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Movie Review – Interstellar

If you watched the TV series Firefly, you’ll recall the basic facts of how humans found themselves in the ‘Verse:  Earth got “used up”, and humans had to find a new home.  Interstellar could be the story of how that happened.

Plot Synopsis, with minimal spoilers:

Interstellar is set in the not too near, but not too far, future, where the nations of the world have had to give up their strife in order to concentrate on basic survival.  A “blight” has destroyed the world’s wheat crops entirely, and is slowly working its way through the rest of the staple crops, such as okra and corn.  Human population is crashing, with one character remarking about how it’s hard to imagine 6 billion people.  Add to that dust storms that are reminiscent of the 1930’s American Dust Bowl, and you can see why the world isn’t that great a place.  A secret program to find a better place is underway, and former pilot/astronaut Cooper is drawn into it in a desperate attempt to save his family.

Analysis:

The plot isn’t a techno-thriller, but it has an amazing amount of tension throughout most of the movie.  There are exciting semi-action scenes scattered through the movie, but they are neither over the top nor out-of-place.  They all happen for a reason, and they all support the furthering of the story.  While there is no overall antagonist, other than the “We have to save the world”, the conflicts, both big and small, between the characters fill that gap.  The movie clocks in at almost 3 hours, and by the end of it, you’ve noticed.  But don’t take that to mean that you’ll be bored and wanting to get it over with.  While the last 30 minutes or so definitely tie up all the loose ends and finish the story, it doesn’t feel too contrived.  This is a thinking movie, not a lens-flare and big explosions movie.

What I liked:

The casting is, for the most part, outstanding.  Matthew McConaughey plays the main character, Cooper.  Michael Caine plays Professor Brand, the leader of the effort to save humanity.  Anne Hathaway plays Brand’s daughter, who is a scientist and accompanies Cooper on his voyage.  John Lithgow plays Cooper’s father-in-law, who stays behind to look after his children, and puts in one of the better character roles I’ve seen in a while.  All of these actors seemed to fit into their roles extremely well, and they all turned in good performances, with Caine and McConaughey being the best in a crowd of experts.

The cinematography and visual effects in this movie were outstanding.  The space scenes look almost like something that NASA might beam back from the ISS, while the settings on alien worlds look photo-realistic.  If CGI was used as a backdrop to live actors, I couldn’t tell.

Something else that I liked was that the technology, especially the interiors of the space ships and habitats, looked real and lived-in.  Things are dirty and scuffed from use.  Things go wrong, and the characters have to live within the limits of their mission and the resources aboard their ship.  There is very little suspension of belief about how they travel, and where we have to take their word for something, it’s explained using plausible terms, rather than a semi-mystical talk of hyper-conductive crystals.

What I didn’t like:

There were only two things that I didn’t care for in this movie. One was Matt Damon, and the other one wasn’t.  Damon plays Dr. Mann, who is an astronaut who was sent on an earlier mission to scout for a habitable world and hasn’t seen another human being in years.  His performance was forced and heavy-handed, and I had a hard time believing that a man who had put himself into suspended animation after his supplies ran out would be pudgy.  This was the one place where I think the casting was wrong in this movie, and it distracted me from an important part of the story.

The other thing is really a quibble, and one I don’t think most people will notice or care about.  There is a scene late in the movie where one of the minor characters arms himself to protect against someone who he thinks will harm him or Cooper’s now-adult daughter.  They had travelled a long way from their secure area, through a world that is quickly coming apart, and the best weapon he has is a tire iron.  Maybe it’s just me, but if I was going to be traveling alone with a pretty woman across a landscape that is populated mostly with dying farms and refugees, I’d have brought something a little more ballistic for both of us.  For a movie that put a lot of thought and effort into making the space-based storyline realistic and plausible, this stuck out for me.

Overall, I’d give this movie an A.  As you can see, what I disliked in it was, to be honest, minor, and there is a lot to like.  If you like relatively hard science fiction without too much Buck Rogers, you will definitely enjoy this one.

Discussion:  (Warning, spoilers ahead)

If you’ve seen and read 2001, A Space Odyssey, you’ll recognize a lot in this movie.  Cooper finds his way to the hidden NASA base by figuring out the message behind a gravity anomaly, much like the Tyco magnetic anomaly in 2001, where a monolith is found buried on the moon, points to the monolith out in space.  Additionally, the wormhole that ‘someone’ has put in our solar system for humanity to use to get to their new home is in orbit around Saturn, which is where the large monolith was in Clarke’s novel. (Saturn was changed to Jupiter for some reason in the movie.)  The robotic marines that accompany Cooper on his mission even resemble the monoliths from 2001 when they are in their resting configuration.  In 2001, the principle spacecraft was named “Endeavor”.  In Interstellar, it’s “Endurance”.  Even the touch that all scenes shot outside Endurance are silent was reminiscent of the shots outside Endeavor in 2001.   One other thing I noticed, and this could be completely coincidental, is that there were five human crewmembers in 2001 (Bowman, Poole, and the three scientists in suspended animation), and there were five humans alive on the other side of the wormhole (Cooper, Brand, Doyle, Romilly, and Mann).

The final sequence, where Cooper and TARS have fallen into a black hole and he ends up in a matrix of time centered on Murph’s bedroom is analogous of Bowman’s descent into the monolith in 2001.  I was surprised that Cooper didn’t say “My God, it’s full of stars!” as he passed the event horizon, or that he didn’t tell Murph that “Something wonderful” was waiting for them on the other side of the wormhole when he sees her again.  I would have whooped for joy at this nod to this movie’s grandfather.

Not that any of this is a bad thing.  To paraphrase Tam:  this was the movie that 2001 should have been.  I truly enjoyed it, and the things that stuck out as reminding me of 2001 only added to that.

The final sequence, where we find that Cooper was Murph’s ghost, and that it was him that was knocking books off her bookcase and sending messages through gravity was, to me, a bit of a “Holy crap, this thing is almost 3 hours long.  We need to tie this up.  Quick, have him figure all this out, get the ball rolling in space-time, and then we’ll have them do a tearful reunion.” moment for me.

Even though nothing in the movie up to that point indicated that the “they” that had put the wormhole up and were looking for humanity were future humans who had figured out how to exist in new dimensions, Cooper figures that out in the ‘tesseract’.

Having him figure out how to change the data that TARS had gathered about the black hole into Morse Code, use that to trigger a change in the behavior of the second hand in the watch he gave Murph when he left, having her notice it, figure it out, and be able to transcribe the sequence even though she had no idea where she was in it was a pretty hard stretch, even if you can swallow him figuring out that these data were exactly what she needed at that exact moment to make Plan A work.  To me, this was the one place I just had to sit back, relax, and enjoy the story-telling.  In every other sequence where the characters had to figure something out, they were able to do so using things that at least sounded plausible.

None of that made the movie less enjoyable for me.  I paid full price to see it, and it might be worth paying full price again to see it on the IMAX screen.

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