This is the contradiction at the heart of Christopher Nolan’s new film. It is set up as a story about indomitable individuals, but sets them up to be unable to succeed on their own terms.
Interstellar is in many ways an excellent film: it is moving and features some first-rate acting. It has many dramatic scenes that are rooted in crucial values. It makes one think a bit about what’s possible in the future, both good and bad. And it isn’t predictable: it’s a Nolan film—expect to be surprised.
The basic story is this: a some-what future Earth is going to the dogs. We are told there has been a war. Some kind of plague or parasite is attacking the Earth’s crops and eating up the atmosphere itself. No wheat can be grown, so Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a frustrated former test pilot living with his two children, farms corn, amid dust-clouds and a hopeless culture. His daughter, Murph (various actresses), is suspended from school for telling the story of the moon landings: the government has announced that the moon landings were faked. What has happened to America? Cooper wants to know. Didn’t we use to create great things and dream great dreams? Weren’t we darers and problem-solvers?
Then, through what appears to be the intervention of a “ghost” who can manipulate gravity, Cooper stumbles upon a secret NASA project. A mysterious wormhole has appeared out near Saturn. NASA is using it to explore to a distant galaxy where there might be worlds humanity can colonize before the Earth becomes uninhabitable. Can they succeed?
The story that follows is trippy in the best science-fictional way: relativistic time-dilation plays a big role in what happens next. One wonderful aspect of the film is the degree to which it is based in good science: at least, nothing happens that isn’t, in some sense, still scientifically conceivable, at least in broad strokes, and much that happens trades on aspects of known science. Are gravitational wormholes in space-time likely? Maybe not. Is it probable that space-ships can fly through them? Again, unlikely: but maybe, just maybe, it could be.
Interstellar film values
For all their striving, the heroes in Interstellar are incapable of succeeding on their own.
But here’s the thing: for all their striving, the heroes are incapable of succeeding on their own. Instead, a deus-ex-machina rescue saves them at the crucial junctures. Cooper has no plan to fly again before a strange message delivered by gravitational fluctuations in some dust directs him to NASA’s secret project. And there would be no NASA project without the wormhole that someone (a being from the 5th—physical—dimension?) has plonked there out by Saturn. And this feature carries over into the climax of the film. The heroes cope and deal as best they can with what opportunity gives them, but we see that they could not solve their problems themselves.
That is a spiritually enervating betrayal of the film’s key themes. It says, in effect, “Pray, pray, for someone else to set things right.”
There are other, smaller betrayals of the reason-achievement theme as well.
The Earth’s crisis, though never fully explained, is put down at least in part to human arrogance and industrial farming. No one seems able to engineer a response to the plagues, nor does anyone appear to be trying. Environmentalists will feel vindicated.
Another theme in the film, repeated at key moments, is that emotions, or at least love, allow us to form connections across space and time: they are lauded as a form of intuitive awareness transcending our three dimensions. In fact, the full arc of the story trades on this insight. When the most scientific people in the universe recur to this idea, the film paints reason as a hollow and insufficient exercise.
Enjoy Interstellar for the fascinating story and the inspiring struggles of the heroes against big challenges. Enjoy it for the mind-bending “what if?” aspects. Enjoy it for the moving scenes and excellent acting. (To avoid spoilers I’ve left out so much of the good stuff!)
But if you are an Ayn Rand fan, come prepared to be a little bit let-down by a story that shouts out our need to strive, but paints us as unable to succeed on our own.