Movie review: Interstellar (2014)

Ah, it’s a dystopian movie. No wait, a dystopian distrustful-of-science-and-education movie. No wait, a dystopian space exploration movie. Basically, Earth can no longer support us. We need to find another planet to inhabit.

I’m not entirely sure why Earth can no longer support us. Massive dust clouds sporadically come through, blanketing cars, homes, people, and crops in thick dust. Slowly, types of crops can no longer be grown.

The economy has shifted from science back to farming. Food is a major concern. There isn’t enough of it. Every person, it seems, is needed to be a farmer.

Cooper, the main character/hero in the film, lives in a battered farmhouse in the middle of cornfields with his family: his father-in-law and two kids. His backstory? His wife died of something that an MRI could have found (…if MRIs still existed, is the implication). He himself as a NASA pilot and engineer turned farmer. He tries to instill in his kids the power of science, exploration, and tinkering.

School tests slate his son to be a farmer (food is needed, farmers are valued). His daughter gets in trouble at school for bringing in a science textbook. (Clearly, she is going to end up as a despised scientist.) The problem? The textbook contains ridiculous lies about the Apollo missions. We all know that space exploration was a myth, claim the teacher and principal. Clearly, this dystopian view of the future in Interstellar rejects science and education.

Cooper’s daughter Murphy has a poltergeist in her room that knocks books and other belongings off of the bookshelf that lines one side of her bedroom. Cooper challenges her to apply scientific observation to it and gather data. And that she does. She speculates that the ghost is trying to communicate something. Maybe through Morse code.

Although Cooper to this point has been humoring her, he sees a pattern of dust on the floor not as Morse code but as binary code that reveals coordinates. Off he goes with Murphy as a stowaway in his truck to find out the location—it turns out to be a secret NASA facility.

His former professor is there, heading up a project to move the inhabitants of the planet to another inhabitable planet (Plan A). However, he can’t seem to figure out how to overcome gravitational issues. So there is a Plan B. Repopulate an inhabitable planet with the offspring from 5,000 fertilized eggs.

Decades previously NASA discovered a wormhole by Saturn and sent several manned probes through it to explore different planets and to send communication back to Earth. They need Cooper to fly a spacecraft through the wormhole to check out the promising communication that they received from the manned probes.

Why suddenly do they need Cooper to fly this spacecraft that was scheduled to launch any day? He just stumbled across this facility. Cooper doesn’t stop to ponder this oddity but leaves his family behind in the hopes that he will find an inhabitable planet where they can live out their lives.

Only missions, at least in movies, never go as planned. Interstellar contains lots of mishaps and twists.

Interstellar incorporates science or pseudo-science—I am not really able to ascertain which it is. The director employed a theoretical physicist to ensure scientific accuracy and realism. Some scientists have agreed that the science in the movie is all or mostly accurate. Others do not agree. Interstellar deals with relativity—time through the wormhole is experienced very differently than back on Earth. Gravity and time are dimensions. At one point, Cooper finds himself in a 3D representation of 5D.

I found the science confusing. I wasn’t sure what to believe or not believe. Most sounded true (or truthy, in the words of Steven Colbert). But I am in no position to determine its veracity. (However, after recently reading about jet propulsion and rocketry in Rise of the Rocket Girls, I noticed with excitement that in Interstellar they spoke about using a planet’s gravity to slingshot their spaceship rather than use up precious fuel!)

The rejection of education and science and the belief that we faked space exploration hit just a bit too close to the current reality in the US.

Some of the dialogue isn’t the best. “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.” Um, okay. That struck me as odd.

The first hour was a bit slow, focused on impending doom on Earth. I am a bit dubious of any science behind the death of Earth and our need to abandon it. The story picked up as it went into space. The last hour went quickly. (It is a long movie—almost three hours.)

The cast is good, including some well-respected actors: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, John Lithgow, Matt Damon. I enjoyed the robot Tars that accompanied the crew—he was programmed with honesty and humor levels. Nothing quite like sarcasm from a robot.

Like many Christopher Nolan films, Interstellar is a battle between two sides. In this case the battle is: do we focus our resources on providing food OR engage in space exploration (to leave this planet behind)? The former was characterized by reactionary thinking that rejects the present and the future and turns back to a “simpler” past. The latter embraces science and technology. Again I saw echoes of our present society.

How Interstellar ends leaves open the door for Christopher Nolan to develop a sequel. If he does, my hope is that he continues to employ scientific experts to help rein in any tendencies towards artistic license. The best stories are based on truths about reality. By basing his stories in scientific truths, Nolan could educate the public on science, encourage “belief” in science over quackery, and entertain.

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