Dissecting Interstellar: Love, Wormholes and Robots

InterstellarSky-high expectations and marketing oversaturation could leave some audiences disappointed, but Interstellar still does plenty to amaze viewers.

*** Spoiler Warnings Throughout *** For a spoiler free review from Zac head here.

Grant: First off, the special effects and computer graphics are not something that usually contribute to my enjoyment of a film, but the effects in Interstellar are truly awe-inspiring throughout the film.  This is more up your alley, so I’m sure you agree.

Zac: Are you saying I am a simpleton who only needs whiz bang effects? You might be partially right there and Interstellar delivers on every technical level behind the camera. The effects work is seamless with the wealth of practical work going on in camera, the cinematography is gorgeous (especially when it is full 70mm IMAX stock) and Hans Zimmer’s score is one of his best.

Grant: Another thing that impressed me as the film progressed were the well imagined robots with fascinating abilities (I was worried that TARS wouldn’t know how to swim, silly me).  The appearance of the robots was innovative and their personalities were surprisingly fun.  It was a nice harken back to the days of A New Hope, when robots (or droids) were an effective comic relief.

Zac: They brought a lot of life to Interstellar that was sorely missing elsewhere, McConaughey’s Cooper and the two primary robots, TARS and CASE, were the only people having any fun on this very serious mission and without them the film might have gotten a bit too heavy. Yeah, it’s grim circumstances in this future dystopian version of our world, but you still have to be able to smile and TARS & CASE provided that.

Grant: I often find myself morbidly interested in dystopias, so maybe I was an easy target, but I found the future dust bowl world imagined by the Nolan brothers very effective.  While the crop failure and other global crises were worrying, it was the existing society that was most disturbing.  I had never imagined the end of the world could be so structured.

Zac: I enjoyed the world building, for sure, but I maybe would have liked the film to go one step further a couple of times. Are there no more cities/metropolis? The New York Yankees are still around? What sparked the rationale behind becoming moon landing truthers? And why was NASA asked to bomb poor/starving people? I get that this is Cooper’s story and it leaves things up to your imagination, but Nolan’s choice to keep the film’s focus so narrow on this world might be Interstellar’s biggest problem. Just a bit more depth to that world building could have resonated humanity’s story as that much more desperate and sad, it also might have cut down on the exposition needed telling us how desperate things are. I’m all for show over tell.

Grant: By teaching children that the moon landings were a hoax you can help dissuade any notion that space colonization could be humanity’s salvation.  It also provides an example of the Soviet Union, which in their version of history spent so much money on science and technology that it went bankrupt (which is half right). In the original script the Indian surveillance drone was a Chinese drone (probably changed so that the Chinese government would allow the film to be shown in their country). It might be safe to assume that U.S. cities have been nuked after a global conflict over scarce resources (luckily the Yankees were traveling at the time so they were spared).  I’m not sure if there is a good way to provide the back story without creating more exposition and extending an already long film.  For me, the unanswered questions let my imagination run wild to fill in the gaps.

Zac: Yeah, I mean, I get the film’s rationale for the moon landing stuff, they say as much. Maybe they could have shown some of the footage from the drone, given us a quick glimpse of the world today without any exposition while showing off Cooper’s engineering skills to boot. It’s not a huge complaint, but I love the world building and I feel like the Nolans only dipped their toes into it. There was room for more without losing the focus on Cooper, that is all I am saying.

Though I’m still not ready to give up that focusing so much on Cooper hurts the film, especially when it wants Anne Hathaway’s Amelia to be such an equal player once the film goes into outer space. Knowing more about her background and her relationship to Edmund, one of the twelve Lazarus pilots, would have given her so much more depth and some stakes beyond that of the mission. It might also have helped that crazy pitch about love she makes for visiting Edmund’s planet over Mann’s. Another less plot driven scene with Mann would have also been appreciated to maybe get into his psyche just a bit more; especially since he ends up turning on everyone. This could have also been a good moment to get into the crazy sacrifice of the Lazarus mission and how it affected Mann sending all these people to their deaths. I feel like the film glosses over this significance with “they are heroes” BS.

Grant: Yes, it is time to talk about some of the film’s problems with characters.  Anne Hathaway wasn’t bad, but her character didn’t quite work.  It is hard to justify giving her more screen time, but it is possible with better character development her scenes could contribute to the film’s emotional core.  Instead her speech comes off flat and the film’s emotional core remains with McConaughey and Chastain.

Damon’s Mann also could have been written better.  While Damon was well cast, the character’s evil plot was a bit ridiculous, especially for someone who was described as “the best of us.”  While clunky, that character might have served a purpose of a counterbalance to Michael Caine’s character.  Mann was obviously very selfish, and Cane’s Dr. Brand was possibly selfless to a fault.  At one point he asks McConaughey to trust him as he is lying to McConaughey’s face, presumably years after he began lying to his daughter about Plan A.  These scientists were said to represent the best of humanity, yet they show the awful side of humanity in the quest to preserve it.

Zac: I think Damon is a good enough actor to pull off the betrayal even if the motivations could have been stronger. This is why I think a scene showing a bit of his mental psyche/breakdown over being alone all of these years or his role in the Lazarus missions could have been better served. The filmmaking does a great job of anticipating his turn, but you are right in that there wasn’t much motivation or logic on the screen; even if I bought it.

Another reason to forgive all of this business with Mann is that the whole sequence revolving around his betrayal is pretty much incredible. Yeah, the filmmaking sells the turn a minute before it happens, but the fight, rescue, chase, docking, let’s slingshot off a black hole sequence that kicks into gear there can go up against just about anything Nolan has done. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time and when Cooper is like, “I’m going to dock it,” I lost my shit. A moment made all the more magical by the cocksure delivery of THE McConaughey. The sequence is one of the best of the year and should be seen in IMAX.

Grant: Yeah, I guess the Mann betrayal was a necessary plot element to line up the film for the third act, where the film really hit its stride.  The docking scene was great, the call back to the 10% dishonesty was moving and I was in complete awe as the dimensions began to blend.  I was already sold on the central relationship between McConaughey and Chastain, but the scenes from the black hole left my mind racing and my heart aching.  So many implications and wonderful contradictions.

Zac: Oh boy, we aren’t on the same page here.

A major reason why I wasn’t able to really get on board with these moments is because I really don’t like time travel stories where things in the future affect things in the past but that future couldn’t exist without the future effecting said past. Now, I know I should listen to Bruce Willis in Looper and not worry about how all that shit works, but my mind can’t escape such blatant manipulation of time like it happens here in Interstellar. Yes, I don’t know the realities of 5th dimensions and tesseracts harnessed by black holes, and I actually think this sequence might make sense in the film’s realm of logic in hindsight, but in the moment I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, “The McConaughey can’t be telling himself to go to the NASA base from the future because if he doesn’t get there on his own he can’t be in this position to talk to himself in the first place.” Now, if McConaughey hadn’t communicated with himself and just passed along TARS data to Murph, I think I wouldn’t have any of these issues. Had the coordinates to NASA came through the wormhole from the evolved humans of the future and Cooper just saw that this was an opportunity to communicate with the past and did so through the watch, this all makes logical time travel sense to me. He isn’t influencing himself or how he got to that place and he would still get back a moment with Murph. Cooper telling himself to stay was the most egregious bit here for me, especially Murph could have totally been just trying to have her Dad not leave in the first place. In fact, it might have been even cooler if the real message from the 5th dimensional humans was “Let him go,” because Cooper was necessary to saving Earth’s version of humanity and reuniting them with Amelia’s Plan B human race.

There is a lot more to get into regarding my theories behind that, and I am very intrigued to see how these scenes play out knowing what I am getting into on a second viewing.

Grant: Cooper was dealing with overwhelming regret when he sent the ‘STAY’ message.  I believe it took him some time to figure out what he must do in order to truly help his daughter and humanity.

Zac: I totally agree with this, Cooper was emotional, not logical.

Grant: It sounds like you aren’t too bothered by the contradictions, but for those moviegoers that will dwell on it, just understand that there are factors in the Universe that humans are far from understanding.  We don’t know what capabilities a theoretical 5th dimension could bring.  Is the timeline in Interstellar logical by the normal rules of nature?  No.  You know what else isn’t logical?  Quantum mechanics.  Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t make it impossible.

Zac: As I said above, I agree, we don’t know what is possible with all the stuff Interstellar is playing with, but the whole 5th dimension still fell flat for me; this could be for a number of reasons. One is that I think Chastain is left with nothing to do for any of the time she is on-screen. Yes, I can feel her anger and she plays that well, but mostly she is a plot device to run around and then only succeeds because she is told the missing piece to her breakthrough. Murph never evolves as a character after her Dad walks out and into outer space which really left me wanting more. They don’t even really give us the background needed for Murph and her brother’s relationship, which the film hangs the Earth based climax on and there is nothing there. Casey Affleck was great in the video feeds after the first 23 year relativity jump, but after that he is only allowed to be Mr. Grumpy Face. Affleck is rightfully grumpy, the world is dying, but I feel like we missed out on something major between him and Chastain that a couple of lines can’t fill in.

Grant: Yeah, that 23 year jump video feed with Affleck was some powerful stuff.

Anyway, Chastain was far from a plot device, she was the heart of the film.  You can feel her passion whether it is her discovery that Dr. Brand is working on the equation with “two hands tied behind his back” or her sudden decision that she must return to the farmhouse and intervene in saving her ‘lost cause’ relatives (which reflect her ability to save the ‘lost cause’ of humanity).  Also, are you really giving her no credit for decoding the mystery of the ‘ghost’ and understanding the significance of the defective watch?

Zac: I’m not saying she isn’t an intelligent character, or didn’t do important things for humanity, when I say she is a plot device I just meant that all of those things you just listed are pushing the plot and we didn’t get to connect to her on an emotional level. I think the film as a whole loses its emotional touch once the story leaves earth. This doesn’t ruin the film for me, but I think that her going back to save her in-laws would have resonated anything for me if we had a beat or two with her and her brother, showing us how they fell out. I wanted to see the more human side of Murph as she grew up, emotionally she was that same girl who was mad at her dad and while that is warranted, I think the emotions only resonated on Cooper’s side, if any, for me. Again, this all could me being mucked up by the time travel stuff, a second viewing will reveal a lot for me.

Grant: I think the return to the farmhouse was staged by the scene where the siblings fight over leaving the farmhouse, with Affleck revealing his emotional scars and Chastain no longer defending their father.  I would argue that unlike Inception, Interstellar featured a strong, well crafted central theme.  The absence of parents can leave a gaping hole, Cooper understands the damage that he is causing.  Cooper echoes his wife’s words in a great bit of foreshadowing: “Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.” I thought one of the most effective moments was when Chastain intercepts her brother just as things are about to boil over to tell him that their father did not abandon them, I expected him to be ambivalent, but he was completely disarmed.  Much like how an abandoned child (even after years of disappointments) has faith that a parent wasn’t being selfish and the parent will come back for them.  Like his sister, the ghost of an absent father haunted him.  Just because Tom was content living as a farmer, didn’t mean that he didn’t love his father.  I would be very interested to get the perspective of somebody that had an absentee parent to see what their perspective was on these relationships.

Zac: The only time I felt emotion for Cooper and Murph was when they finally reunite in the flesh, but I was shocked at how uninterested the film was in that moment. Again, we only see Cooper’s side of things, the anticipation and wonder of what Murph will be like all grown past him, and it was a bit jarring when Murph just sort of sent him packing after Amelia. Murph’s solace and ability to so quickly send Cooper off makes sense, she had her reconnection with her father years ago with the watch and clearly moved on with her life and family, but I would have like to have seen that and not be left to infer it. Cooper also goes along with the plan pretty quickly and this would have also been a bit more believable had I felt a strong connection with him and Amelia, but that wasn’t there either.

Grant: It sounds like we agree that the film’s conclusion was weak.  Similar to Dark Knight Rises, the film created an extended ending that tries to answer too many questions.  I would have liked it to end with Cooper drifting near Saturn with the red and blue lights in the background.  I loved the ambiguity of the film’s beginning, and I would have appreciated a similar style at the film’s conclusion.  I could have done without great-grandma Murphy.

Zac: I don’t know if it was weak, it just went where I didn’t expect it to. I didn’t expect the tesseract, the “ghosting” or even Cooper to survive actually. I actually thought we were going to see Cooper get spaghettified as he fell into the black hole and follow the two women of the film to finish the story out; Murph getting TARS’ transmission and Amelia setting up on Edmund’s planet. In hindsight, this is unrealistic given how focused the film was on Cooper’s journey, and it isn’t really fair to hold the film towards something you wanted, but part of me feels that is the better ending. Yeah, never reuniting father and daughter is a far darker tale, and I have already argued that neither Murph or Amelia was fleshed out enough to make an ending built around them resonate either, but I kept wishing we got something we didn’t.

Grant: Spaghettification would have been ballsy, I suppose Nolan knew he had to write a Hollywood ending in order to avoid arguing with the producers for two years straight.  As Cooper was transferring the sequence to Murphy, I was hoping for one last twist.  I wanted Cooper to realize that the wormhole wasn’t to help humanity find these planets, but instead to find the black hole to unlock the secrets of space travel.  That would have blown me away.  However, this theory doesn’t seem to hold up after Edmund’s planet looked promising.

Zac: That again is the rub though, right? Future humans who have the capability to create a wormhole can’t be reliant on someone in their past to show them the way to have the ability to get to the point where they sent the wormhole back in the first place.

I think the only way the time travel stuff of this film works is if we are dealing with multiple timelines. Let’s assume that the future, 5th dimensional controlling humans understand that their are multiple timeline/universes and have clearly figured out how to cross between them in some capacity based on the tesseract we see Cooper put in the film. I think you are on to something with the true mission of Cooper is not to get back to his daughter, but to save Earth’s humanity by giving them the data needed from the black hole.

All of this theorizing is contingent on one thing though, who put the wormhole there? All of this is based on non 5th dimensional thinking to start, because if we are keeping this all human, and they were the ones who put the wormhole there for the film’s timeline to discover, then the first timeline would have had to survive without the assistance of a worm hole. So here we go.

Timeline 1: Earth goes through the same dystopia defining future that we see at the start of Interstellar, only this time they head out on a mission to save humanity without the aid of a wormhole. So think Plan B of the film with absolutely no hope of a Plan A. Using cryosleep, robot pilots and long distance sub-light speed travel, humanity on Earth will be long-lost before this new colony of humans ever even finds a planet. But say they do, and they flourish and evolve for thousands and thousands of years, and using their 5th dimensional abilities they decided to save Earth’s humanity and put a wormhole they created just beyond Saturn.

Timeline 2: Life on Earth unfolds as it does in the previous timeline (and the timeline of Interstellar). A wormhole appears, NASA builds in secret, launches the Lazarus missions and ten years later Amelia leads Romilly and Doyle on a mission piloted by TARS through the wormhole and directly for Edmund’s planet. After settling the new home planet, Amelia and the team build a colony for years, but watch Plan A fail on Earth through transmissions as the Earthbound human race dies off, with Murph being the last contact they have with NASA.

Humanity evolves on Amelia’s colony to the point of 5th dimensional knowledge and they solve the Plan A problem while studying Gargantua over the many years of evolution. They build the tesseract connected to Murph’s bedroom in the black hole and this inadvertently pulls Cooper into the mix.

You could even imagine a scenario where Cooper ends up the pilot in Timeline 2, something happens to him and Amelia wants to try to save him and humanity with the tesseract.

Timeline 3/Alternate Timeline 2: This is what we see in Interstellar, but there are two interesting ways to look at it.

One, the film plays out, is a completely separate timeline and humanity is saved back on Earth and on Amelia’s planet as they reconnect as the end of Interstellar implies. Cooper’s actions in the tesseract help relay the Gargantua data needed to Murph and all is well and good. Maybe we can even infer that all three of these timelines eventually meet/communicate as they catch up to each other and communicate across time 5th dimensionally. A very happy ending indeed.

Another more interesting way to look at Interstellar is that the events of the film are happening in the same timeline as Timeline 2. This would raise the stakes of the film significantly as the presence of Cooper is actually threatening to ruin everything that came before it, including Amelia being put on that colony so they can set up the tesseract that makes saving humanity possible.

If we are viewing Cooper as a huge wrench in Timeline 2 staying intact, all of the decisions he makes to throw off the original plan of going straight to Edmund elevates everything. The decision to visit Miller’s planet and losing Doyle, everything with Mann potentially erasing Amelia and the colony entirely, I think these are some really interesting time traveling stakes to view the movie through. It also ends up making Cooper even more heroic as he not only save Amelia and the Plan B colony, but also ends up saving humanity by transmitting TARS’ data back to Earth.

I know the film doesn’t really lend itself to you thinking about all of this while watching, but I wonder how much background thought went into figuring out the time travel logistics of all this with the Nolan’s and their science team.

Grant: Ha, I like to imagine you have push pins and string connecting characters across the timelines on a big wall in your apartment.  The only thing I disagree with is that Doyle would die even if Cooper wasn’t there because they were going to Tsunami planet first regardless, right?

Anyway, I don’t think your timelines were the same that the Nolans used to justify the storyline. I think their approach was more like: “Hey, we are dealing with the 5th dimension, we don’t need to worry about the Grandfather Paradox!”

Zac: You are probably right, but a man can theorize endlessly into the night, right?

Grant: At least you didn’t theorize a scene where Cooper lands on Edmund’s planet to find an elderly Amelia raising fifty creepy kids.

Zac: There is that.


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