Review of Interstellar (2014)

Moving picture, 169 minutes

Christopher Nolan (director).

Seen in 2019.

All plant life on near-future Earth is being consumed by a single blight, one species at a time. Corn is the last remaining staple crop. This blight is probably the main cause of dust storms akin to those of the Dust Bowl. The US government has reacted to this calamity by adopting the position of a “caretaker generation”, schooling the young as farmers despite the prevalence of modern mechanized farming equipment, including self-driving combines.

To sell the population on the idea of being caretakers, US curricula include the lie that the Apollo missions never took place and were merely a ploy to damage the Soviet economy. NASA has been disbanded and then secretly reconstituted at NORAD to explore the possibility of escaping the Earth through a wormhole near Saturn. There is speculation that some alien race or wiser future humans created the wormhole and are prompting the protagonists to study it. One of them, a pilot and engineer, plunges through it. The other, his daughter, becomes a physicist at NASA and works on the problem of mass migration to one of the planets on the other side. Mainly due to gravitional time dilation near a black hole, rather than speed, the daughter ages rapidly in the father’s frame of reference.

Medium-soft science fiction, with clouds that look normal but are frozen solid, and love as a fundamental force comparable to gravity. A grand spectacle, deeply flawed. One possible better film would be about a believable project in response to believable problems on Earth, but you’d need a different title.

Given the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine-like wormhole and an undescribed major war like Star Trek’s in the recent past, the script does not actually need the apocalyptic threat of the axiomatic blight. Realistic consequences of overpopulation, resource depletion, climate change etc. would have been more touching, just not an existential threat to our particular species. The characters imply that the planet is actually underpopulated, which contradicts the stated nature of the apocalypse: A smaller human population would be easier to save, even from the implausible blight, and would be less likely to create another blight.

The scant evidence implies that genetic diversity provides some protection from the blight, which makes sense, but it means that a monoculture on huge, connected, open-air fields is the worst possible response to the problem. If the blight is impossible to sterilize, it would be impossible to prevent its spread to other planets, so the mission would be useless. If it is possible to sterilize the blight—and apparently it is—then people should have started a migration to space stations as a safer and cheaper alternative to colonizing planets orbiting a black hole on the other side of a wormhole. The advanced robotics and solar cells shown in the film strongly indicate that von Neumann probes should be within reach for such a project, and indeed, by the end of the film, people have built an O’Neill cylinder and are living sustainably in space: An internal contradiction.

The planets shown in the alien system look about as difficult to colonize as one would expect, even under the hypothesis that the wormhole was indeed constructed by some benevolent civilization for the sake of human colonization. While this fact does undermine the idea of spending resources on interstellar travel instead of mining the solar system and building that O’Neill cylinder right away, realistically inhospitable worlds are ultimately preferable to some green fantasy like Avatar (2009). The futuristic NASA porn is finely crafted, a fun and flashy imitation of real engineering, with a Hans Zimmer score and robot buddies that are a seamless blend of Forbidden Planet (1956) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Lots of fun and credible enough as these things go. I’m glad Nolan eschewed war, personal romance and evil AI tropes to focus on his strengths.

The lack of believability in the larger plot suggests that visually impressive space porn was the primary reason for making the movie, and that’s OK. The secondary reason, I suppose, is thematic. The blight, the official promulgation of the anti-NASA conspiracy theory, the lack of space stations and the implied population decline all represent hopelessness. Interstellar travel represents hope. This is heavy-handed. It is particularly irresponsible to disparage the idea of taking care of the Earth in order to celebrate hope. Environmentalists are driven by hope. In effect, Nolan chooses unsustainable expansion over responsible efficiency, without bothering to show how colonization could possibly be easier than defeating the blight at home and building in space. Ironically, in doing so, he shows his own lack of innovation as a blockbuster filmmaker. The script’s cynicism about government transparency and an open scientific process echo the political cynicism of Batman Begins (2005) and the rest of his Batman trilogy.

It’s about as good as Gateway (1977), dragged down by a final insult: The astronaut characters conclude that love is a fundamental force in the universe. Jesus-figure Joseph Cooper’s realistic protests against that nonsense are just a lampshade on the wilful stupidity of the writing. I’m a sucker for time dilation in a sentimental drama, but you don’t need this much anthropocentrism to pull it off. Indeed, it was done better even in Gunbuster (1988). Nolan outdid Gunbuster in pandering and failed to reach its emotional height; not the best use of a $165 million budget.

References here: The Wandering Earth (2019), The Midnight Sky (2020).

moving picture fiction