and a subsequent roll of the dice to a planet inhabited only by one man, Dr. Mann (played by Matt Damon), ends in near catastrophe and the partial destruction of the main spacecraft. Left with few options, and with decades rolling off their clocks back on the beleaguered Earth, Coop and his one surviving crew-member Brand (Anne Hathaway), must make the ultimate gamble—use the barely-imaginable space-time forces of the nearby black hole to attempt and end-run around failure.
Nolan smartly does not expect every audience member to have an elementary knowledge of wormholes, black holes, and orbiting bodies, so he closes the gap by employing reasonably well-presented, well-timed summations by Coop’s crew members and others. Far from slowing things down, these mini-lessons help to pin things together and clarify the risks these voyagers are taking at each new step.
Wormholes, as they are loosely called, are space distortions in which two disparate points in the universe are within striking distance because the universe itself—or some incarnation of it—can be bent or folded to create a shortcut. Black holes, as many readers already know, are the collapsed remnants of massive stars—places of extremely compact mass where gravity is so powerful it prevents everything (including light) from escape. Black holes are not visible in the conventional sense, but can be detected with certainty nonetheless since they bend the surrounding light in a manner known as gravitational lensing. Get close enough to a black hole and even time will distort; some astrophysicists believe that the intense power of a black hole will bend time relative to one’s proximity to the event horizon.
Nolan works well with these remarkable elements of the known and unknown universe, incorporating solid science with the not-too-fanciful to basically create a movie which obeys the laws of physics—at least as we understand them. Both Nolans—Jonathan and Christopher—burnished their understanding of space physics by collaborating with a real, bona fide Cal Tech astrophysicist, Kip Thorne. Thorne helped guide the filmmakers when it came time to give shape and life to the phenomena illustrated in the movie, most especially the black hole, which instinct and intuition tells us to avoid.
In the end—and not to spoil anything for readers—Cooper enters the black hole directly. It is his only chance of altering the time-space template in an effort to save humanity, and still preserve a tiny chance of seeing his family again. Once inside the full effect of the black hole, there is new clarity regarding the occasional “supernatural” events which had occurred on that sprawling bookcase in his daughter’s bedroom decades earlier.
But if Stanley Kubrick’s most consistent theme throughout his films was to illuminate the forces which dehumanize us, Nolan approaches the equation from the opposite direction. 2001: A Space Odyssey is famously cold and chilling, especially in the middle sequences. For Kubrick, the paradox is that the proto-human apes are the most bonded and communal, whereas the technologically advanced space travelers of the future are so bled of humanity that they become almost mechanical. Nolan dismisses this thesis outright. Interstellar’s explorers are all-too-human in their fears, worries, doubts and emotions. Despite the risk to the mission and even to humanity, Cooper continually frets about the promise he made to his pre-teen daughter. Dr. Mann (Damon), has been fractured by desperation and loneliness as the only member of a team to reach his distant, frozen planet. In his emotional swell of desire to see his home again, Dr. Mann risks the lives of the others and nearly obliterates the mission. Brand (Hathaway) has a love interest among the colonists on still another of the planets where humanity might have a chance to start over. And at nearly every checkpoint along the way, all of the film’s characters question the balance between purest science and heartfelt emotion; between the human desire to explore and learn, and the equally compelling tug of family, community, love, and the primal instinct to further the species.
Interstellar is not to be confused with an action flick or a high-stakes thriller (though the ten minutes or so spent inside the black hole were edited for maximum tension and suspense). Like its predecessor, Gravity, Interstellar’s pacing is built around phases of routine and calm, punctuated by genuine danger and fear. Nolan lets the physics and science dictate the surprises and the timing.
But there are flaws on this point as well: the movie takes a painfully long time to get started, and during this prelude it provides only cryptic explanations of the condition of man and the planet to boot. It may be the only sci-fi movie ever to spend the first one third of its running time in corn fields, along dusty dirt roads, or in the principal’s office at the middle school. As a result, at close to three hours, the movie feels too long—unnecessarily long—though the interminable opening stages do give McConaughey ample opportunity to show us he is a great performer, even when trading off of highly skilled actors like John Lithgow (Coop’s father-in-law) and Michael Caine (NASA’s aging Professor Brand).
But for science fiction buffs, Interstellar is a solid winner—about an 8.5 or 9.1 on the scale of ten. Its digital special effects are dazzling and effective, and most importantly wisely deployed—rarely travelling over-the-top as might be the case with a clumsier production, or in the action-based blockbusters where the effects are the story. This care and prudence with the effects meshes agreeably with the “science” part of this sci-fi adventure to create a film worth seeing on the big screen (don’t wait for Netflix of HBO on this one). In short: Interstellar effectively melds real science, the mind-bending joy of sci-fi, and deeper questions about humanity and family into one neatly produced epic.
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