Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Interstellar

For several days now, I've been debating with myself whether Interstellar is a bad film that does several things quite well, or a good film that has had the misfortune of having to shoulder, and justify, its creator's reputation.  At some point in the last half-decade, popular culture decided--erroneously, if you ask me--that Christopher Nolan is a purveyor of Deep, Serious entertainments.  And so his latest film, a fairly meat-and-potatoes space exploration story, comes burdened not only with its audience's expectations, but with its creator's need to live up to them.  Every minute of Interstellar drips with a self-importance, a portentousness, that the film itself--which is pretty but overlong, heartfelt but silly, ambitious but scattershot--can't hope to earn.  Just look at the way the film's trailers and promotional materials worked so hard to create a sense of mystery about what is ultimately a very straightforward premise, not because the film needs it--is it really necessary to try and sell a Christopher Nolan film anymore?--but because that's what's become expected from his oeuvre.  All of which is a bit of a shame, because I actually ended up enjoying Interstellar a great deal more than I expected to--it's not as airless as Inception, nor as suffused with pseudo-religious significance as The Dark Knight Rises.  If its ambitions were less lofty, or its pretensions less grand, it might have been easier to ignore its many flaws and problems, which stand out quite starkly in a film trying to make a Grand Statement about human nature.

Set in an unspecified but not-too-distant future, Interstellar imagines a world that has contracted and regressed in the wake of climate catastrophes and food shortages.  Our hero, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), is an engineer and astronaut turned farmer, frustrated by having been born into a "caretaking generation" that doesn't give proper scope to his ambition and wanderlust.  Through a series of coincidences that the film only partially earns, Cooper is recruited by NASA to pilot a last-ditch mission to find humanity a new home before Earth becomes completely uninhabitable, a decision that breaks the heart of his young daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy).  While Cooper makes his suspended-animation, time-dilated journey to a distant galaxy, the scientists left back on Earth--which eventually include the grown-up Murphy (Jessica Chastain)--have to solve the problem of how to launch ships big enough to carry Earth's remaining population to their new home.

To this relatively bare-bones story, however, Interstellar appends a family drama, a time travel story, and a woo-woo parable about the power of love, none of which are particularly successful.  The film's final act is a drawn-out, sentimental affair that can't earn out the ridiculous plot twists it expects us to buy.  McConaughey is excellent at conveying Cooper's love and devotion to his children, even from a distance of decades and light-years (it's interesting, in fact, to compare the success of his performance with Leonardo DiCaprio's utter failure to embody a very similar character in Inception; perhaps because DiCaprio lacks McConaughey's warmth and charm, and perhaps because Cobb's children are abstractions who can't justify his supposed devotion).  But the film ends up coasting on that charm.  It fails to interrogate Cooper's insistence that he is doing everything for his family; the suggestion that he may love exploration and space more than he loves them isn't given the serious consideration it deserves.  It's also frustrating that while Cooper's motivating emotion is treated as something ennobling, conferring upon him a natural leadership and moral authority, the emotions that drive his fellow astronaut Brand (Anne Hathaway), who is in love with one of the scientists sent ahead to scout likely planets and hopes to reunite with him, and Murphy, who holds on to resentment of her father for leaving on his mission even after she learns what's at stake, are used by the other characters to justify discounting their opinions.  The time travel plot, meanwhile, is both obvious and ridiculous.  When it becomes clear, five minutes into the film, that young Murphy's claims that there is a ghost in her bedroom are something we're meant to be paying attention to, any SF fan will be able to guess how that plot strand will resolve, and the fact that the film belabors the explanation of that obvious plot twist only adds insult to injury.

At its most basic level, however--which is also the one on which it is most successful--Interstellar is a space exploration movie, the type of story that fans of written SF have seen hundreds of times but which is relatively rare in film.  Cooper and the other crewmembers aboard the spaceship Endurance have to survive the incredible technical complexity of their mission, to deal with the limitations that the cold equations of fuel and other resources place upon them, and to make decisions where, at every turn, the survival of the human race hangs in the balance.  And, of course, they have to land on alien planets with only a bare minimum of information and preparation and hope for the best, and whereas other movies might have featured scary aliens or vicious plantlife on these planets, Interstellar understands that when you're so far away from everything familiar, the most mundane dangers can be catastrophic.  On the first planet they land on, the characters realize too late that the shallow lake where they've touched down is prone to massive, building-sized waves, which end up costing the life of one of their number.

Space-set films have a frustrating tendency to turn into horror stories in their second act, as their writers bump up against the problem of placing obstacles before characters who are literally floating in a void, and plump for monsters lurking in the shadows.  Interstellar seems to be referencing this tendency when it has Brand tell Cooper that though their mission is fantastically dangerous, it holds little danger of evil.  There's an obvious flaw in this thesis--humans bring evil with them wherever they go--but it's one that Interstellar resists delving into until it's established that even good, dedicated, well-intentioned people can produce conflict and drama when the stakes are high enough.  Everyone aboard the Endurance is dedicated to the mission, and recognizes that their own ego, desires, wishes, and even survival are immaterial in the face of it.  This does not, however, prevent them from clashing against each other, or from making terrible mistakes that cost them resources and time.  When evil does come into the equation, it's in the form of human frailty, as a character who had accepted, in theory, the necessity of sacrificing himself for the sake of humanity's survival comes up against the reality of it and finds himself wanting.

As much fun as it is to watch this sort of story--and the enjoyment is only increased by Interstellar's refreshing rejection of Hollywood's standard save the cat story template, with multiple complications and decision points that give the film an almost novelistic feeling--there's no denying how old-fashioned it is, and how hard Interstellar works to avoid that fact and its implications.  In some ways, Interstellar is as much a meta-statement about the kind of science fiction it is telling as it is an example of it.  Cooper laments the loss of humanity's spirit of exploration, the insistence he keeps hearing that trying to get into space is wasteful in the face of real problems on Earth.  But this is also a reflection of the shift in priorities within the genre.  Hardly anyone writes stories (or makes movies) about space exploration and colonization anymore, and more often than not when writers nowadays imagine the future it's to focus on climate catastrophe and other more immediate problems (this is certainly the case when outsiders to the genre--including filmmakers--try their hand at it).

Interstellar tries to offer a hopeful paean to this kind of SF, but in so doing it only exposes its problems and shortcomings.  There are some fairly obvious practical problems with the argument often offered in defense of both exploration-based SF and actual space exploration, and which is reflected in Interstellar's premise--that we have to explore space in order to find another planet to live on after this one has been used up.  At its most basic level, it suggests that we would be better off focusing on the almost certainly fantastical problem of finding a habitable planet and getting humanity there, over the astronomically difficult but still comprehensible problem of reducing carbon emissions.  Interstellar sidesteps that issue when it tells us that Earth is already doomed and that there's nothing to be done about that, but it can't avoid the deeper problem.  "This planet is a treasure, but it's been telling us to leave for a while now," Cooper sagely opines near the beginning of the movie, a bit of ludicrous tendentiousness that is never challenged or exploded.  Earth isn't telling us anything, of course, but if it could talk, it wouldn't be saying LEAVE; it would be saying STOP.  To say that the solution to climate change is merely to find another planet to live on is the same as saying that the reasons for climate change--our rampant, greedy expansion and heedless exploitation of the planet--are natural and inevitable, not the result of social choices, and of the model upon which we've built our society.  It absolves us of the responsibility to think about those choices and consider whether we should be living differently in order to avoid making the same mistakes all over again.

In recent works of prose SF, such as Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312, or Stephen Baxter's Flood/Ark duology, there has been an attempt to acknowledge that humanity's expansion into space can only happen hand-in-hand with a reevaluation of our values and economic system--otherwise, these books recognize,  finding a new home will only mean delaying the inevitable by a few hundreds or perhaps thousands of years.  In Interstellar, on the other hand, that preservationist perspective is treated not as a necessary complement to Cooper's lust for exploration, but as its antithesis, placed in the mouth of a character who is marked out as a villain and a fool by her insistence that the moon landing never happened.  Cooper's claim that Earth is telling humanity to leave is an attempt to paint a tragedy as something ennobling, an opportunity for humanity to spread its wings, with no thought to the evil that we might bring with us if we thoughtlessly accept that spin.  Exploration is a very noble word, and Cooper is the very model of the starry-eyed dreamer we think of when the word "explorer" is used.  But the fact is that throughout most of human history, exploration has been a blind for colonization and exploitation.  Without facing up to that truth, there's no reason to believe that anything will change just because the territory being explored is an uninhabited planet (which is not to mention how often humanity has attached the label "uninhabited" to territories actually teeming with vast, complex civilizations).

These problems are only exacerbated by Interstellar's thoughtless racial politics.  The environmental disaster that kickstarts the search for a new home for humanity is clearly modeled on the 1930s dust bowl (the film even uses interview segments from Ken Burns's recent documentary about that period).  This is problematic on two levels.  First, because the dust bowl was a man-made ecological catastrophe, and the film's choice to ignore this--to treat the disaster as something almost Biblical--only entrenches its refusal to see the problem with its premise.  Second, the dust bowl was a quintessentially American catastrophe, and to reference it in a world in which the actual effects of climate change are felt disproportionately by people in poor, mostly non-white countries feels like yet another iteration of the common Hollywood tendency to treat a problem as serious only when it affects white Westerners.  Coupled with the film's near-uniform whiteness--even the black member of the Endurance crew, Romilly (David Gyasi), feels like an afterthought, someone who exists to enable Cooper and Brand rather than a person in his own right--this feels like yet another skewer to Interstellar's self-satisfaction about the spirit of exploration.  Who is it that's doing the exploration, we're forced to wonder, and when humanity is finally evacuated from Earth, who is it that gets to leave?  (Not as obviously problematic, but still telling, is the total absence of animals from the film, even as livestock or pets; there is no recognition that humanity shares the Earth with other species, and no indication that NASA will be trying to save at least some species from the extinction to which we've doomed them.)

There's a scene towards the beginning of Interstellar that seems to encapsulate the fundamental thoughtlessness of its SFnal tropes.  Brand explains to Cooper that if plan A--evacuating the people of Earth to a new planet--proves unworkable, the Endurance comes equipped with plan B, thousands of frozen human embryos.  The first few, she explains, will be "auto-raised" to maturity, then the remaining embryos will be implanted in them and so forth.  It should only take a moment's thought to realize that Brand is describing a horrible dystopian nightmare, a society whose members (whose women, that is) exist solely to act as incubators for children who aren't even their own.  Even if a psychologically healthy society could somehow result from this sort of generations-long reproductive slavery, it boggles the mind that anyone would consider the result the salvation of humanity.  Cut off from their planet of origin, from any tie to human history or culture, these people wouldn't be humanity, but a completely different species that just happened to share our DNA (and per the above, it's hard not to wonder just what the racial makeup of those embryos is, and whose DNA has truly been represented).  The failure to realize plan B's monstrousness feels like an encapsulation of Interstellar as a whole--a film that is enjoyable so long as you don't think about it too much, that thinks it's paying homage to a grand tradition even as it's exposing its most ugly and horrifying flaws.  A less self-serious film might have been able to carry at least some of the problematic implications of Interstellar's story more lightly--do we truly care, for example, about the profound social problems implied by the worldbuilding and plot of Guardians of the Galaxy?--but alas, Christopher Nolan's reputation for seriousness dooms this latest demonstration of how unearned it is.