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Interstellar: you will believe in life in space

Dave and I are in Washington DC for the World Fantasy convention, and among the places we’ve visited in town is the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. It’s an awesome place, with scale reproductions of spacefaring vessels, artifacts from past missions, and exhibits on everything from celestial navigation to the spectroscopy. While there, we kept seeing posters for IMAX screenings of Interstellar, which we thought we’d have to catch after returning to Toronto. “Wait,” I asked. “Is Interstellar playing…here?

And lo, it was. And thus, we saw it.

You should see it, too.

The ads for Interstellar aren’t very good at telling you what the story is about. Here is what it’s about: In the near future, our planet is a dustbowl riddled with crop-killing blight, and Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a single father and former NASA engineer who’s turned to farming, with freelance robotics on the side. Cooper’s unhappy with his lot in life — a dead wife and a dying farm and stalled career in a nowhere town — but a series of seeming coincidences leads him to discover a secret mission to start human colonies on other planets. The plan is to use a stable wormhole to check on probes that have landed on potentially-habitable planets on the other side. Faced with the choice of watching his family starve, or giving humanity its last hope for a sustainable future, he chooses to join the mission. His family finds that decision unforgivable, and on some level, so does he. And he has to live with that, in the special Purgatory* that is time dilation. As the mission continues, and time stretches, he’s acutely aware of all the time he’s missing. Not just moments, not just soccer games or dance recitals or talent shows, but years with little to no communication — a black void of space and time between Earth and the wormhole that mirrors the personal void between Cooper and his children.

Nolan did interesting things with time dilation in Inception, and he builds on that work in Interstellar to great effect. The latter takes the consequences of special relativity very seriously. In fact, I suspect that when high school students learn about the twin paradox, they’ll probably just watch Interstellar in class. Like Voices of a Distant Star, Interstellar‘s elegiac tone comes from the sense of time being lost. And it compounds a growing sense of dread that pervades the whole film. I’m not overstating things when I say that Interstellar is a Dustbowl Gothic family drama that just happens to take place in outer space. It is as if 2001: A Space Odyssey were written by William Faulkner. There are dead kids and dying crops and raving madness and shameful secrets. There’s even a ghost.

It is, in short, a profoundly emotional work of hard science fiction. It’s akin to The Abyss or District 9 in that way. But it’s also more than that. It’s an argument for humanity to become a spacefaring species. And in that way, it forced me to confront my own issues with the idea, and may just have brought me around.

Nolan is careful to address the problems with investing in space exploration — namely that we have enough problems on this planet, without creating more on others. We have a limited set of resources, and we need to decide carefully how to spend money and energy and talent on improving human circumstances. Why worry about starting colonies on other planets when people are starving on Earth? The film takes this argument to the extreme end of its logical conclusion in one scene that’s a slyly brilliant satire of contemporary anti-science attitudes, and I sat up a little straighter in my seat. I really enjoy science fiction films, but it’s rare that they do anything but confirm my existing biases. Interstellar actually challenged them, and for that I respect it immensely. I also respect it because it takes the challenges of even investigating space colonization extremely seriously — it depicts the exploration necessary as the long, lonely journey we know it probably would be. It’s not all gee-whiz robots and gizmos and plucky American spirit. It’s total isolation and declining health and terrible chances for survival.

This isn’t a Heinlein story. It’s anything but.

For that reason, I imagine some people won’t like it. They’ll be hoping for something likeĀ Guardians of the Galaxy or Armageddon or even Apollo 13. Standard adventure stories with solid heroes you never stop believing in. Interstellar is not that story. It’s adventurous, sure. There are alien planets and talking robots and smart people in white coats scribbing formulae. There are ace pilots and hypersleep pods. But the film spans centuries of time in its three hours, and it tells a story about a family that is equally long-lived. If you ever wondered what a film about the Tessier-Ashpools would look like, you’ll get some idea, here.

The film also relies on some very fundamental suspensions of disbelief. All the clues are laid out right from the very beginning, so nothing really comes as a surprise. Without ruining the story, I will say that all the slow-burn action in the film’s first third is important for more than just character development and worldbuilding. Watch carefully. It’s all there. You might not like how the film resolves all its threads, but the choices Nolan makes are daring ones with real emotional resonance. They also make a hell of a lot more sense than anything that happened in 2001, or even The Abyss. While some reviewers may feel there’s a deus ex machina at work, I feel that the story sets up the potential for that its resolution pretty well. It’s not mundane SF by any means, but it is hard, and after two hours of unrelenting rigour about time dilation and resource management, indulging in a few quantum pipedreams feels earned. Better-earned than a giant space fetus, at any rate.

So go see it. And more importantly, go see it with your family. Think about the time you spend with them. Think about the time you don’t. Think about what you’re missing. Think about what you’ll miss.

 

 

*No, the film doesn’t take place in Purgatory. This isn’t LOST. It’s good.

1 thought on “Interstellar: you will believe in life in space

  1. When you said ‘all the clues are laid out in the beginning’ – yes, there is absolutely a Sixth Sense feeling. Love the Dustbowl in Space analogy.

    Totally a go see. I’m already making plans to slo-mo the bookshelves and see what Easter eggs they put there. Caught a few (three cups of tea?), sure there are more.

    Speaking of eggs. [Small spoiler ahead, delete if you want] …

    … I didn’t mind not thinking too hard about some of the science (except for supply-side science – Beer? Bright new takeout cups?). I loved the pretty. Am so glad for the joy of it and how possible everything out in space seemed. But one of my biggest eyebrow-raises with the movie had to do with the primary payload, and who hovered over it and who maybe didn’t even look at it for [mumble-something timepsan]… had me wondering WHY TEN-TON SYMBOLISM. WHY.

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