Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In a Galaxy Far, Far Away from Common Sense

Interstellar may well be the worst “serious” and “major” science fiction movie ever made. It’s certainly the most pretentious (True, there was Battlefield Earth [2000], but that was a flop, and I don’t think anyone but Scientologists ever took it seriously, or thought that it was a major motion picture. Earlier this year, there was Luc Besson’s Lucy, which was way over the top, and did a lot better at the box office, but it doesn’t seem to be have been taken any more seriously.).

Based on mixed reviews, I was ready for Interstellar to be a disappointment. The capsule descriptions suggested it might be a mish-mosh, an uneasy juxtaposition of the disaster and space travel sub-genres. Yet Christopher Nolan, the director, had come off a series of cinematic triumphs as varied as Memento, Insomnia, The Dark Knight, The Prestige and Inception. He was a wunderkind, and even if his latest movie was flawed it was sure to have something good about it, beyond the razzle dazzle of special effects essential to a Hollywood blockbuster (It did well as such its first weekend – although not as well as Disney’s animated Big Hero 6.).

Well, it has some great special effects, all right, but a lot of them don’t make any sense. None of the story makes sense, either. If Interstellar had been a low-budget film by some unknown director, it might have been compared to Plan 9 from Outer Space, the atrocious movie by Ed Wood that became a camp cult phenomenon decades after its 1959 release when Michael and Harry Medved dubbed it “the worst movie ever made.” Only Wood never took himself seriously, whereas Nolan obviously does. Interstellar isn’t the first example of auteur hubris in sci-fi films, but it may be the culmination of that sort of hubris. Science fiction is supposed to be about ideas, but the people who make movies, unlike the best sf writers, don’t really know or care much about science.

What they do know all about, or think they know all about, is the Meaning of Life, of Human Existence. Their movies are full of Deep Thoughts, and they don’t seem to realize these are the sort of things that Jack Handey sent up on Saturday Night Live (“If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.”) and later turned into a series of books (He still has a website.). In Interstellar, Nolan turns clichés into pretended great insights (“Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.”) or indulges in pretentious posturing (“Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.”).

So here we are in a near-future America where some sort of blight has killed off all the food crops but corn, and the countryside is ravaged by dust storms. Does this have anything to do with, say, global warming? The early scenes of Interstellar don’t give us a clue. For that matter, neither do later ones. But what we see doesn’t make any sense on its own terms. There are endless fields of corn, but nary a sign of any barren expanses that dust would have to come from. People seem to be healthy eating nothing but corn – the only hazards seem to be lung conditions from all that dust. Civilization has supposedly broken down, and high tech is suspect (the official government line in schools is that the Apollo moon landings were faked: “I believe it was a brilliant piece of propaganda, that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines,” says a teacher.), but everybody still drives cars and trucks, even if tires are hard to come by – fossil fuels must be coming from somewhere.

Cooper, a widowed former NASA pilot, lives with his son Tom and daughter Murphy on a farm somewhere in the Midwest. Murph is in trouble at school because she has an old book about how there really were moon landings. She also thinks the house is haunted, which turns out to be the key plot point. In another scene, Cooper chases by car (with a flat tire) after a stray Indian (intelligence?) drone – which he can take control of by laptop and bring down next to a pristine lake (It hasn’t dried up, like all those lakes and reservoirs recently in California; what about that drought?) and scavenges some solar cells from it (Guess those are as hard to come by locally as tires.). This is all before he discovers the “ghost” Murphy believes in is a secret message, encoded in gravitational waves (!), and he manages to decode it as directions to the secret headquarters of NORAD, which seems to be just a short drive away.

Nobody there expects him, but he discovers that he’s found the remnants of NASA and he is welcomed by his old professor. Dr. Brand is now in charge of a project to find a new home for humanity on the other side of a wormhole that has conveniently appeared near Saturn – and leads, it seems, to another galaxy (as if there couldn’t be any potential planets in our own!). Manned missions have already been sent through, and messaged back about three target planets, but nobody has heard anything further from the astronauts involved.

After a minimum of soul-searching (and, seemingly, without the need for any further training), Cooper agrees to lead a more ambitious follow-up mission as pilot of the Endurance, an experimental spacecraft that looks more like the space station from 2001, and – leaving his family behind, much to the distress of Murph – sets off with Brand’s daughter Amelia and others (a physicist, a geographer and a robot). A huge two-stage booster launchers a Ranger, which carries them to the Endurance. Just how NASA managed to build and launch the Endurance itself is never clear. Not only that, but it turns out that the Ranger (and a smaller shuttle) can land on and take off from planets on its own, so why couldn’t it do so from Earth?

Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne is credited with having developed the rationale for the wormhole, a gigantic black hole, and the exposition of the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. But reality seems to have been lost in translation to the screen. A classic situation in science fiction, for example, is that people traveling in a starship at nearly the speed of light will experience time dilation: in what seems to them to be just a short time, many years can have passed back on Earth. Robert A. Heinlein’s Time for the Stars (1956) is one of many sf classics to deal with this paradox. Only, in Interstellar, that paradox doesn’t apply, because the explorers travel through a wormhole rather than normal space, where the speed of light is an absolute – the crew of the Endurance can even exchange messages with Earth. 

But Nolan wanted to get in a time dilation effect by other means, and (as reported by Dennis Overbye in The New York Times) prevailed on Thorne to come up with a planet to close to a super-massive black hole that time would be speeded up by a factor of 60,000 – an hour there is the equivalent of seven years back on Earth;  23 years go by during a brief visit, and even on the Endurance (Does that compute?) during their brief visit to Miller, first of the potential colony sites. The bottom line is that the black hole called Gargantua was written into the story purely for the sake of a plot contrivance. One would think that any worlds orbiting it might be torn apart by tidal forces or, in any case, be too deadly to even visit, let alone colonize. In any case, there are a lot of other really ludicrous elements, including references to a Plan B: if it isn’t possible to send shiploads of colonists to a new world, send fertilized eggs instead and have them raised… somehow.  One Meghan O’ Keefe takes on that absurdity, and there is also a website devoted to other gaping plot holes:

Whatever. Cooper and Amelia and the others get where they’re going, but the worlds they encounter are as implausible as anything else in the movie, and so are the plot contrivances.

Miller is a planet covered entirely by water, but where the shuttle lands, it’s very shallow water – barely ankle deep. But suddenly our explorers are menaced by a huge tsunami; one of them is killed, and Amelia (who is trying to retrieve wreckage from the first ship to land there) has to be rescued by the robot. Mann, the second planet they visit, is no prize, either: it’s all frozen. For some reason, there are huge icebergs hovering in the air, rather like the floating mountains in James Cameron’s Avatar. Also, the ice fields the explorers tread aren’t really the “surface,” whatever that means to the original explorer, Dr. Mann, who has managed to survive by zipping himself into a suspended animation pod, like those used on the Endurance for the journey to the wormhole. And he’s a real piece of work; he had lied about the habitability of his world in a message to Earth; now he tries to kill Cooper and steals the shuttle to make his escape.

Amelia comes to our hero’s rescue in the Ranger, but the Endurance is so short of fuel (not to mentioned seriously damaged by Mann’s attempt to dock with it) that they decide to use Gargantua in a slingshot maneuver to free the ship for a further journey. They’ve known about Gargantua all along, of course, and known that the worlds Miller and Mann were close to it – not exactly a Goldilocks zone. Amelia, indeed, had favored Edmunds, the third planet, but only because she was in love with Edmunds and love is the best way to find the truth. Cooper had balked at that. Now, in an act of seeming contrition, he decides to reduce the mass of the Endurance, and thus give her a better chance of survival, by taking the shuttle, heading it into the black hole. Only he ejects at the event horizon.

Suddenly he finds himself in five-dimensional space, through which he is linked to the past – and through which he becomes the “ghost” who sent the gravitational wave message decades ago in Earth time (There’s also something about using wristwatches to communicate across dimensions… or whatever.). It’s a circle-in-time plot: Cooper is the first cause of everything that’s happened, and there were never (as NASA had thought) any aliens tipping us off about the wormhole. It is the future humanity in the colony on Edmunds that will reach back in time to create the wormhole, and will thus make it possible for humanity to survive. Deep stuff, all about the power of love. Also about the power of raging against “the dying of the light” – Brand likes to quote Dylan Thomas.

In a final bit of prestidigitation, Cooper is somehow found by NASA and brought to a space colony orbiting Saturn, modeled on the country around his old home – which has been transplanted there. He is briefly reunited with Murph, now an old woman on her deathbed – that’s supposed to be touching. But the conclusion of the movie doesn’t touch on how Earth managed to build that space colony, which seems to be about the same size as Babylon 5 in the TV series, and can’t have that great a population. Is it the only one of its kind? Does anyone still survive on Earth, and have a chance to emigrate? How happily can we take this ending, knowing so little?

The website devoted to plot holes in Interstellar includes a link to Tyson’s tweets, which refer to a book by Thorne. I remember that there was a book about the science of The X-Files, but that left out anything from the TV series that wasn’t scientific. I may be wrong, but I get the feeling that Tyson may be relieved/impressed that concepts like relativity are “real” in the movie, regardless of how the details may be represented or misrepresented.

Below, I’m including links to accounts of several other sci-fi movies that seem to bear on the issue of cinematic pretentiousness.

Ridley Scott, who directed the classic Blade Runner (1982) has since gotten into religion – his next movie is a Biblical epic, Exodus: Gods & Kings. Prometheus (2012), a follow up to his Alien (1981), may have been a step in that direction; he was so obsessed with the idea of humanity being created by and then threatened with destruction by the alien gods there called Engineers that he didn’t seem to notice the idiot plot elements in his screenplay.

Avatar (2009), the much-praised New Age sci-fi epic directed by James Cameron, likewise suffered from an idiot plot (As Darrell Schweitzer pointed out in The New York Review of Science Fiction, those Big Bad Earthmen could have simply nuked the natives if all they wanted was the unobtanium.). The natives themselves were too good to be true – and then there were the silly visual details like the floating mountains (with waterfalls, even!), Cameron and Scott are bosom Hollywood buddies, who influence each other a lot – there are sure to be sequels to Avatar and there might be one to Prometheus.

Brian de Palma, who isn’t in the same league as Scott or Cameron (a friend of mine once quipped that he was “the world’s oldest film student” for having borrowed shamelessly from Alfred Hitchcock and other directors) was just as pretentious in his Mission to Mars (2000), which turns on the Big Idea that we are actually descended from ancient Martians. Compared to Interstellar, it is otherwise very pedestrian; it seems to take forever to get past the scenes of everyday life on Earth and into the mission.

M. Night Shyamalan is a once-promising director whose career seems to have gone steadily downhill since he wowed critics and audiences with The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). I don’t think I have to add anything to what Wikipedia has to say about his alien menace movie Signs (2002), with the entry’s references to the silly business of the baby monitor and the baseball bat.

But Interstellar still takes the cake.

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