Nov 10, 2014

[Movies] Interstellar (2014)

High concept science fiction movies aren't all that common - they're obviously not very appealing to the general market, and that tends to make them less enticing to studio executives. And it was a bit of a surprise to find out that Christopher Nolan had decided to take on such a project given his general body of work. Inception certainly demonstrated that he can handle such complex plot lines in how he translates the story into a beautiful visual narrative. But this still felt a bit further afield.

Interstellar is a big science fiction movie complete with ambiguous trailers that talk about a need for humanity to leave the planet to escape...something. And while this is a decent enough quick summary of what the movie is generally about. it does not capture the complexity of the tale and the obvious effort to try and be as accurate as possible when it comes to how it depicts various concepts from modern physics and other related science fields.

Tobie and I definitely wanted to see this movie in a proper theater as opposed to home video given Nolan's past work. And as expected, it was a brilliant experience that was slightly dampened by our annoying audience that laughed at weird moments and generally struggled with the concepts presented in the film. But that's life in the big city for you.

Synopsis: Interstellar is a science fiction movie directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan together with his co-screenwriter, his brother Jonathan Nolan. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne was one of the producers of this movie given how his work helped inspire the film.

In the near future, Earth seems to be suffering from a powerful blight that is killing off crops one by one. A lot of scientific development has stopped in favor of struggling to meet more basic needs of feeding the remnants of humanity, thus most folks have become farmers trying to make the most of this dying world. One such farmer is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who was once a NASA test pilot and engineer. His 10-year old daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) is proving to be quite the little scientist in her own right has been complaining of a "ghost" in her bedroom that seems to be knocking random objects off her bookshelf. His son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) is most likely going to end up as a farmer as well given his average test scores - something that frustrates Cooper given his hope doing more than just farming again.

One thing leads to another and Cooper discovers that the ghost in Murph's bedroom involves some sort of a gravitational anomaly. And there's a certain intelligence behind the anomaly that is sending some sort of a coded message. In the latest instance, the message appears to be coordinates encoded in binary - and this leads them to a top secret NASA facility that has been operating outside of public view to try to find a way off-planet. The project is led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who is familiar to Cooper given his past NASA work. And soon he is drafted to pilot this mission to the stars to find a new home for humanity - one that involves a mysterious wormhole that has formed near Saturn. But it's a trip that may mean quite a long time away from home.

For any science fiction story that involves interstellar travel, one of the biggest challenges in finding a way for the story to move forward at a pace that involves mere hours instead of decades. Thus different innovations like warp drives, folding space and all these science fiction staples. In this case, we deal with more conventional travel and all of its constraints. The only way people survive the trip is through a sort of hyper sleep that puts them in suspended animation that helps prolong their lives but puts them out of sync with the folks back home.

Things get even more complicated when we throw in wormholes and a great big black hole later in the story - one whose tremendous gravitational force is able to distort space and time for the planets orbiting around it. For those familiar with some of the applications of Einsten's Theory of Special Relativity, it should be clear that as an object accelerates to speeds approaching the speed of light (or perhaps when influenced by a strong gravity field), time will seem to dilate for the object. Thus time slows down further and further as one approaches the speed of light until it comes to a virtual standstill. But for objects outside the field, time will continue as normal. Thus an object in the field will seem to slow down in terms of aging versus the rest of the universe. Thus is perhaps better represented in the story "The Center of Time" from Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams.

And this was key to the story since the time differential eventually became a key device in the plot. Thus we have our hero of sorts, Cooper, staying roughly the same age all the time. But then back on Earth we watch his kids Tom and Murphy grow up into older and rather bitter versions of themselves (Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain respectively) since they felt that their father had abandoned them for no good reason. And in time this becomes more than just a way to add drama to the movie but an element that also plays into the overall story.

In many ways, it seems that this Nolan's effort to create a big science fiction movie similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey or even Carl Sagan's Contact. The effort to set this in the near future and to avoid overly complex technology that would be nearly alien to us was another interesting touch that sort of reminded me of Apollo 13 and of course the more recent Gravity. Thus the funky looking robots like TARS and CASE, which at first seemed a little ridiculous but eventually turned out to be pretty cool. Their unconventional, non-humanoid design and yet creepily human AI made for pretty interesting scenes indeed.

The movie makes a serious effort not to get overly bogged down with the science element to things. Despite all the mention of gravity and time and all that stuff, the language as a whole is pretty conventional - sort of the like the different between a scientist (high concept) versus an engineer (more applied science). And the best example of this is Cooper himself, who is supposed to be smart enough to have worked as a NASA engineer but isn't necessarily an egghead. And it's easy to buy into this concept - a heck of a lot more than "some people" claiming to be inventors in other movies.

But because of the need to juggle the high concept with the more conventional story at its core, I feel it takes a bit away from the story as a whole. It doesn't make it a bad movie, but it does make it not quite as good as Nolan's other projects like the Batman movies and of course Inception. But it's quite the noble effort and one that will help the movie find its place in science fiction movie history. You have to admit, the explanation here was a lot more "realistic" compared to how Contact resolved itself. And the movie certainly had it's share of Nolan type plot twists that almost felt like some of the older M. Night Shyamalan movies.

Interstellar is a great movie and one that was certainly ambitious, and rightly so. Execution was great but not quite perfect either, but it's still another solid contribution by both Nolans. Thus the movie gets a solid 4 surprise moments with the robots out of a possible 5.

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