Beautiful “Interstellar” falls short on space accuracy. Very, very short.
Good science fiction always asks complicated questions. The high-water mark of the genre is its willingness to confuse and obfuscate in the name of narrative integrity, rather than compromising the subject’s complexity for a potentially lost audience.
I don’t know many who understood the ending of “2001: A Space Odyssey” the first time they watched it. “Prime” is as perplexing on the fifth viewing as it is on the first. This isn’t to say that a science fiction film needs to be difficult for the sake of being difficult, but that the filmmakers need to trust the intelligence of their audience and tell the story the way it needs to be told.
Swashbuckling in space, a la “Star Wars” or “Guardians of the Galaxy,” certainly has its place in the spectrum, but good sci-fi extends into more a cerebral and challenging arena. However, the filmmakers need to have a strong understanding of their subject, or they might find themselves looking silly. Christopher Nolan dipped his toes into the sci-fi waters in 2010 with his dreamscape drama “Inception” and found the experience to be gratifying. He returns there this year with a full-blown space exploration in “Interstellar.” Visually exciting and well cast, “Interstellar” only falls short because the questions it intends to ask are overshadowed by thin characterization and small inaccuracies in certain aspects of space travel.
An Earth set a few generations in the future is experiencing a second dustbowl (with film clips taken directly from Ken Burns’ documentary on the subject) called The Blight. Nearly all the world’s crops have failed, leaving corn the last grain humans can plant and sustain. This is most certainly a testament to the hardiness of the plant, and not because corn is the most cinematic of crops. As humanity prepares to starve and The Blight sets its sights on removing the world’s oxygen, NASA has gone underground to prepare to send humanity to the stars.
There are a variety of political and social implications to the largely unnamed disaster of the previous years—the world has forgotten about space travel, claiming that the U.S. faked the moon landings to usher in the fall of the Soviet Union. A man named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA pilot turned farmer, discovers a gravitational anomaly in his daughter’s bedroom, leading him to learn of NASA’s plans and pilot humanity’s last hope for salvation. All of this happens very fast.
As much as Cooper struggles with his decision to leave his family later, he seems to jump at the chance to abandon them within a span of a few minutes. There is some much-needed character development that happens offscreen, which is not the best way to tell a story. This pattern repeats itself over and over in the film.
Much of the science content in the film has to do with relativity. Time is not uniform in the universe. It changes fluidly and is acted upon by forces of speed and gravity. The last generations of humanity have discovered a wormhole placed by unknown beings on the outskirt of Saturn, which leads to another universe with 10 potentially inhabitable planets.
Probes and explorers have been sent, and those who successfully land broadcast signals calling man to them, hoping to populate a new world. All of this is fine, as the interstellar distances are respected and space time is explained by the tried and true tesseract method. In fact, the time distortions are likely the best part of the film, leading to powerful tension and emotional resonance.
But the smaller details are hard to overcome. For instance, how is it possible for a planet to exist close to a black hole and still have liquid water? Why is the black hole, a singularity from which even light can’t escape, so visible? Whose idea was it to name the black hole Gargantua? Why does a NASA ship need a rocket to escape Earth’s gravity but can take off like a Harrier jet on other planets with stronger gravity? If it takes two years to get to Saturn in our solar system, why are the planets in the second galaxy approximately 20 minutes apart?
Where is the mad organist and why is he playing so loudly during important pieces of dialogue? All of these questions cycled through my head as the story unfolded onscreen, keeping me from investing fully in the characters. Good science fiction requires fewer glaring errors.
Still, the film is visually wonderful and the score by Hans Zimmer is beautiful, if distracting at times. Christopher Nolan knows how to make stunning movies. However, “Interstellar” needed to tread closer to reality, both in the details and in the story. It needed to spend more time investigating the science, as well as a lesson in crafting the fiction.