Not even spoilers–yes, 8list.com.ph would like to announce that this one is SPOILER-FREE! Now, back to our regularly programmed diatribe.
If you’ve been taken in by the hype train that is Christopher Nolan’s new movie, it’s everything that the press and the trailer say it is, plus the addition of another galaxy to the algebra of this epic. This is the space odyssey as imagined by the director of the Bale-starrer Batman trilogy and the guy who brought us deeper into the visual ecology of dreamtime in “Inception.” It’s all that and nothing at all.
Set in a near-future in which an agricultural crisis called “The Blight” has brought the world to its knees, “Interstellar” chronicles a daring mission to pierce the barriers of time and space in a desperate human gamble against extinction. Leaving, as in packing up and going bravely into the unknown, is the central theme of this movie and farmer-turned-astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is its humble flyboy to the stars.
No less than three more Oscar award-winners in the form of Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine, and Anne Hathaway help out Cooper and Nolan to flesh out his ambition in outdoing the surreal journey into the last real frontier (read: space) and the metaphor of life, the universe, and damn well everything as previously explored in more focused pieces by Cuaron (“Gravity”), Soderbegh (“Solaris”), and the all mighty Kubrick (“2001: A Space Odyssey”). Also watch out for a brief role by Matt Damon as the illustrious astronaut of the first wave, Dr Mann.
Let me explain. On one hand, you could argue that this is exactly Leo Di Caprio’s dream jockeys set in space. The same spirit of courage, adventurism, and emotional ballast infuses it to the gills and explodes its engines, making it power through the stratosphere into escape velocity, past our galaxy and into the singularity, folding space to the void beyond our own into a narrative that is novelistic and by its very nature rambling, unwieldy, imperfect. On another you can point out that it tries to collapse too many concepts into that same narrative space, by said squeeze losing many of its core benefits, like the nutrients in a vegetable stew evaporating as it’s left too long on the frying pan. And you wouldn’t be wrong.
Nolan’s ambition is without doubt and at some point you can imagine him having an emergency meeting with the writers and story crew, trying to hammer out a more elegant and logically sound solution out of the morass of plot dead ends that the science has arranged into some cosmic catastrophe. Something that sounds costly, like in the quantity of a couple million dollars.
But many of Nolan’s conceits pay off like fireworks: one of the most precious scenes is Cooper simply weeping before a monitor as he plays message after message he missed after more than two decades on Earth, another has sweeping vistas as the Endurance spaceship traverses gas giants and asteroid debris like a microscopic cog against the vast void in a pure absence of sound design–a genius stroke to at once illustrate the vacuum and to leave the viewer with nothing but his eyes and his astonishment. Beautiful, beautiful.
Make no mistake: this movie will become a cult hit, debated by critics and movie journos for years to come, informing Best Of and Worst Of lists in equal measure. The plot twists in the second act alone would be enough fodder for seven Shyamalan movies.
Whatever you’ve read of the reviews, especially this one, what’s not in doubt is that, if you’re a fan of space opera and astronaut adventure movies like “Gravity,” you MUST see this. Preferably on IMAX, where the vistas of space and the planets the crew explore are not only breathtaking, they may yet be prophetic visions of our future.
Here are eight concepts, theories, and phenomena of cosmology tackled in the story that are icebergs above water in the greater quest for humanity to understand our place in the universe and avert the apocalypse that may come through escape to the heavens.
8. All Is Dust: The Future Food Blight
McConaughey’s Cooper is a former test pilot and engineer in the tradition of the adrenaline-fueled flyboys who continually challenged their own limitations to carve our path into the stars. But in the post-food apocalypse, the world needs farmers, not pilots. After a crop-killing plant virus called The Blight has decimated the food supply, civilization has turned back to the earth and clings to the only viable crop left: corn. On a homestead surrounded by acres of his crop, Cooper is raising his kids with the help of his father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow).
“We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars, now we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt,” declares Cooper as he contemplates his family’s future wearing surgical masks forever and dodging raging shamal storms that interrupt baseball games.
The prospect of humanity starving because of planet-wide crop failure isn’t a new one. Nolan made use of the US Dust Bowl of the 1930s (with Dust Bowl survivors making a cameo in the film) and the 2011 US Southwest crop crisis as examples .
7. Better Living Through Space Colonies
Meanwhile, as the ordinary citizens of Earth try to live off of a pure corn diet, sealed off in an underground bunker is a small group of scientists and engineers aiming higher than the dirt that no longer seems willing to sustain the human race and are gambling their lives on the prospect that somewhere in the universe lies a planet that just might be the next home to humanity.
The space project was sparked by the mysterious appearance of a disturbance near Saturn—a wormhole that bores through a higher dimension of space and time to a galaxy that would take lifetimes to reach without it.
And to endure such a journey, the group has salvaged the best available technology from the ruins of the space program to build the mission’s three ships: the Ranger shuttle, the Lander heavy-lift vehicle, and the Endurance mothership waiting in low Earth orbit.
One of their auxiliary plans, as astronauts continue to explore the galaxy beyond the wormhole, is to build a space colony in orbit around Earth, evacuating the millions they can to live in artificial gravity with synthetic crops and other manufactured food, before relocating to their new home beyond the stars. Currently, NASA has had plans for exactly this contingent in their O’Neil Cylinder and Bernal Island concepts.
McConaughey was taken by the emotional threads that ground the spectacle in human dimensions. “What is amazing to me is that while the excitement of the story lies in its scope—the thrill of adventure and discovery of the unknown—one of my favorite things about Chris Nolan is the heartbeat of humanity he gives to his films. No one handles the sheer mass and scale of a world like he does because it always comes off as something personal and intimate.”
6. Intergalactic, Planetary: Cryo-Sleep And FTL Travel
In the movie, a reconnaissance team has already been sent out to pre-emptively map the prospective planets for habitation beyond the wormhole near Saturn. Now all that’s needed is the second wave of astronauts to bring the supplies needed to reinforce the forerunners and set up camp on those planets that show promise for a second home.
In theoretical terms, if you wanted to cross the galaxy and you can’t travel faster than light (or FTL) then you’d need to have some way to put your humans into extended cryo-sleep and wake up when they’re near their desired location.
FTL itself would of course cause problems in relative aging with the astronaut who’s travelling and his family on Earth left behind. This “age gap” is explained in the theory of The Twins, one who stays on Earth and another who travels into space and travels on a spaceship by FTL.
Hathaway ties the quality in Nolan’s films to his focus on the human stakes in even the most heroic endeavor: “From the beginning of time, the reach to expand our world or move our civilization forward has always involved great sacrifice by a handful of individuals, who put the greater good over any risk to themselves. This film really celebrates those who are brave enough to do that.”
5. Wormy Is Good: The Singularity Cometh
In “Interstellar,” a wormhole appears near Saturn that allows the astronauts led by Cooper to cross our galaxy into another one that holds the requirements necessary for human life to thrive. Wormholes, also called singularities, are unicorn phenomena that might come to pass after millennia, without generations of humans being witness to them.
“To me, space exploration represents the absolute extreme of what the human experience is,” Christopher Nolan says. “It’s all about trying, in some way, to define what our existence means in terms of the universe. For a filmmaker, the extraordinary nature of a few select individuals pushing the boundaries of where the human species has ever been or can possibly go opens up an infinite set of possibilities. I was excited by the prospect of making a film that would take the audience into that experience through the eyes of those first explorers moving outwards into the galaxy—indeed to a whole other galaxy. That’s as big a journey as you can imagine trying to tell.”
Nobody really knows how a wormhole works or have any way to determine where it will deposit you. Perhaps, as one 90s movie puts it, what lies beyond the singularity are the demons of hell?
4. Gargantua: My God, It’s Full Of Stars
This concept is called time dilation, and affects everything near a black hole where time, space, and light are devoured by the monstrous phenomenon.
Nolan wanted to get the visuals of the black hole as close to those observed by physicists and in this effort to bring space to life with as much truth as the story’s flesh and blood characters, the filmmakers had an invaluable asset in leading theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, whose work unraveling the most exotic mysteries of the universe formed the scientific backbone of the script.
Will there be enough time for Cooper and crew to survey which planet can support new life before everything on Earth dies from starvation? How will the billions of humanity be able to evacuate their dying planet? And why is Jessica Chastain’s skin so unblemishingly smooth as a farmer/physicist on 40 feet of IMAX?
Jessica Chastain declares that the film celebrates the connections that sustain us. “This story is full of longing and heartbreak, but at its core is the beautiful idea that even if love is not something you can hold in your hands, it remains with you across vast distances in time and space.”
3. Sarcasm Rating 80%: Snarky Robots
Likely my favorite character in the movie next to the put-upon family man flyboy Cooper are the fifth and sixth members of the Endurance crew: two surplus military machines with complex limbs but mostly shaped like huge, upright metal boxes are C.A.S.E and T.A.R.S—who’ve been designed to emulate their human counterparts.
“A huge part of what they’d be programmed for would be esprit de corps,” says co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan. “They’d be designed to boost morale among the ranks with a sense of humor or a burst of courage. There was something very poignant to me about the idea that we may have created this group of soldiers that embodied the best in us, and when they were no longer needed, broke them into pieces and recycled them into combine harvesters. TARS and CASE are sort of the last of their kind.”
Both machines were performed on set by Bill Irwin via a sophisticated hydraulic puppeteering rig, though the actor’s voice is only heard onscreen as TARS, with Josh Stewart voicing CASE in the finished film.
Irwin saw CASE as more circumspect than TARS, whose voice the actor found in his interaction with McConaughey’s Cooper. “There’s some sparring, and Cooper says, ‘You sound like ex-military to me,’ which immediately told me how TARS sounds,” Irwin recalls. “So, he developed into a kind grizzled mid-level officer with an ex-Marine’s sense of humor.”
2. Time As A Place: The 4TH Dimension
It’s full of emotional resonance and pathos but after all the pushing of hard science (which is very hard to convey in layman’s terms) to its limits many will be left with a “WTF?” taste in their mouths coupled with the dubious triumph of having seen a monster of a movie with sinewy, hard-to-chew concepts and your brain having wrestled with said ideas.
This is mostly because the concept of multi-dimensional beings who can see more than us (like us 3D beings see more than 2D beings) is just hard to imagine. To these supermen time would be a place they can visit, like a city or a mountain, observable and in some cases able to be changed. What? Yeah, I told you there were some hardcore cosmology ideas in this one.
Co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan admits that the nearly inconceivably dimensions of the universe led them down some fascinating narrative pathways. “The reality of the universe is that while it’s magnificent to look at and inspires a great sense of wonder, it’s cold, airless and vast—so vast that we have no idea how big it really is,” he says. “So, the effort was to try to take a big idea and ground it as much as possible to give you a real sense for what interstellar space travel would feel like, not only as a tactile experience, but in terms of the emotional toll such a treacherous and isolating journey would have on human beings.”
1. Gravity As A Place: The 5th Dimension
Not content with conveying the fourth dimension, Nolan hits us with yet another cosmological baseball bat with the fifth dimension: gravity. The notion and nature of a fifth dimension are still largely the province of theoretical physicists and it’s a way beyond wasak concept to wrap your head around. Like the Kaluza-Klein Theory that just requires quantum leaps of imagination.
Hathaway, who apparently has a rudimentary knowledge of cosmology, admits that she was “blown away” by the film’s evocation of space, but was primarily drawn in by the emotional journey the characters take. “The concepts behind this film can keep you awake at night, but the story is also a beautiful meditation on love,” she says. “If you look at the human race from an evolutionary standpoint, you have to factor in love as a key part of the equation, and how this idea is woven into Brand’s experience of this mission felt very moving and truthful to me. I think it’s a brave and extraordinary thing that Chris has done in weaving the persistence of love into the DNA of this big adventure in space.”
“Interstellar” is currently screening across the Philippines and is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, available in four formats: IMAX 70mm Film (at IMAX SM Mall of Asia), 35mm Film (at Glorietta 4, Sta. Lucia East and Trinoma), IMAX Digital (at SM Aura Premiere, SM Cebu, SM Clark, SM Lanang, SM Megamall, SM North EDSA and SM Southmall) and Digital 2D (most theaters nationwide).
All photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures