Feb 20, 2017
Interstellar (2014): a recap (part 3 of 3)
The Ranger comes in on the cold, icy, desolate wasteland that is the planet of Dr. Mann (filmed on location in Iceland). They find his ship and discover the man himself is in prolonged cryo-stasis. The trio stand around his tube in nervous anticipation, waiting to meet the man Brand and her father called “remarkable” and “the best of us”, the man who inspired the other members of the Lazarus mission to go off with him on a suicide mission to save the human race.
Anyway, it turns out he’s Matt Damon.
Mann Damon wakes up groggy, wet and in tears, and is quickly crying in the arms of Cooper. He explains that he lost all hope of ever seeing another human being after all of his supplies ran out, and that he hadn’t even set a waking date on his stasis tube the last time he went in, so he compares himself to Lazarus, in that they have “literally [really, metaphorically] raised me from the dead.”
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He enquires about the other astronauts, but Cooper explains that due to their present circumstances, they probably won’t be able to save any of them. Brand, upset at this, changes the subject and asks Mann about his world.
He describes it as “Cold, stark, but undeniably beautiful.” The days are 67 hours long and cold, and the nights are colder and just as long. Gravity is similar to Earth, and though parts of the planet have unbreathable atmosphere due to too much chlorine, the surface is breathable and might even already have primitive life. His robot, KIPP, is out of commission after doing most of the leg work. Mann says it was general wear and tear, along with him finally deciding it would be better just to use him as a power source, though he concedes this made him lonelier. He also not-at-all-suspiciously turns down a request from TARS to take a look at KIPP to try to fix him.
So to recap, the mysterious paragon Dr. Mann—played by famous film actor Matt Damon in a surprise reveal—acts cheerful and promises that the world he’s found is exactly what they’re looking for, while more or less admitting that he’s long since went mad from the isolation and murdered his only companion for parts, which made him even lonelier and likely even crazier. So in all likelihood, he’s the bad guy, but the crew of the Endurance, being mere scientists and explorers and not experienced cinephiles, don’t quite put two and two together just yet, so we have to wait about 20 minutes for his inevitable betrayal.
Meanwhile, TARS informs Brand that CASE has a message for her from Earth, which Brand agrees to take in Dr. Mann’s ship. It is, of course, the message from Murph about Brand’s father being dead and the whole “did you know this was all a lie” thing. Turns out she didn’t, and is just as shocked as everyone else… except for the not-at-all-a-dick Dr. Mann, who admits that he did know, and he and her father conspired with each other for the sake of saving the human race.
Romilly confirms what Dr. Mann explains: Without data from a black hole, the gravity problem cannot be solved, and Plan A could never hope to succeed.
Cooper asks if they could possibly see beyond the singularity into a black hole, but Romilly says that’s impossible. Brand asks why her father had everyone working on Plan A if he knew all along that it was a sham, but Mann says Plan A was just about giving people enough hope that they would agree to work on Plan B (kind of like a benign version of Bane’s “false hope” evil plan in The Dark Knight Rises, basically).
Mann says that Cooper never would have come if he knew he was leaving his family to die, even if it was for the greater good of the species, because as “science” tells us, humans are assholes who only care about themselves and those closest to them, and it’s a rare and special person who can think far enough beyond themselves to throw their life away for people they don’t know. The truth is, humanity on Earth is doomed, and “we are the future”.
Mann says that Michael Caine made a great sacrifice by committing an unforgivable lie, and throwing away his humanity, for the sake of the human race. Cooper says Michael Caine was selfish and arrogant for giving up, and that the people back on Earth are the ones making the great sacrifice. A teary-eyed Brand asks Cooper to tell her what to do, and he replies, “Let me go home.”
Back on Earth, Murph is driving through more burning farmland with her colleague… played by Topher Grace, in a throwaway role. She’s telling him what Michael Caine had done, but saying that his equation is “half the answer”, and admitting the other half is likely out there in space, not on Earth. They drive into town as another dust storm hits, and a stream of people are leaving.
Topher Grace (and unless I’m mistaken, we literally never learn the name of his character) asks what they’re hoping to find. Murph says, “Survival.” They park, and Topher asks Murph why she doesn’t just tell everyone the truth. Murph says that would only cause panic, and further defends herself by saying that unlike Michael Caine, she isn’t going to give up on humanity and will still try to solve the equation. Which is an… interesting… rationalization, since she admitted the answer probably isn’t on Earth, and humanity seems to be in its dying days, and she and Michael Caine spent 20 years working on the damn thing with no success.
I can’t decide if this is optimism, or if Murph (like her dad) has a hero complex and needs to be the smartest person around, since it seems like she and only she can solve this thing, much like how it was Caine and only Caine (and nobody else on the planet was working on the same equation and realized his work was bogus), and NASA and only NASA who could get people off of Earth (I said in part one that NASA hoped to save “as many people as possible” with Plan A, but I should clarify that the movie never explicitly admits that one space station isn’t enough to rescue the entirety of humanity, even on a dying world). Granted, this is hardly the first movie to take this approach, but given the emphasis on grounded realism and scientific accuracy… this merits criticism.
I’m also kind of miffed that we don’t really see much of the suffering the people on Earth are going through after the first act, and nearly all of it that we do see is centered on the Cooper family. It would have given the movie a bit more scope and scale, and driven the threat of the looming apocalypse home a bit further, if we got to see more of what was at stake. As it is, this yet again drives home a theme of “the fate of the many depends on the actions of the few… who are much, much smarter than all of you and who are doing the important work”, which rubs me the wrong way in a movie like this. Particularly when the bad guy is called “Dr. Mann”, suggesting that “Man is his own worst enemy”.
Murph says she has “a feeling” and talks about her ghost. She says that her dad thought she called it a ghost because she was scared of it, but she says she was never scared of it—she called it a ghost because it felt like a person, and she thought it was trying to tell her something. And somehow, she knows the answer to the equation is back there in her room (which, again, is conveniently exactly as she left it decades ago).
Back in the other galaxy, Cooper is getting ready to leave to go back to Earth, and Romilly suggests he send a probe (TARS quickly deduces “probe” means him) into Gargantua in the slim hope that they can get the data they need about gravity and relay it back to Earth, with Gargantua being the sort of black hole that’s just weak enough that such a probe might not be ripped apart by it.
TARS says he’ll need to get data from KIPP first, which Mann reluctantly agrees to. Cooper wants Mann to help him set stuff up, which leads to Mann taking him to the surface while CASE brings in the second Ranger, the one Cooper will be leaving on.
Alone with Mann now, Cooper says that as soon as they’re done setting up base camp, as honored as he is to be part of the mission, and as useful to it as Mann says he is, he’s planning on going home. Mann starts spouting off about how he understands Cooper’s yearning to be with his loved ones, saying that the desire to be with people is the foundation of what makes us human. Of course, he exposits this in the most un-humanlike manner possible, because that’s how scientists/people talk in this movie about human emotions and natural instincts.
CASE lands the Ranger, and Romilly starts to work on KIPP, while Mann leads Cooper further down to the surface, away from the camp. Mann starts not-crazily rambling about the importance of the human survival instinct, and what separates people from machines is the fear of death, which is the source of our greatest inspirations, such as Cooper and his survival instinct that extends to his kids, which is of course not-at-all Dr. Mann trying to tell Cooper, “I admire you and I’m really, really sorry I’m going to have to kill you for the Greater Good.” Just to hammer this home, he tells Cooper that research indicates that at the moment of his death, Cooper is going to see the faces of his children, and he’ll fight just a little bit harder for their sake when he does. Nope, nothing suspicious about this.
TARS is having trouble completing the boot-up with KIPP, which Romilly finds strange. Meanwhile, Mann tells Cooper that when he left Earth, he thought he was prepared to die, when the truth was, he never even considered the possibility that his planet wasn’t the one. He then steals and throws away Cooper’s communication chip, and shoves him off a cliff.
Mann screams to Cooper that he’s sorry over and over as he tries to kill him, admitting that the planet isn’t what he said it was, and that he can’t let Cooper take the ship, because they’re going to need it when the others realize this.
Cooper gets the upper hand, and Mann finally admits that he faked all the data. There is no breathable surface; Mann realized the very day he arrived that the planet he found was worthless. After years of loneliness and desperation, he gave in to the temptation to send back a message that the planet was habitable, and admits to being the coward Cooper accuses him of, which he rationalizes as, “Yes, I’m a coward, so I’m gonna kill you because I’m a coward.” Cue a long distance shot of the two fighting on the empty mountainside, signifying how insignificant they both are in the grand scheme of things.
On Earth, Murph is back in her room while Topher Grace asks Tom’s wife about her bad cough. Murph talks to her nephew Jessie, who says that he sometimes plays in her room but doesn’t touch “her stuff”, which turns out to be boxes of her old writings, including the stuff about her ghost. Topher is revealed to be a doctor (lucky), and he looks over Tom’s wife and son and tells Murph that they can’t stay at the farm.
Tom comes home, and punches Topher (come on, we’ve all thought of doing that at some point) for suggesting that his family can’t stay here, and that Tom has a responsibility to protect them. Tom says that from his perspective, he was raised by his grandfather and not his dad.
Tom refuses to let his family go, and he and Murph argue about their father. Tom accuses her of still waiting for their dad to come back and save them; Murph furiously retorts that their dad was never coming back, and that he left them here to die. She then says that if Tom doesn’t let his family leave, he’s just waiting for his next kid to die… which Tom doesn’t take well, and he tells her to get out.
Back on Mann’s Planet, Mann and Cooper continue to fight, and Mann bashes his helmet against Cooper’s, breaking it and exposing him to the atmosphere. Mann says that Cooper has never been tested like he was, and then crazily rants about the survival instinct some more and that he, Mann, will save the human race “for you, Cooper”, while Cooper is dying in front of him. He then apologizes to Cooper because he thought he could watch him die, but he can’t bring himself to. He then recites that annoying Tennyson poem, just as Michael Caine did. Cooper finds his communication chip and makes contact with Brand, who races back to help him.
Romilly messes around with KIPP some more, and ends up setting off a bomb (or something; it’s not totally clear) that Mann had rigged, making him Expendable Astronaut No. 2, just in time for Mann to see it. Brand rescues Cooper, but they hear Romilly die, and Coop fills Brand in, giving a quick “I’m sorry” before telling her that Mann lied to them. TARS survives the explosion and joins the pair, and together they race after Mann, who’s taken the Ranger and is trying to escape from the planet.
CASE says that TARS has disabled the docking sequence, meaning that Mann won’t be able to dock with the Endurance, since he doesn’t know the procedure. Except, Mann is crazy, so he tries it anyway, over the protests of Coop. In a tense but kind of predictable scene, Mann ends up damaging the Endurance. Mann tries to open the hatch despite Cooper warning him that the airlock will depressurize, while Cooper keeps his ship a safe distance away.
Brand gets through to Mann, but he only starts ranting that he’s taking control of the Endurance, and will complete the mission, and it isn’t about his life or Cooper’s life, but the future of the whole human race… and then he promptly gets sucked out in space.
Meanwhile on Earth, Murph burns Tom’s farm as a distraction, and when he runs off to put the fire out, she and Topher sneak in and tell his wife and kids they need to come with them. Murph also takes the opportunity to go back to her room, where she starts taking out her old stuff, which includes the watch Coop gave to her just before he left.
As the Endurance spins out of control, Cooper attempts to dock with it, despite CASE warning him it’s impossible. With a lot of luck and skill, Coop successfully docks with the ship, and uses the thrusters to slow the spinning and bring it under control.
Everyone is glad to be alive, but TARS informs them that they’re in the pull of Gargantua. They board the Endurance and find the place is a wreck, and starting to fall apart. The embryos are fine, but the navigation has been destroyed, and they can’t make it back to Earth, though they might be able to make it to Edmunds’ planet. Cooper wants to use the pull of Gargantua to slingshot them to the planet, since they don’t have enough fuel. This plan requires sacrificing TARS as excess weight, with the hope that he can pick up data from Gargantua as he’s jettisoned that he can transmit back to Earth.
The plan seems to work, and TARS detaches with the landing craft. Brand says goodbye to TARS… and then hears CASE say that the Ranger needs to detach as well, meaning that Cooper is going into the black hole too. Because “Newton’s Third Law” means they need to leave something behind: namely, Cooper himself.
Coop and the Ranger fly off into the black hole, leaving a weeping Brand behind to save the human race. Coop starts recording everything that happens, describing it as “all blackness”, and tries to make contact with TARS. He continues to record as his ship starts breaking up, and he annoyingly still doesn’t show any awe at being the first man to suicidally enter an amazing and terrifying phenomena like a black hole.
At the prompting of the Ranger computer, he ejects before the ship breaks up, and starts falling… falling… falling… until he falls into some strange alien… thing.
He lands in what’s called the Tesseract (thank you, additional materials!) which kind of resembles a bunch of rooms. He finds himself behind Murph’s bookcase when she was a child, and is now seeing her across time.
We see Adult Murph and Young Murph sitting on their beds, with Young Murph telling her dad to “just go” while Coop screams at his past self for leaving. Adult Murph tries to puzzle out the bookcase while Topher tells her to hurry up before Tom gets back, and she remembers her old notebook where she had written the message “STAY”, and realizes her dad was her ghost all along.
TARS gets in contact with Coop over the comm link, and tells him that “they” constructed this “three-dimensional space in their five-dimensional reality” so that he can understand and see time as a physical dimension. Coop realizes he can send a message across time using gravity.
TARS confirms that he has the data, but isn’t able to send it out, so Cooper decides to try and tell Young Murph the information, since otherwise everyone on Earth will die, even if it takes her years to figure out the significance of what he tells her. TARS tells him, “‘They’ didn’t bring us here to change the past,” and Cooper realizes that “they” didn’t bring them here at all: “they brought themselves.” Cooper finally realizes that he sent himself, and that “they” didn’t choose him, he chose Murph to be given the information that would help her save the world.
Cooper tells TARS to give him the data, and Cooper starts messing around with the Tesseract to send binary messages through the watch, which Adult Murph sees. She runs out to meet Tom to tell him and hug him (aww), takes down the information, and gets to work back at NASA.
Which means, of course, that Love is quantifiable (i.e., a father’s love for his daughter), and really does literally transcend space and time. You know, so long as unknown entities from the fifth dimension lend you a hand and construct a bizzaro-architecture for you to do this in. And have a watch that your daughter never throws away. Otherwise you’re screwed, I guess.
She soon solves the formula and saves everyone, before throwing all of her pages off the balcony (shouting “Eureka!!”) and kissing Topher. Though, she seems to be the only one excited that the human race isn’t going to die, and frankly even she isn’t quite excited enough if she thinks it’s okay to just throw it all away, but whatever. The movie is nearly over.
Back in the fifth dimension, TARS says he thinks it worked, because the entities have started shutting the Tesseract down. Cooper tells TARS that the entities are the human race from the future (which he knows because he just does, okay??) and thus stretches the “humans are awesome and can save themselves” message to its breaking point, requiring “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff” to be justified by the logic of this movie, since without something like that, we’d either have been saved by aliens/God/generic higher beings, or just had to accept the end of the world and be done with it.
Cooper finds himself in epilepsy land (the name I give to the blinding flashing white void the aliens… sorry, future humans send him to as the Tesseract collapses), and discovers that he was the one who shook Brand’s hand when they went through the wormhole. Finally, he drifts off into space.
Cooper awakens in a hospital bed, where the doctor and nurse seem to know who he is, and inform him that he’s 124 years old, but to take it slow (two contradictory messages there, Doc; want to inform the formerly comatose centenarian that his daughter is nearly dead before he has time to adjust to whatever the hell is going on, too?).
Coop opens the window to find himself in “Cooper Station”, which is currently orbiting Saturn, though it’s named after his daughter, not him. Once again, nobody is particularly excited about this amazing discovery (“124-year-old father of Earth’s greatest hero is discovered floating in space after being saved by the godlike descendants of the human race… and now, the weather”). Cooper readjusts remarkably quickly and well to the situation he finds himself in, which the doctor and nurse take for granted. Trauma or shock or awe be damned.
Some generic guy who wrote a paper on Cooper (which is as much of a damn as anybody gives about the Father of the Messiah Who Walks Among Us) gives him a brief tour of the place, which has farmland and baseball fields and houses and everything. And it’s a shame that we never got to see the station take off. Also, I do have to wonder how many people they managed to get on this station; did they literally cram all that was left of the human race onto this thing, or is this just one of those “yeah, we’re saved, and everyone else on Earth will die horribly, but we’re okay” things?
The two come across the old farmhouse, taken up and put on the station. And we finally see that the old people we saw at the beginning (whatever happened to those bits?) are museum-esque recordings of old people who live on the station, for the youngins to learn about the old country (Earth). Well, when they aren’t smashing windows in gravity-defying houses, that is.
The house is more or less exactly as Cooper remembers it, though it’s been turned into museum. TARS is here, because he was recovered with Cooper, and Cooper spends the night repairing him. Cooper tells TARS he doesn’t really care for the nostalgia or recreating a faux-Earth on the station. And still nobody bothers or is excited to see him.
An elderly Murph arrives, and Cooper goes to see her in her hospital bed, with her family (i.e., his grandkids and great-grandkids) greeting him with casual indifference.
Cooper tells her that he was her ghost, and Murph tells her that she knew, though everyone thought that she solved the gravity problem herself. They have a touching moment while everyone else she loves stands around, being ignored, and Murph tells Cooper that he needs to go find Brand. He leaves the room, still with nobody giving him any notice (some family she’s got there), and he and TARS steal one of the Rangers.
Cut to Brand, who’s landed on Edmunds’ planet, which appears to be inhabitable. But Edmunds himself is dead and she’s buried his body. We see her walking off to the camp she’s set up, and roll credits.
Well, that was Interstellar, and… it’s still just “okay”.
I’m not quite as frustrated with it as I was the first time around, mostly because I know what to expect and can better appreciate the good stuff the film has: the acting, the cinematography, the animatronics (TARS and CASE both look amazing), and the effort and care that went into making a movie that brought up a lot of intelligent and high-concept ideas. Though, how well those ideas were handled is questionable. It’s not quite “it works if you don’t think about it”, so much as “it falls apart if you think too hard about it”.
As I said in part one, the main problem with this movie is its premise. The filmmakers want to encourage space travel and human endeavor by stressing the dangers of not colonizing other worlds, since otherwise the Earth might be our grave. However, to achieve this, they chose firstly to put the Earth in sufficient danger that we’re forced to leave in the first place; Second, they needed to address the fact that there are no inhabitable worlds anywhere nearby, so they needed to come up with a wormhole and not-aliens to hand-wave away the fact that if the Earth really were in such peril that we could only survive by fleeing it, we’d be screwed; Thirdly, the not-aliens have to be “humans from the future” so that they can say humanity did this “on our own”; And fourthly, humanity has to fail spectacularly at solving the blight problem and at coming together to come up with any other solution, so that a handful of scientists, astronauts, and engineers can save us all (or as many as they can fit on Cooper Station, at least).
And to impress upon us how anti-intellectual it is to oppose human spaceflight that might one day save us all (even though the movie has to literally bend time and space to achieve this), everybody who’s not involved in this project is either too old, given up, or is an idiot or a lemming, which seems to be the opinion of our borderline asshole of a main character.
For a film that talks about the importance of humanity and human survival, it shows shockingly little faith in it. The movie spends more time musing about science and the importance of survival and how the biggest obstacle man faces is himself, yet not enough on how wonderful and amazing space travel could be, or showing enough of the human tragedy unfolding on Earth beyond the familial relationships of the main characters.
In other words, if the goal was to encourage space travel, why, oh why, Christopher Nolan, did you feel that we needed to be threatened with extinction to achieve it? Is the best argument for humans trying to reach the stars really nothing more than “we’ll all die if we don’t”? And if so, could you have given us a bit more convincing setup than “most of us are too dumb and lazy to pull ourselves out of this until it’s too late”?
I recognize that many of my complaints might be part and parcel of the genre, but even still, this could have been done better. The physics might hold up (if shakily at times), but the social psychology and philosophy are rather weak (sometimes cringeworthingly so), and the whole plot relies on us to suspend our disbelief in some pretty big ways for a film that presents itself as so grounded. Like, is the Earth really so screwed that a barren, uninhabited planet light-years from Earth would honestly be our only hope? Isn’t that going to be harder to live on than a world that only has a food and dust problem but still has millennia of human civilization to build upon?
Like I said, it’s not the worst movie, and it has a lot of good and commendable points going for it. But do I think it’s some sort of modern masterpiece of cinema whose brilliance I’m just failing to grasp? No. No, I don’t. Interstellar is decent, well-crafted, sometimes thought-provoking (if often in the wrong ways), and to be honest… rather predictable and forgettable.