Thursday, January 1, 2015

Interstellar - the Space Opera

As I watched this film, I found it useful to keep reminding myself: It's just a space opera. That is to say, it's an adventure story set in outer space. Considered in those terms, Interstellar is largely satisfying, though it might almost have been assembled from spare parts taken from other films—not only Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey but M. Night Shyamalan's Signs.

The earth is drying up, crops are failing, dust is everywhere, to the point where the only crop that remains viable is corn. Cooper (Mathew McCanaughey) is a test-pilot turned farmer who's upset that his son, due to middling test scores, is destined to become a farmer, too, rather than an engineer.

Meanwhile, Cooper's daughter, Murph, keeps hearing ghosts in the library upstairs that are trying to tell her something. Cooper finally begins to take his daughter seriously, and they deduce that little dunes in the ubiquitous dust spell out some GPS coordinates. The two of them head off into the desert, where they come upon the underground  NASA facility where the meat of the story lies.

At this desert outpost Michael Caine and a team of thousands have been working secretly on a project to save the human race by either establishing colonies in space or populating distant planets with newly created individuals. They have no idea how Cooper found their base...but as it happens, he's precisely the man they need to fly the mission!

In the ensuing two hours, Cooper and three or four other astronauts put themselves to sleep for two years, fly through a worm hole, visit a few planets in a remote galaxy, skirt the edge of a black hole, age about seventy-five years in a few hours, and just barely escape a huge tidal wave—or whatever such things are called on planet Xyzrtemm. 

Much of the footage is slightly awesome and we can enjoy it more fully by fighting back the impulse to make sense of it. There are no ray guns involved, but the narrative is enlivened by a few fist fights and some head-butting that's rendered comical by the thick space helmets. It's also weighed down by some heavy-handed soliloquies about love and the survival instinct. We don't need to be reminded that saving the human race is a worthwhile thing to do, and it seems a little bizarre to suggest that the future of mankind might be decided on the basis of whether or not Brand (Anne Hathaway) has a crush on Edwards (whom we never see).

Some viewers may find fault with Interstellar's premise, arguing, perhaps, that if the money being spent on space ships had been directed toward agricultural research, the earth might remain a fine place to live for generations to come. But I left the theater feeling thoroughly entertained. I'd been on a grand adventure full of time loops and logic loops and seemingly endless crashing interstellar debris.

And it's also worth pointing out, I think, that though the soliloquies are sometimes overblown, Interstellar is essentially a drama rooted in human interest. Its most touching moments arise due to passages of time, not space. They echo things we've all experienced without coming anywhere near the speed of light.  

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