Monday, December 1, 2014

Guest Post By Kevin Tones: INTERSTELLAR Review (Not Really Off-Topic) *WARNING: SPOILER ALERT*

I really liked my friend Kevin Tones' review of INTERSTELLAR, I'm going to make a quick remark at the bottom, denoted by italics.

If you are someone who cries easily, I would not recommend this movie. Nor would I recommend it to anyone with children, beloved spouses or a heart. It is brutally gut wrenching in many places and I was crying quite easily at several points.

This is a story about saving our children. Though it is set in a cataclysmic milieu it is that simple of a story: what would a father do to save his kids? I was impressed though with a film that was willing to tell such a terrible story. This was Christopher Nolan spending some Hollywood-capital to make a great movie, not just another block-buster. Bravo on him.

Also I loved how time and again, Nolan emphasized how small we are, and our petty interests, compared to the universe at large. Here were massive planets, going about their business paying no mind whatever to these tiny things going by. Nolan captured the immensity of space rather well in this film. This sets up beautifully the metaphysical ideas about love which later are so critical to the story.

Also I think Matthew McConaughey should be up for an academy award on this. He does spectacular work in this film.

Setup: The human race on Earth is doomed, no hope whatever of survival and yet several souls do go out to try and purchase some hope, however desperate. As I said, this is a story about saving your kids. In the end that is what drives the main protagonists, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Prof. Brand (Michael Caine). Cooper wants to find a safe place to bring his daughter, Brand wants to send his daughter to a place where she has a chance of living.

The whole world is becoming smaller; fewer crops, fewer opportunities for people; corn and subsistence farming is all there is. This is a place where American schools seize upon the Moon Landing hoax idea and run with it as an actual propaganda effort, not a real engineering feat completed at a particular time in a particular place. The reason is to keep people from thinking too far ahead and to focus only on survival. “Caretaker Generation” is the term used. The short time we get a glimpse into this twisted system is chilling. That is when I realized just how desperate and hopeless things had become. The human race had burned its ships on a pyre of blighted crops.

I do find it hard to believe that a government that would stoop to such methods would keep NASA going, however clandestinely. It argued for a second government, a fragmented one. My speculation only from limited data in the story.

For all that the story had a feeling of truth to it. Prof. Brand is willing to sacrifice his humanity by telling a monstrous lie in order to buy some hope for humanity. That is the story on the surface. Yet we find he is buying it as much for his daughter as for anyone else. He is not as altruistic about preserving future generations as he plays early on.

The monologue by the nearest thing to a villain, Dr. Mann(Matt Damon) was spot on: the human ability to sacrifice only can reach so far. Most will sacrifice for immediate family, grandchildren and maybe great-grandchildren, yet the ability to see remote posterity as truly human and important falls off after that. There are some who can make that leap. One might call it a curse really.

This whole idea echoes something C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Abolition of Man; that people can only love their more immediate progeny and not that far out. He points out that some philosophers advocated mad policies for children, based on plans for deep posterity, and these were roundly ignored by mothers and nurses who simply cared to raise healthy decent people. I interpreted Lewis’ idea as this: if someone is focused on only deep posterity, but does not care deeply about someone around them now, they should be treated carefully. I would say even, do not trust them. For they have lost a part of their humanity that grounds them.

At first glance it appears Professor Brand is able to make this leap, to care about posterity so much that he is willing to sacrifice his own happiness and child. In reality he was no less frail and fallen as Mann. (irony & pun fully intended) Brand sends his child out into the far reaches because he loves her and knows if she remains on Earth she is doomed. This is one critical point in the movie
Love as a real, tangible force is the other major point in the film. Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) explicitly cites love as the real power and motivation out there. She makes a plea to go in one direction based on Love and a hunch. Turns out her suggestion was the right one. That was the one planet that could sustain human life. Love does win out in this. Love is what motivates the action and allows the action to succeed throughout the film.

There is a great deal in this movie and I’d love to chat about the robots and what their existence shows but for now I’ll get to the ending and start the larger debate.
The ending is where things all come together and frankly, I see it as intentionally ambiguous. During Dr. Mann’s monologue he tells Cooper that when he dies, he will see his kids. Why he would know this, or point it out to Cooper is not explained. And this gets forgotten as Cooper and the robot fall into the singularity.

After Cooper enters the singularity he is brought into a tesseract to be able to communicate, however clumsily with his daughter Murphy Cooper (Jessica Chastain at this point). Here is the story coming back to itself, where Cooper is able to reach across time and space to give Murphy the key to solving the equation of gravity. That part seems to indicate Cooper did live past the event horizon. However as the Tesseract comes apart and all fades to white, Cooper asks, “What’s next?”

Christopher Nolan seems to be demanding the audience get in the game at this point. Cooper wakes up in a hospital on Cooper Station (named for his daughter) and proceeds to find out that humanity has somehow gotten off Earth. Or at least some fraction of humanity.

I noticed all things he saw were things he’d already seen throughout the movie. Cooper even says he wants to see where they are, not just preserve what was. It sounds like he is speaking out about the waste of bringing his home to a space station as a museum of sorts. I think it is Nolan telling us that this is not real.

My reasons for thinking Cooper did not survive the singularity.
0. I’m just wired to think that way.
1. There is a hangar with concrete in it. Why in the world would you use reinforced concrete in a space ship? It looks a good deal like the NASA bunker which is something he had already seen, several times before.
2. The ships they were flying when he left, nearly 100 years previously, are the same they are using now. That is amazingly unlikely. It set off in my head a thought that this was all a dying dream.
3. Also if they solved the gravity equation enough to get folks off Earth, why not artificial gravity? Cooper station produces gravity through spin just like the ship they took outbound.
4. The ship he takes to head out and be with Dr. Brand, could not make the journey to the planet she is on. Simply not enough supplies and no means for a cryo-sleep. Essential if he is to get there alive.
5. When he comes to see his daughter and all of her kids and grandkids are there, they do not interact with him. He is not only their great-grand-sire, he is a hero of their youth. Yet no one shakes his hand. Also they leave and return to the room rather quickly for such a gaggle of folks.
Likely when I do longer viewings I will find even more stuff.
My conclusion is that after the tesseract Cooper dies and the epilogue is only his mind creating a fantasy before he fades.

I have to say that I'm impressed by this analysis. But I disagree with Kevin's assessment of the ending. I think that Nolan was trying to make a more straightforward statement that life is something that can be affirmed. Nolan's attempt at this is clumsy, and he's used to being more ambiguous about that, so I'm not surprised his skill at presenting it properly was limited. 

However, if we for the sake of argument take Kevin's analysis to be correct, I don't see why we should see the ending as some fantasy Cooper makes up before he fades to nothing. It could just as easily be something like Heaven. The film borrows heavily from 2001, but more from the book than the film. And an ending with Cooper in a kind of Heaven would match up well to the book. Though not the film. 


  1. Josh,
    Let me ask a couple of question just to be clear, you do agree he is dead but that he is in heaven? Are there any other points? I'm going to have to see this movie multiple times. I just missed a bunch of stuff.

  2. I don't think he is dead but it is possible. But even if you are right about that, I would be inclined to think we are seeing a heavenly fate.