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Review by Remy Wilkins
“Do not go gentle into that good night,” says the old scientist. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” These lines, repeated throughout Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar, are used to signal a fight for survival. Humanity is on the verge of starvation; abuse has broken the earth and blight has wiped out all crops but corn. The remaining population is in hunker down mode and Cooper, a former hot shot pilot forced into agriculture played by Matthew McConaughey, stumbles upon a last ditch effort by NASA to save the race. His discovery of NASA and his recruitment into the mission is due to the mysterious communication through binary and morse code of a ghost haunting his daughter’s bookshelf. He sets off with an intrepid crew to a wormhole just off the rings of Saturn that will fling them to three potential planets, beginning a race against time, to not only find a habitable planet before the human race starves, but also to return to earth before Cooper is out-aged by his children (due to special relativity’s time dilation). It is a compelling high concept that has become the signature of Christopher Nolan’s cerebral blockbusters.
In a lot of ways, Nolan is the new M. Night Shyamalan, an autodidact and auteur, who won the hearts and pocketbooks of both the studios and the populace. Neither director is in any stretch lyrical as a filmmaker, but neither are they devoid of visual talent and a sense for dramatic tension. Both are plodding storytellers overly concerned with explaining the internal logic of their films, yet both have a husk of sentiment about them as neither are concerned solely with spectacle and bombast. And since Interstellar is full of spectacle, sentiment and bombast, those who would like to experience it unfettered by spoilers will need to leave off here.
There’s something cynical about Nolan’s films (which explains his apt pairing with Batman). Beneath a veneer of romance and devotion is a bleak outlook on humanity. Consider his breakout film Memento. The protagonist, Leonard Shelby, has anterograde amnesia, a condition that has hindered his ability to create new memories. He is on a mission to find the man that killed his wife and he uses polaroids and notes (including tattoos of key events) to accomplish it. The movie slowly unfolds in reverse sequence from the end to the beginning (with interspersed flashbacks of the time before his amnesia), each scene ending at the beginning of the previous scene. The structure of the film imitates for the audience, his condition so that his impediment becomes ours, further embedding us into his experience. It is a deft and economic bit of storytelling, unsurpassed by his later efforts. But what makes it cynical is that at the end of the film it is revealed that for all his nobility he is no more than a rat. In an act of sheer petty wickedness he willfully deceives his future self, preferring a lie to failure. This revelation of the protagonist as a satan, an accuser thinking the worst of people, implicates the audience since we were so rooted in his experience and adventure. Inception and The Prestige are similarly jaundiced toward humanity, but in Interstellar there is a particular sardonic element.
Interstellar begins as a film that posits love as an equally powerful force to gravity. Co-adventurer Dr. Brand, played by Anne Hathaway, says, “Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful, it has to mean something... Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” There are extradimensional beings, called the Bulk Beings, who have placed a wormhole for humanity’s escape, they’ve spurred technological advancement through abnormal gravitation, and, of course, there’s the ghost in the bookshelf communicated to Cooper’s daughter Murphy. That Love ennobles, spans time, evokes sacrifice, these are laudable things; and Love is even pitted against the rage motif and rage is found wanting. Sadly over the course of the movie triumphal Love is undermined by Nolan’s cynical views of humanity.
Dr. Brand argues for a particular planet because her lover is there, but Cooper asserts that love has clouded her decision and he overrules her. Cooper’s decision is wrong, and the immediate results are disastrous, but because of this he falls into the tesseract and is able to convey the solution to the gravitation problem to his daughter Murphy and thereby save humanity. (Forgive me for having to write such a ludicrous sentence, but Mr. Nolan makes such a fetish of plot that I feel compelled to reproduce it regardless of its absurdity.) So while love might mean something it was a good thing it was written off in this case.
In fact, the love instinct is exploited by Dr. Brand’s father, also a Dr. Brand and the foremost proponent of Rage. Mankind, according to him, is too selfish and shortsighted to abandon one’s immediate family in order to save the race; a point acknowledged by Cooper. Love clouds what is best for survival and therefore Dr. Brand deceives Cooper so that he’ll join the mission; a mission that was never intended to save the people of earth, but only to propagate the race on another planet. This lesson is driven home when at the end Cooper shows no interest in his grandchildren and great grandchildren. Love may give an edge to survival, but it cannot be trusted and it must be manipulated to be useful.
If it were only the proponents of rage that manipulated you would have a tidy lesson of triumphal love, but Cooper also stoops to deceit. He tells Dr. Brand that “When you become a parent one thing becomes really clear. You want to make sure your children feel safe” and that means lying to them in the face of danger. Cooper named his daughter Murphy after Murphy’s Law. At the beginning she asks him why she was named after a bad thing. He lies to her saying, “Murphy’s law doesn’t mean that something bad will happen. It means that whatever can happen, will happen.” Not only is this not true, but it is demonstratively (and laughably) false. Love is not strong enough and must be protected. This is why Murphy excuses him from her deathbed so that he can chase after Hathaway’s Dr. Brand (whose love for Cooper can be presumed upon due to her screentime), Love can not endure death or the threat of it. It is a hopeless Love that has to be circumscribed with lies in order to survive: Cooper lies to his daughter, the school lies to its students, Brand lies to Cooper, Mann lies to Cooper. The tagline of the movie is "Our Destiny Lies Above Us," but it might as well be, Our Destiny is to Lie.
Nolan’s movies are frequently bailed out by the acting (the exuberant malice of Heath Ledger’s Joker, the miraculous response of Cillian Murphy to a pinwheel in Inception) and Interstellar is no different with wonderful turns from Matthew McConaughey and Matt Damon. Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain don’t have much to do, but they do what they can with what they have. I also enjoy the fact that when directors need a punchable face they always think of Topher Grace. Despite the shortcomings of the beginning and the ending, the middle portion of the film is quite compelling and nearly worth the price of admission. The “Bulk Beings” are tantalizingly theophanic (even if Cooper lamely suggests they are hyper-evolved humans), and the conquering of rage by love could be quite potent were it not undermined. I do not mind that humanity is revealed to be a rat as Nolan does in Dr. Mann (eponymously representing humanity), who, despite being referred to as the “best and brightest” numerous times, is the most craven character, but the idea that love is as powerful as gravity and yet also weak and myopic makes the movie incoherent. In the end humanity, like Leonard in Memento, must bind itself to a lie.
- Release DateNovember 7, 2014