Science Fiction is not known for its sentimentality. Being fiction, it is borne out of possibility and potential that is not necessarily tied to reality. That isn’t to say implausible, rather that in fiction we can put into action that which didn’t or hasn’t happened in the real world. Launching off from this, Sci-Fi is almost always about some kind of scientific theory that is currently unknown or unproven to the world. The science doesn’t even have to be particularly accurate. ‘Aliens come to Earth’ doesn’t have to explain anything about how beings develop on different worlds, about how faster than light space travel is possible or why the aliens might be vulnerable to Earth’s atmosphere but so long as those things happened and the aliens are here, then that makes it science fiction.
Yet Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic Interstellar is dripping with sentimentality. Which is made all the more odd due to the fact that the film is based on some actual ideas about how wormholes and black holes might theoretically work. But the film attempts to have it both ways by showing what it might actually look like to move outside of our own three dimensions and saying that sometimes feeling matters more than fact. That’s not wholly unrealistic. There are many people who believe that a higher power can work in harmony with scientific fact. The real question is whether the film manages to strike that balance. Arguably, the scales are tipped slightly towards emotion.
The main thrust of the story follows Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a NASA pilot turned farmer who lives on an Earth ravaged by dust storms and crop blight. Humanity is dying and Cooper is forced to leave his daughter Murphy and son Tom on a mission to find somewhere else to live. Turns out NASA sent out twelve scouts to test planets for their compatibility with humanity by using a wormhole that appeared 50 years ago to travel to another galaxy. Only three of the planets are possibly habitable. Cooper and the crew attempt to visit each one by one but some tragedies and betrayals lead to a lack of resources and time.
As much as this is a film about space and the titular interstellar travel, it is a film that continually looks back towards Earth and inward to the the soul of humanity. Although, in saying that, people don’t exactly come off looking too swell, being considered abstractly as being too selfish to care about the survival of the species over their personal survival. It’s obviously a hard choice and many would struggle with it but people in the film aren’t even given a chance. They’re just entirely written off and it’s up to the crew to actually do something about it.
I say that it’s up to the crew but it’s actually up to something far more powerful than them. This is entering SPOILER territory, so if you don’t want to get caught in this black hole’s horizon, skip ahead to the next picture. So throughout the film there is an ominous ‘they’ that is frequently referred to. ‘They’ put the wormhole near Saturn. ‘They’ build a five dimensional tesseract within a black hole. ‘They’ are actually humans from the future, evolved outside of time and space and communicating with Cooper and helping him to communicate back in time to his daughter, such as giving her coordinates to the NASA space station or the data to saving the human race in the form of morse code.
Events which were originally contributed to a ghost or scientific anomaly are revealed to be Cooper, lovingly guiding his daughter to the answer. Interstellar asks the question why do we love and that is the question it is concerned with. It isn’t concerned with explaining why our future selves are seeing fit to build wormholes and warping time for Cooper’s benefit. What makes Muprhy, played by MacKenzie Foy and then Jessica Chastain, so special is never addressed, she just is. The film doesn’t even care to explain why the Earth is in the state that it is in, it’s just a background horror that motivates humanity to look to the stars. Interstellar is a science fiction movie that is more concerned with the soul than science, and actually it’s all the more weaker for it.
Some of the best moments in Interstellar are when the crew are exploring new planets and interacting with new environments. The film strangely excels when it moves away from Earth and yet it keeps returning there to update the audience on the lives of Cooper’s children. Dialogue is generally enjoyable but it does stray into pretentious a few times, most notably Anne Hathaway’s entire monologue on love. The music by Hans Zimmer is remarkably powerful but the film also knows when to be quiet…mostly. There were times when the music was so loud it was actually difficult to hear the lines that characters were speaking.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Throughout the film I was constantly seeing aspects of 2001 in Interstellar, from the reverberating crescendos of the orchestral music to the strikingly beautiful images of space and space travel. Interstellar will no doubt be this generation’s 2001 but while 2001 is near perfect a sci-fi as you’ll find, Interstellar skirts around the edges, failing to be as truly provocative and compelling as it wants to be. While Interstellar takes us to space and constantly looks down, 2001 is all about looking up and even when that has disastrous consequences, it never turns its attention back to Earth. All the questions that Interstellar asks, 2001 answers without even having to ask.
However, Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan are completely different directors and it is unfair to base the success of the later’s work on the former’s. Nolan will be remembered for the ambition of Interstellar for many years to come. While the content may be too light for hard science fiction fans and too complex for the casual viewer, the underlying message is one of hope and excitement. Perhaps it is has a point. Maybe it is time to be amazed as the vastness above us again.