**Warning: mild-spoilers ahead **
What to make of Christopher Nolan’s new Science Fiction epic Interstellar?
This is a film that has been eagerly anticipated, and whose trailers have been filled with strong space imagery, and a sense of mythic grandeur and aspiration. There is, in my view, an intense and general desire for intelligent science fiction beyond the superhero format, and many hoped that Interstellar would provide just that. It has both an A-list director, and an A-list cast of Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, John Lithglow and Matt Damon. (The idea of Michael Caine running NASA is almost worth the price of an entry ticket in itself.)
However, some of the science reaction has already been negative, and the science indeed creaks at times. At a few moments in the film, there is too much artificial technical explanation, rather like some episodes of Star Trek. As Kubrick showed in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, much admired by Nolan, less is more – especially when events are caused by the gift of advanced alien technology.
There are some moments that are simply inexplicable – such as when the wall of a board style meeting room lifts and reveals a rocket launch pad feet away, and shouts film-set. It also takes a two-stage rocket launcher to get one of the film’s shuttlecraft into Earth orbit, but the same type of craft is able to lift off by itself from a planet of 1.3g. The distant solar system that they reach through a wormhole is clearly exotic, but unclear – I suspect there was a design for the system that was not explained in the final version of the script. There is a black hole there, a neutron star is mentioned in passing, and the presumably stellar source of light and heat for the planets is not mentioned. The real gravitational and tidal effects of a black hole are understated. The renowned scientist and science writer Phil Plait wrote a very good review (see here) that reveals this class of defect in fine detail, although as we shall see I reach very different conclusions about the movie.
And the plot and characterization sometimes creak as well. The film tries to be grand and laden with meaning at many levels – which negative reviewers find pompous. There is a section with Matt Damon as a rogue and cowardly astronaut that for me doesn’t sufficiently suspend disbelief at the human level, even before we think about the science, to really work. Would a man alone for a decade turn on his rescuers so quickly? This is ultimately an issue with this part of the script, rather than the actors who generally do well.
But, although the film is flawed enough that I came close to losing my hope and belief at one point, at the closing credits I felt that I had seen an imaginative, rich and ultimately terrific movie – especially since the last third is a strong spectacle, and a good piece of story telling. The film moves through new ideas at a blistering pace, and ideas that range across a very broad spectrum of cinematic technical excellence, visual appeal, science and story telling. It finishes dramatically, grandly and – it must be said – sentimentally. It bravely plays with concepts related to black holes, relativity and gravity – event horizons, time dilation, singularities, and accretion disks are not common features in big movies. Although it does this in a ramshackle manner, Chris Nolan and team deserve a loud round of applause for trying such ideas in a large-scale film project.
Visually the film is superb and creates a vocabulary for representing space and space flight that both convinces and pays homage to past glories of spaceflight and Science Fiction film. There are scenes that are based on the Apollo era Saturn V launch footage, and the staging footage recovered from film canisters held inside those great rockets of the Moon Age. There are flight sequences reminiscent of real film of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft. There is an excellent, somewhat theatrical representation of time travel that echoes the weightless scene in 2001 A Space Odyssey where HAL is turned off. 2001 is also directly quoted in scenes where an interior and noisy point of view shifts to a silent exterior view of the film’s space hardware, echoing the quite grace and balletic pace of Kubrick’s masterpiece. And it is visually quoted again in the journey through the wormhole – very like the last “Beyond the Infinite” section of 2001 – and the recreation of a black hole that is lit by the brilliance of its accretion disk.
Before that, however, the film starts on Terra Firma with the conjuring of a troubled future world, and a troubled America, through the recreation of an idealized Eisenhower era – like the worlds glimpsed in Astronaut Farmer or Field of Dreams. This is a place of strange dust storms and dying plants. It is also a place of infinite cornfields, a wooden family farmhouse and baseball.
It is where we learn about the character of the hero Cooper (played well by Matthew McConaughey) – a feisty, tough, independent ex-astronaut now turned corn-farmer who “was born 40 years too late, or 40 years too early” in a community that sees itself as “the caretaker generation.” This part of the film establishes his relationship with his daughter Murphy, a relationship that will span more than a century of Earth time and links the various elements of the film. This primary arc reminded me – since it is in the end redemptive, strongly sentimental, and plays with love, time and outcomes – of a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s a film I adore, so I have to admit I enjoyed the main Interstellar arc, and its inevitable uplifting ending, immensely.
The centre of the film consists of a tour of wonderfully imagined – and often scientifically dubious – strange worlds that is similar to the kind of planetary treks found in 1950s pulp science fiction. I was reminded of early works by Robert Heinlein, and James Blish. There is even a robot with a human-like personality, and a strong, tunable sense of irony. The special effects create a strong feeling of reality, and these alien worlds are very believable, even when you find yourself questioning the science.
Interstellar ends with a long and genuinely gripping sequence that is fast paced and intensely dramatic as astronaut Cooper first docks with a damaged and rapidly spinning spacecraft, and stabilizes it – a sequence possibly influenced by Neil Armstrong’s success in stopping a rotating capsule on Gemini 8. Cooper’s craft then falls into a black hole, and Cooper is placed in a kind of time tunnel by unseen and distant descendents of humanity, which becomes the device that facilitates the dénouement of the movie. Strangely enough, although this is one of the most fantastical parts of the film, it works well. The ability to influence the past is presented as a that momentary gift, a mystery created by superior intelligences, rather the alien monoliths in 2001.
In summary, Interstellar is a brave, not always successful, attempt to create a thrilling science fiction epic with greater intelligence than most. It is a beautiful movie. It brims full with images culled from fifty years of actual space flight and other Science Fiction movies that are integrated into a convincing and inspiring vision. It also bubbles over with ideas and concepts that sometimes work well, and sometimes stumble. It is an inspiring, exciting, beautiful and imperfect film that I would strongly recommend seeing, with something of an open heart.
Interstellar also represents something of the current zeitgeist – where science and technology are more valued, and some people are rediscovering the wonder of space flight. There is unsatisfied demand for intelligent science fiction, and films that genuinely take us to new places in the grandest sense. Hopefully, Interstellar will encourage others to raise their eyes to the skies above.
Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services. He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network. Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.