Friday, 14 November 2014

Interstellar: Review

Interstellar has definite flaws, but in its themes, ambition, and visual spectacle, it is a deeply impressive film.

The setup is as follows: Sometime a few decades in the future, Earth is dying. A fungal blight is destroying our food crops. No cure has been found, and sooner or later, the last plants will die and the oxygen in the atmosphere will be gone. The plains of the USA have become a dust bowl, where a few farmers scratch a living. The technological marvels of earlier times are falling apart, and there is little hope for the future.

Everything changes when a wormhole appears near the planet Saturn. It appears to be a gateway to a distant galaxy, which may contain habitable worlds. Perhaps at least a few people can reach them and found a colony, allowing our species to survive. What is more, the wormhole seems to be artificial in origin. There are hints that its builders can control gravity, and are trying to communicate with us. If we could learn to manipulate gravity ourselves, it would allow all of the surviving people to leave the Earth, not just a handful.

The stage is set for a brave crew of astronauts to fly into the gateway on a mission of exploration; while back on Earth, theorists struggle to understand the physics of the wormhole.

There are some things I absolutely loved about this film. Above all, it is an unabashed celebration of science. In Interstellar, certain individual scientists are despicable human beings; but the process of science is our only real hope to survive and prosper, in the face of uncaring nature.

Strangely enough, it is unusual to see a science fiction film which is so positive towards science. At best, cinematic science tends to be a black box, dispensing toys as demanded by the plot.

For example, the film Sunshine had the Sun going out, and a space crew on a mission to restart it by dropping in a device of some sort -- supposedly a bomb, but it might as well be a magic ring for all we know of its workings. The crew in question are not doing science. They have a McGuffin which requires them to fly off into space, and face all manner of implausible perils. Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die; but without reasoning, there can be no science.

Another commonplace is the Frankenstein scenario, of a power-mad, short-sighted scientist who unleashes monsters upon the world. Of course this theme is worth exploring, but it has become something of a cliche, and it was high time for a different perspective.

There are very few SF films which have scientists doing science: Trying to find things out by observation and reasoning, motivated by curiosity and the hope of tangible benefit. The 2011 film Contagion is an example from biology; Interstellar does it with physics. Its wide-eyed celebration of science recalls the Golden Age SF stories of Robert Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke.

Interstellar has done its scientific homework; the theoretical physicist Kip Thorne was an executive producer. Opinions are divided on whether the details are correct. In part, that is because the movie plays with advanced concepts in general relativity, and some wild ideas from the very limits of our current understanding of physics. (On the other hand, its treatment of time dilation is scientifically correct, and the facts are weirder than anything Hollywood scriptwriters have dreamt up.)

There may be genuine room for debate on whether Interstellar has its facts right. I've studied relativity as part of my mathematics degree, but I must admit the astrophysics in this film goes over my head. That said, whether it satisfies academic peer review is not the point. This is a film which bases a visually stunning space adventure on a scientific search for understanding, and that is a remarkable achievement.

On a related note, the filmmakers have created a logically coherent plot. Sadly, this is also a distinction in SF cinema, where too many films merely throw striking visuals and cool ideas at the screen, not caring if the end result is an incoherent mess.

I also liked the effort to show what was happening on Earth. At just under three hours, Interstellar is a long film, and it would be all too easy to cut the running time by focusing on the stunning visuals and strange new worlds of the mission into the wormhole. Instead, it literally stays grounded, by showing the theorists working to realise vital advances in physics, and the increasingly grim struggle of the farmers on Earth to keep everyone fed and survive the encroaching dust storms.

The visual effects are absolutely jaw-dropping. The production design is good as well, from the gritty, collapsing infrastructure of Earth to the rugged, functional look of the spacecraft.

Last but not least, Interstellar has a strong theme of the need to make moral choices. Time and again, the protagonists face terrifying decisions. Their options are bound by the merciless laws of physics; they must choose as best they can, with the very survival of the human species in the balance.

All these things I greatly enjoyed; but Interstellar has serious flaws.

In a film like this, dialogue must bear a heavy burden, explaining large chunks of physics to the audience. Some clumsiness is understandable, but Interstellar's dialogue is unforgivably bad. Too often, the characters declaim philosophical cliches at each other, instead of talking like plausible human beings. An excellent cast including Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Caine do their best with this material, but there is no way they can bring it to life.

This is worst when we are lectured about the power of love. The characters must reach their goals, otherwise millions will die, and humanity itself might cease to exist. On an individual scale, we see parents and children separated by unimaginable gulfs of time and space, knowing they might never see each other again. One might think this would supply enough emotional resonance, but the filmmakers believed otherwise. There are many cringeworthy speeches about how love transcends spacetime, and in the end will save us all.

It is unclear whether this burbling is just a ham-fisted metaphor, or the characters really believe love is a cosmic force which facilitates interstellar communication. Either way, the film would be better off without it. I think it rather cheapens love to treat it like a sort of improved telephone roaming package.

A quote from the excellent book How Not To Write A Novel is relevant here:

While it's fine for the plot to exemplify the idea that "love conquers all", and readers will happily read book after book expressing no other theme than that, they are in it for the story. Have a character deliver a speech explaining that love conquers all, and our eyes glaze over. We all want to see love triumph, but not even the simplest among us wants a long explication of the idea that love is pretty darn potent.

This is sage advice which should have been heeded by the makers of Interstellar. It's disappointing, because some attention to dialogue and character could have given Interstellar more emotional punch, and raised it close to perfection.

On the whole, Interstellar is a flawed masterpiece; it is a magnificent, intelligent, and visually spectacular film, and well worth seeing.

I am pressing on with Nanowrimo, but I did say that something spectacular would motivate me to write a blog entry, and Interstellar qualifies.


  1. Saw it last night. Couldn't help thinking there was a better film lurking inside this than the one they actually made. Its quite a spectacle, and I'm certainly glad I forked out for the IMAX version. But I wish Nolan had dropped the rather mystical stuff about the black hole and I found myself re-scripting the last twenty or so minutes inside my head even as I was watching it. The same narrative end-point could have been achieved without what struck me the nonsense that occurred in the last section and rather more neatly, if he'd just let Murphy figure out the problem for herself...

    1. Mostly I agree. I'm glad I saw it on one of the bigger screens in Cambridge and might make the trek to Stevenage to see it again on IMAX while it's still out. I'm willing to accept a certain amount of black hole weirdness, because real scientific ideas about black holes and N-dimensional spacetime are pretty weird to begin with... but I agree the mysticism was going too far and it would have been more effective if they'd toned it down. It's a real shame, because there is genius lurking in there and the film could have been a milestone of cinema instead of just an above-average sci-fi flick.