Oct 14, 2020
Interstellar (2014): a recap (part 2 of 3)
[Editor’s note: This is part two of a multi-part recap. Click here for part one!]
Near Saturn, Cooper is watching a video from Tom and Grandpa Donald, who tell him that Murphy still refuses to speak with him. Cooper then talks with Dr. Romilly, who’s a bit freaked that there are only a few inches of metal between them and the vacuum of space. Cooper replies that some of the finest yachtsmen in the world don’t know how to swim, and if they go overboard, they’re as good as dead, reminding Romily that “we’re explorers” and danger is part of the adventure.
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Doyle tells Cooper that they’re nearing the wormhole, and that they have a rough idea of what’s on the other side… navigationally, at least. Later, Romilly tells Cooper to stop the spinning wheel of the ship, since they’re close enough to see the wormhole, which to Cooper’s surprise turns out to be sphere-shaped. So Romilly explains what a wormhole is to him (and thus, the audience) by poking a pen through a piece of folded paper, and saying that a wormhole lets you travel through higher dimensions by folding space.
It’s around this time that I realize why Cooper was only brought in at the last minute onto this project, story-wise: because we’re in for a lot of exposition, and the writers needed someone who’s smart enough to understand the answers, but out of the loop enough to have to ask the questions.
Remember, we’re only at the one-hour mark, and the first forty minutes or so is mostly setup, and where most (though not all) of the character drama and backstory are established, whereas the second act is a prolonged science lesson with some first-year philosophy thrown in for good measure, albeit a visually stunning lesson with some good action pieces and special effects. But we’ll worry about that later on.
In the most visually arresting scene in the movie, the Endurance enters the wormhole. While this sequence is definitely something that’s more suited to the big screen than the small, it still looks damn good and deserves mention as being one of the rare uses of CGI in this film, showing that Nolan knows when not to use it as much as when to.
Space becomes flat, then accelerates, then circles and engulfs the ship, looking like a massive tunnel or river canyon (I remember seeing this part in the cinema and thinking, “This would look awesome in a Star Wars movie or something, if the wormhole was teeming with aliens and other travelers” …but that’s just me).
The ship shudders and shakes, and the crew notices something is outside, in the wormhole. So of course, Dr. Brand has to reach out her hand and touch it, saying that “it’s them”, while Romilly warns her it’s a distortion in space-time. The space around her hand bends… and the ship exits the wormhole. Romilly asks Brand what it was that she touched, and she says, “First handshake!”
It kind of bugs me that the crew are more impressed to be approaching the wormhole than to actually travel through it, with Doyle telling Cooper that all they can do is “record and observe” (since they couldn’t control the ship while inside), rather than Holy shit, we’re in a wormhole this is scary and awesome! …and that’s a reflection of the wider issue I have with the characters in this movie. They’re scientists of the “stay rational and don’t get too excited” school, which is a problem that crops up to some degree in most of Nolan’s movies as a consequence of his style, but I feel it’s especially noticeable here.
We cut to Doyle talking to the crew about the three astronauts and their planets (You went through a wormhole! Be more impressed!), saying that when they came through the wormhole, they received all the lost communications from them. Mann and Miller are still sending out signals; Edmunds, to Brand’s mildly concealed shock, has stopped sending out a signal, though this could just be transmission failure. And he—like the other two—was giving his planet the thumbs up before his signal went down. They need to decide which planet to investigate and whether or not they can rescue all three astronauts, starting with Dr. Miller, whose planet is closest.
Problem is, Miller’s planet is closer to Gargantua than anticipated, with “Gargantua” being the name they gave to the super-black hole that the planets of Miller and Dr. Mann are orbiting (you’d think that this would have come up before now, but whatever). This means that wibbley-wobbley timey-wimey shenanigans are about to rear their ugly head.
Every hour spent on Miller’s planet costs them seven years in Earth time due to relativity, so Cooper proposes they take a wide journey around the wormhole, go in and grab Miller and her samples, and leave as fast as possible so that they can assess the habitability of the planet without losing time.
Doyle and Cooper also argue about whether they should prioritize Plan A or Plan B; that is, Doyle accuses Cooper of thinking about saving his family ahead of saving the human race, which Cooper is unhappy about.
Cooper, Brand, Doyle, and CASE make their way to the planet on the Ranger ship from the Endurance, leaving Romilly and TARS on the Endurance. Cooper and Romilly are frustrated that they can’t learn more about the black hole since the singularity at its center—which they observe as a pitch black nothingness, what Doyle calls “the heart of darkness”—could potentially hold the answer to all of their questions about gravity, and thus help get Plan A off the ground by solving Michael Caine’s equation (and yes, I’m just going to start calling him Michael Caine from now on, since there are two Dr. Brands, and Amelia is called Brand for most of this movie). Romilly says goodbye to the Ranger as it enters the new time stream, and cuts off quietly.
The Ranger comes down hard on Miller’s planet, which turns out to be entirely water, and they pick up Miller’s beacon. Cooper insists he can pilot manually, ignoring CASE’s warnings and suggestions about how to pilot, which sits very slightly oddly with his argument with Murph’s teachers about “useless machines”. So I’m guessing he’s one of those “technology is essential unless I say otherwise” sort of people.
He tells the others to “Go, go, go,” since while they may be shaken by the landing and his piloting, they’re literally wasting time not moving as fast as they can. So Brand, Doyle, and CASE leave the ship. It turns out the water is shallow, though the gravity is heavier than Earth’s, so they can only go slow.
They find Millers’ beacon under the water… along with wreckage of her ship. Also, those mountains they see in the distance turn out to be gigantic waves, and they’re coming in fast.
Cooper orders the others back to the Ranger, but Brand insists on retrieving Miller’s data, and she gets caught under the wreckage for her trouble. Doyle sends CASE to rescue her, and she makes it back just in time… but Doyle is caught in the wave and dies, and the Ranger is hit before the doors are closed, and gets flooded and carried off.
Brand and Cooper shout and scream at each other, especially when CASE informs them that it’ll take them 45 minutes to an hour to pump the water from the Ranger so they can get back to the Endurance, meaning that they’re going to lose decades. Brand says she told Cooper to leave her, and that she was just trying to do the right thing; Cooper angrily retorts she should tell that to Doyle.
They deduce that Miller was probably hit by a wave shortly after she arrived, and that due to the time slippage, she probably only died minutes ago from her perspective, and the data Brand retrieved is useless. Cooper admonishes Brand, and the whole crew, for “having the survival skills of a boy scout”. Brand says they made it this far on their brains, farther than any human in history, but Cooper says that that isn’t good enough, since humanity is doomed regardless if they fail. Brand weakly replies that she’s counting every minute, just like he is.
Cooper frantically asks if there’s some way they can get their lost decades back by jumping through the black hole and taking advantage of the timey-wimey ball, but Brand says that even though time is relative, it only goes one way, and you can’t travel back in time by going through a black hole. Though she concedes that the beings who created the wormhole—who communicate through gravity, the only thing that can travel back through time—might be able to, and thus might be from the future. But that’s useless to them, since these beings are from a higher dimension, and normal people still can’t travel back through time without their help. Can you guess where this movie is going yet?
Brand says she’s sorry for screwing up… but tells Cooper he knew about relativity before he came down here. Cooper laments how his daughter was ten years old the last time he saw her, and in reply to Brand asking him why he couldn’t just tell her he was off to save the world, he says being a parent is about making your children feel safe, “and that rules out telling your children the world is ending.” Which I’m pretty sure Murph knew already, but whatever.
Another wave comes, and Cooper tells CASE to spark the engines, even if they aren’t ready, because they don’t have time. They evade the wave, and escape the planet, returning to the Endurance to find Romilly has aged and has been waiting 23 years, 4 months, and 8 days for them (according to TARS). A shaken Brand tells him that she thought she knew the theory, but the reality was different.
Romilly tells her he didn’t think they were coming back, so he spent his time hibernating, studying the black hole, and receiving messages from Earth. However, they can’t transmit back, so Cooper sits down to watch his life fall apart over video.
Michael Caine is still alive; His son Tom has fallen in love, got married, become a dad, and turned into Casey Affleck; Grandpa Donald is dead and buried on the farm; Murph (now played by Jessica Chastain) has drifted away from her family and become Caine’s assistant… and is still mad at Cooper. She calls him a “son of a bitch” because the video she sent is on her birthday, and she’s now the same age Cooper was when he left, the age he said he would be back for her.
The movie shifts back to Earth, where Michael Caine and Murph have failed to solve the gravity equation, though the space station is fully constructed and ready. Murph realizes now, after several years of work, that something is amiss about Michael Caine’s equation, as if he were intentionally making it harder on himself to solve it. But he dismisses her concerns, saying he’s an old man, and goes off to send another message to his daughter.
Back in space, Cooper and Brand are arguing about which planet to go to, Mann’s or Edmunds’, with Brand saying they should go to Edmunds’, because even though both planets are promising, Edmunds’ isn’t living near a black hole, and his data seems more encouraging. She then quotes Murphy’s Law in her defense, since “whatever can happen will happen”, but that close to a black hole, what “can” happen is “not a whole lot”.
Cooper asks why they don’t go to Dr. Mann’s planet, since he seems to be saying his planet is ideal, and Brand herself called Mann “the best of us”. But Brand continues to say that Edmunds’ data is more promising. Romilly suggests they vote on it, and Cooper—presumably still annoyed at her behavior on Miller’s planet, and irate that people keep telling him he can’t put his family before the mission, and because he’s the kind of asshole who needs to be the most rational (i.e. “smartest”) man in the room at any given moment—tells Romilly that before they vote, he should know that Brand is in love with Edmunds.
And now we have that cringeworthy “love” dialogue. Brand admits that she is indeed in love with Edmunds, and that she wants to follow her heart, and that maybe they should stop listening to the science and go with the irrational (forgetting that, as she argued, there are very good reasons to go to Edmunds’ planet).
Cooper tells her, “You’re a scientist, Dr. Brand,” (willfully ignoring that he’s driven by love for his daughter… and Tom, but mostly his daughter) to which Brand replies that love isn’t a human invention, but a powerful, observable force that has to mean something. Coop says love has meaning in regards to social utility and child rearing, i.e., for survival of the species. Brand retorts that we love people who have died, and there’s no “utility” in that, and maybe love is evidence of a higher dimension, since it’s driving her to save a man she hasn’t seen for decade and is probably dead.
She admits that the possibility of seeing Edmunds again excites her, but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong. Cooper replies that it might, and Brand runs off. Cooper tells TARS to chart a course for Mann’s planet, no vote taken.
Basically, lots of bad science and bad philosophy and hypocrisy on the part of the two leads. Coop is essentially an ass who dismisses Brand’s motivation as unscientific despite it being not much different from his own, mostly because he has a streak of “arrogant dick” in him (that he’s never really called out on) that makes him not so subtly look down on anyone who isn’t as “rational” or “scientific” as he is.
And Brand is simply a mouthpiece for the movie’s out of place and badly conceived notions of what love is, talking about it almost as if it’s some sort of strange, recent scientific discovery that everyone knows is amazing but nobody knows what to do with. It’s all somewhat sterile and clinical and nobody here talks like a real person. This is mitigated by the brilliant and emotional acting, but the script is so awkward. And it’s only going to get worse from here.
Back on Earth, Tom is burning his crops, but says that “next year”, he’ll make it up. Murph is having dinner at the farm with him and his family, and turns down the offer to stay the night, saying “too many bad memories”, probably because her room is exactly as she left it after all these years (very convenient, movie). Tom’s kid Jessie is sick thanks to the dust, and Tom is implied to be a drinker, so all in all, things aren’t looking so good.
On the Endurance, Cooper says he’s sorry to an angry Dr. Brand, who tells him he was just being objective—and punishing her for what happened to Doyle. Cooper’s not really denying it, except to say, “It wasn’t personal.” Brand says that if he’s wrong, they’ve just wasted time, and will have to go to Edmunds’ planet eventually anyway… but by that point, after losing so much time, Cooper might have to choose between seeing his children again or the future of the human race. “I trust you’ll be as objective then.”
Back on Earth (again), Michael Caine is dying, and telling Murph, “I let them all down”, and that he lost his faith a long time ago: he lied about his equation. He solved it years ago, but realized that without data from a black hole, they’d never be able to get the station off the ground. He sent Cooper off knowing that he could never come back, and thought it was better for Murph to live a lie believing that he would return rather than knowing the truth: that she’ll never see him again, and the human race on Earth is doomed, so their only hope is for the crew of the Endurance to execute Plan B. Plan A was never going to work.
He quotes Tennyson again, and then Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and dies. The noble lie, by the way, is a recurring theme in Nolan’s work—whether it’s better to tell a painful truth or tell people something else for the Greater Good—and here it is again, with Nolan once more wondering (though not deciding) if it’s better to keep people and humanity in the dark about certain things or not, as he did in the Dark Knight trilogy, as well as films like Memento.
A hurt and angry Murph sends a cold video to Dr. Brand, telling her that her father has passed away and that she’s sorry for her loss. But before she ends the video, she accuses Brand of knowing the truth, and that she left them there to suffocate and starve. But Brand doesn’t get the message, because the crew is on their way to meet Dr. Mann. That’s it for now, check back soon for part three.