Monday, June 27, 2016

Guest Review: Intersellar (2014)

by Koshcat

I am of two minds when it comes to Interstellar the science fiction drama directed by Christopher Nolan: I liked it but the forced tensions bug me.

Overall the basic plot is simple. Crop blight is slowly destroying Earth’s crops and threatening humanity with starvation and lack of oxygen. Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot, now widower farmer trying to raise two kids. A message from a “ghost” to his daughter leads him to a secret program to find a new planet for colonization.

A wormhole mysteriously appears near Saturn that allows passage to a distant galaxy where Professor Brand (Michael Caine) has sent 12 volunteers to find a suitable planet. They have transmitted that there are three promising sites near a black hole. There are two plans for colonization: A) move everyone from Earth to the new planet and B) repopulate the new planet with frozen embryos. Professor Brand is trying to work out plan A but the math doesn’t compute.

Cooper’s daughter, Murphy, joins Professor Brand in hopes of deriving the right formula but she needs the information hidden inside a black hole. Mr. Cooper agrees to pilot the spaceship with hopes of quickly finding the right planet and then returning to his family. Due to relativity, what takes Cooper months turns into decades back home. The first two planets turn out to be duds and Cooper sacrifices his life to push his crew mate Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), who is Professor Brand’s daughter, to the third and eventually suitable planet. His sacrifice is to fall into the blackhole where he is able to learn the secret formula and transmit it to his daughter as the “ghost” allowing the rest of humanity to be saved.

Why I liked this film, despite the gargantuan plot holes, is it focused more on the story and characters rather than the CGI to move the plot. The characters have fear and despair but other still have hope. Nobody is evil for evil’s sake. The closest “bad guys” might either be Professor Brand or Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), one of the first 12 astronauts. Professor Brand has faked the calculations for years because he has decided it is physically impossible to implement plan A. Plan B was the plan all along but lied to Cooper so he would leave his family in hopes of finding a new place for them. This isn’t from a place of evil but a decision out of despair and rationality. Dr. Mann is trapped on an inhospitable planet to die alone and has been transmitting false data. He is afraid, weak, and a coward and tries to kill Cooper to get off the planet. His decision is based on irrationality not evil intent. There is no greedy politician trying to control the Earth or multinational company trying to get rich. And any movie that makes Matt Damon look like a dick is ok with me.

The CGI is beautiful and acts as a backdrop rather than the central plot. The story behind the development of the black hole is fascinating as the most up to date theoretical equations where entered into the rendering software which then developed the visual effect (LINK). Finally, how many movies can discuss and show the theory of relativity and still keep people in their seats? This is what true Sci-Fi should look like.
What distracts me from the movie is the unnecessary and forced conflicts. Let’s start with the blight. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of biology knows that a disease that attacks completely different species is extremely rare to the point of impossibility. For the billions spent on building spaceships and sending people through wormholes, couldn’t they have built self-contained cities? It is also unlikely a blight would effect the plants underwater, wouldn’t it be easier to live there? How about just developing plants immune to the blight? Maybe they shouldn’t be so anti-GMO.

The next is the lying by Professor Brand. Why does he need to lie? Why can’t he just say that he can’t complete the formula without more information? Another is Murphy being so pissed at her dad for leaving that she won’t speak to him for decades and then accuses him of lying to her about the possibility of his never returning. I understand being angry and sad that her dad left, but couldn’t that emotion be better served to get him back? Eventually it does but her resentments simmers for years and seems like wasted energy. There is also tension between Murphy and her brother, Tom (Casey Affleck), that doesn’t seem to make any sense. Why did Tom punch her boyfriend who only wanted to help his family? If Tom had given up on life, why was he still farming? Why does Casey, a much better actor, get less attention than Ben?
Another issue is why do the robots have a sense of humor level? An honesty level? I would want my robot helpers to be boring and brutally honest. Having the potential planets around a blackhole leads to interesting scientific dilemmas, but seems like a terrible place to find a new home. Dr. Mann lying about the planet so he wouldn’t die alone makes sense to me, but killing the other astronauts doesn’t. It leads to a great scene where Cooper has to stabilize the ship, but I guess a simple malfunction or stray asteroid wouldn’t have provided enough tension. Finally, the whole scene inside the blackhole is all dues ex machina and Cooper’s return was, frankly, lame.

I watched it a second time with my wife and kids. My wife and daughter where crying through the whole movie and were irritated at the end despite the happy ending. I found this to be interesting. This movie touches and pulls on a lot of emotional strings, which a good movie should, but perhaps it was too much? I like the movie more than I disliked it because Nolan at least seems to understand that a good movie is dependent on story and characters and not how many spaceships are moving behind Yoda.



ScottDS said...

I'm glad this movie exists. Nolan's heart is in the right place. It's technically brilliant. The actors are fine. And there are several self-contained sequences that would make wonderful little short films...

...but for me, it's a bit out there and waaay over-stuffed with concepts. Seriously, there's enough here for five or six films! (The time travel, the wormholes, the blight, the ghost/bookcase stuff, etc.)

And it does what too many movies seem to do today, which is state the thesis in such an on-the-nose fashion. It would be like Roy Scheider at the beginning of Jaws saying something like, "Ya know Ellen, we really can't tame mother nature" as he looks out on the ocean from their bedroom.

Oh, and the more I think about it, the more I hate the ghost/bookcase stuff. So that's how our hero is motivated? Is it too much trouble to simply tell the story in a linear fashion? Why can't our main character just go on the mission because he has to, not because a weird message told him so? It felt like one plot point too many.

As for the blight and the crops, perhaps they didn't want to use global warming because it's such a political football. Or Nolan wanted to create a Grapes of Wrath vibe. And by the way, I didn't believe for a second that: a.) the military would disband, or b.) textbooks would erase any mention of space travel.

AndrewPrice said...

I haven't seen this yet, but I would like to. It looks like genuine science fiction, as you indicate in your review.

Thanks for the review!

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, I like Nolan a lot because he tries to be interesting without being artsy. That's kind of rare these days and I really appreciate it. What he does, doesn't always work, but I always appreciate it.

djskit said...

The word I use to describe this film is "ambitious", and I very much appreciate that.
The way the state of the world was slowly revealed was a refreshing break from the typical 30 seconds of exposition or a screen crawl you typically see.

Yes, the film has its flaws, but they did not take me out of the moment which is a key distinction in my mind.

djskit said...

Oh and true to Nolan form, much of the effects were practical (models of ships, etc) vs 100% CGI we regularly see.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, I appreciate both of those things as well -- ambition and real world effects. And I agree with you, I prefer to learn about a world as you go along rather than being told right up front everything you need to know.

Koshcat said...

I'm so sorry I didn't get to comment earlier. Life-work stuff today.

Koshcat said...


I agree with you on Nolan. Even when there are parts of his movies I don't like generally I like the movies as a whole. Momento is one of my favorites.

This film has so much and I probably shouldn't have let some of the things bother me. Why people had to leave earth wasn't important, just that they did. I liked giving the code or data through the watch and I guess the other stuff sort of makes Murphy go back to the bookcase so it is ok but I didn't like that he could come back to her. He should have been converted to microwave energy and ended the movie. Sad but satisfying.

Koshcat said...


I appreciate what Nolan tries to do. I think his latest movies have tried to bite off too much. It is so much enjoyable to watch his movies than Lucus and his talking Jamaican rabbit or Abrams' lens flare. Also he tends to avoid the dreaded shaky camera.

Koshcat said...


I 'm curious what you think of it. Seems as some people like it and others hate it. My wife didn't like it because it was "too sad". I thought the middle was sad but not the end.

Voz said...

I thought it was great...the score was perfect for it...very haunting music that fit well with the aloneness and distance of space...the science was pretty accurate from what I read about the film...

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I'll let you know what I think when I get the chance to see it. :)

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