Reportedly, Christopher Nolan walked up to composer Hans Zimmer and gave him a really short story about a father leaving his son for some unspecified reason. Hans Zimmer wrote something in a day, and that’s the music Nolan used for Interstellar, an epic about humanity looking for an extraterrestrial home because of the impending death of the earth and a dad being forced to leave his daughter by his sense of duty. I found this out after the end of the film, and the whole movie I was thinking that it was being made significantly more awesome by the music. There’s nothing better for a movie about space exploration as a lethal taskmaster as well as the frontier of human knowledge than a melancholy and poignant score as opposed to the deep bass thrums Zimmer usually puts in Nolan’s movies.
Now, in less than a week this movie is going to overrun the internet. Everyone in the world is going to tell you how it is the psychologically deepest and most philosophically sophisticated movie ever made. It is not unlikely that you will be one of those people. It’s not. What it is is a darned good blockbuster with a slightly (slightly) non-trivial third-act twist (I actually thought of it, and I’m someone who used to regularly get surprised by the TV show Gossip Girl). This has been true of all of Nolan’s movies (well, the non-trivialities happened at different points in the films), all of whose philosophical trappings are, for lack of a better word, bullshit. This movie, unlike any of the previous ones, didn’t make me want to kill anyone – because this time around we just get Nolan telling a story with minimal bullshit philosophy, at least not more than any other Hollywood blockbuster.
Okay, actually I lied. It is philosophically sophisticated, but none of it is really EXPOSITED as you would expect a Nolan movie to do. There’s this speech in the middle where Anne Hathaway spouts some noxious piss about how love has predictive power – and Matthew McConaughey just says, grow up. There are few other moments in the world of cinema that have ever made me want to hug someone this much.
And, really, it is in the existence of McConaughey’s character that this movie hits its heights. On earth, he is an irascible misanthrope deeply discontent with the duty assigned to him in the new scarcity world that he lives in (if you’re reading this chances are that you’re effectively living in a post-scarcity world, regardless of all the starving people of the world). But, the moment it is presented to him that he needs to save the world he jumps to the opportunity and then does exactly the right thing at every moment*, at one moment even when the right thing to do was completely surprising to me (this never happens). No speeches about emotions, no annoying Holvudine psychology (which proliferates all his earlier movies).
Actually, the lack of Holvudine psychology is something worth dwelling on. There’s this tendency in Hollywood, noticed as early as the 1950s by J D Salinger in Franny and Zooey, to include psychology by deciding psychological facts and then their causes. While it is true that psychological facts are caused, the relation between cause and effect is never as clear as it is in a Hollywood movie or TV show. Nolan films fall prey to this failing, except for, for some reason, this one. McConaughey has a bunch of quirks and failings, but no one ever says it’s because the anti-technology culture of the earth killed his wife. This makes me feel all warm inside.
I don’t want to stop saying how awesome this is, so allow me to devote another paragraph to this: McConaughey plays rationality ubermensch, and no one objects!
And also the robots are smart and adapt well and are super-cool. But despite that they aren’t considered people for no discernible reason, and I don’t see how everything in this movie couldn’t have just been done by robots.
Achchhaa achchhaa, let’s get back to the rest of the movie. The most important thing to understand about it is that it is a blockbuster at heart, and one shouldn’t try and take it completely seriously. These movies go for broad strokes and simple themes, with generic characters; that’s not a bad thing, but that is a thing that tells you not to take every dialogue it in it as a literal expression of sophisticated philosophy.
To be fair, this is somewhat better in this respect than other blockbusters; it graciously and subtly undercuts the emotional bullshit that it is purportedly pushing in the climax (or, to be more precise, it makes it extremely easy to interpret the climax without positing supernatural forces at work), and its ending is a lovely synecdoche of the never-ending nature of the mission of humanity that is science and exploration.
Another thing: because this is a Nolan movie, there’s going to be discussion about plot holes. While not plot holes per se, these are the egregious mistakes. Non-McConnaughey non-Chastain non-robot characters all have at least one moment of behaving like Hollywood zombies, a pivotal decision depends on people who are experts completely ignoring how black holes work (this fact about how they work is actually mentioned in the movie – I state it in second footnote** if you’re interested), McConnaughey’s character seems to be named Cooper Cooper, spaceship hulls are not just millimetres thick (this annoyed me) and often the equipment and plans are designed pretty badly.*** A lot of things seem scientifically off, but I’m not as sure of those things. After the plot-hole-free nature of Inception I was expecting better. Oh, and the biggest plot hole: sending people instead of just the robots is a stupid waste of resources.
So in conclusion, despite my general dislike of Nolan’s movies I quite enjoyed this (actually, apart from The Dark Knight which was overflowing with bullshit that marvelled at its own cleverness he’s always fun to watch). Don’t take this too seriously, but love the existence of McConnaughey’s character. Enjoy the fact that it’s not in 3D. Have fun. And I’ll hate it in a week after the millionth time I hear about how this is better than anything Kubrick ever did (it’s not even a fraction of the stunning vision that is 2001: A Space Odyssey).
*There’s one moment when he makes an argument that is suspiciously convenient for him, but he’s actually right anyway, and he listens to the others’ objections. And, in this scene, they would clearly have been better doing what he thought was better in the first place; these scientists show an inexcusable inability to make order of magnitude estimates.
** If you are falling into a black hole and I’m watching you from outside, I’ll see your approach to the black hole getting slower and you getting dimmer till the end of eternity; I’ll never see you reach it).
***In particular, no one really thought through plan B.