“Shot Through the Heart” is a segment in which I rant about a story that means the world to me. Each week we’ll go over a film, book, short story, or game that touched me in ways that are hard to put into words without them just turning into word vomit. This week we discuss one of the weirdest films we could have ever received: 2014’s Interstellar.
Some of the reactions to this film, on its release, were so annoying that it made me want to punch a blue jay.
Interstellar is a 2014 film directed by Christopher Nolan. It was the biggest original sci-fi film to be released in my lifetime, a space odyssey about time and timbre, and it really just wanted to ask you questions about human existence and what our state as beings means on a larger scale. This was a heady film, based in real theoretical physics and originally designed by astrophysicist Kip Thorne to use structural reality to tell a story. It was originally supposed to be a Spielberg joint, using a script written by Jonathan Nolan and featuring wild Chinese Marine robots fighting humans as they attempt to reach beyond the stars.
Christopher Nolan’s film, however, is about a man named Cooper (Matthew McConoughey). He’s a former pilot and engineer turned farmer, raising his son Tom (Timothee Chalamet and Casey Affleck) and his best friend/daughter Murphy Cooper (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn). They live on a farm with his father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow), as they try to stave off the apocalypse together. When a gravitational anomaly leads Murph (as she’s known in the film) and Cooper to an underground NASA facility, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) convinces Cooper to leave his family and go to the stars with Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doctor Romily (David Gyasi), and Doctor Doyle (Wes Bentley) in search of humanity’s new home.
This film had such a weird journey to the screen. Pitched in 2006, it took nearly a decade to move it from page to IMAX and it had a rough time getting there. The idea is solid, based in a concept that would go over the heads of so many viewers but…it was supposed to be Spielberg. If there’s one true criticism of the man it’s that he’s become so sentimental that his films feel cloying at times. Science, however, is cold and calculated. Your emotions don’t factor into it, what you WANT doesn’t factor into it, only the facts. You need some sentimentality in there for flavor, so I can see how a Spielberg version of this film would be fun. But then he left for Dreamworks, and Paramount started flirting with letting Christopher Nolan take this on.
You have to understand some things about Nolan when you work with him. The first is that these are his films, not the studios. Perhaps the only two in his entire catalog that I can see him bending to interference on would be Insomnia (2002) and Batman Begins (2005). Outside of that he’s pretty much done his own thing, and when Inception (2010) became a runaway hit without being based in any previously existing medium (i.e. he didn’t adapt it from a book, comic, or previous film)…the dude pretty much just got to do whatever he wanted. And he’s earned it, cranking out consistently incredible pieces of what cinema is supposed to be: stories told in unwavering glory that could only work on the big screen. I’ve not missed a Nolan film in fifteen years, and I damned sure won’t start now (please, everyone, stop being assholes and help get this pandemic under control so I can go see Tenet because we clearly aren’t willing to do it to save lives).
When this film’s trailer dropped there was still a year to go before release. There wasn’t much to it, just footage encapsulating the history of mankind’s attempts to leave the planet while Matthew McCounaghey quietly talks about how we’ve lost the wonder and drive, needing to get it back. That’s it. Touches of Zimmer’s score (which is the best score of the last decade, feel free to @ me) sprinkle over the image of a young girl holding an adult’s hand as they watch a ship launched into the air. Then I had to wait one whole damned year. I’d never been so riled up for a big movie like this.I had loved everything he put out for the most part, but this was a movie about people going to SPACE. We don’t make enough serious space movies, high-budget fare that really lets the majesty of our universe shine. Nolan got to make one, though, and we’re the better for it.
The meat of this movie lies in humanity growing to understand that science is how we’ll get through the end of the world. Interstellar’s first hour is so bleak, allowing us to look at a world that’s quietly dying. Disease has wiped out most animals, plague has wiped out all crops except corn, and education is considered a privilege that only a few are allowed because we need farmers. Science and advancement are now considered conspiracy theories (sound familiar?) in an effort to encourage trade work and breeding instead of innovation and expansion. NASA has gone underground to study and try to survive, studying the plague that wiped out almost all of the food and learning that it’ll wipe out the last of it within a year. They’re trying to figure out how to launch humanity into space safely, but they’ve also made a giant sperm/egg bomb that they are planning to take to a habitable planet.
And let me be clear on this: Nolan’s Earth is not habitable. Sure, there are people there, but what remains of humanity is so dwindled and broken that we can’t even have a WAR (we’re humans, we seem to absolutely love shooting each other over territory and blame). Marine drones on autopilot, from all countries, are just running out the clock and we’re doing the same thing. Everyone is eking out a method of survival while we grow corn. That’s it. We have no other food left, just corn. A plague (never stated if it’s natural or manmade) is ravaging all other crops, and we’re told it’s migrating to corn and other plantlife. The generations we’re seeing onscreen will die of starvation or suffocation, whichever comes first, and they’re just trying to feel useful and mildly okay before they go extinct. Hell, even baseball is still a thing. We get to see what’s left of the New York Yankees playing in what is, I think, a high school baseball stadium because we aren’t funding anything bigger. Most people and seemingly all animals are dead, corpses long turned to dust and part of the giant sandstorms that blow all over the world. People carry masks so they aren’t breathing any of it in, it’s all kind of prescient. Hell, even NASA (the only organization trying to save us) has gone underground to attempt to launch a mission to the stars because the world quietly decided to pretend our trips to space and the moon were propaganda to bankrupt the Russians during the Cold War. They’re actively lying to the upcoming final generation to keep them focused on farming, on feeding the rest of the world, so their aspirations don’t lead to the excesses of the 21st century.
We have to talk wormholes and dimensionality for a minute or we aren’t going to get anywhere with this discussion. I promise to try not to make this sound like a physics lecture (mostly because I’m nowhere near qualified to actually deliver the math on this one, just deliver what I’ve read in scientific journals and Kip Thorne’s book on the science of the film).
Gravity. Newton got bonked on the head with an apple and all of the sudden we couldn’t stop trying to manipulate it. We learned that it’s the force that controls the universe as we, in our three-dimensional existence, are able to perceive it. Gravity is the basis for the entirety of this film, and it’s such a basic concept that we can all grasp onto it. We also have to discuss its relativity to high-gravitational forces, such as wormholes and black holes. Time does not run the same across the universe, it’s a dimensional plane that we are stuck living against. Our reality runs in three dimensions (up and down, back and forth, side to side) as measured against something we’re constantly moving through but cannot manipulate – time. As such, the film posits that we’re watching the events take place over roughly ninety years. Those individuals out there screwing around near black holes experience minutes to hours, while those on the Earth away from such anomalies experience decades. As to the absolutely terrifying “THEY” that are mentioned in the film? Well, they exist in five dimensions and are incapable of interacting with us like we do amongst ourselves.
Still with me? Good, because that was a necessary digression.
Cooper leaves his farm and we’re confronted with the first, powerful reality of the film. In a discussion with Murph he reveals that when he returns there’s a chance they could be the same age physically due to time slippage. She reacts as a ten year old that loves her daddy should, by being pissed off about that. He leaves and she rushes out to try to chase his truck, all while tearing up and Hans Zimmer is going bananas on an organ. This is one of the most emotional moments in the entire film (yes, yes, I’m a weirdo that cries at things like that) and it’s key to grasping where we’re going because that emotion, that conflicted rage and love, will follow us across dimensional existence and help to save us. That attachment to others draws out the audacity of human nature, leading to incredible accomplishments.
But we need cold, harsh, immoral calculation as well. When discussing scientific existence (and make no mistake, humanity’s existence on this world will come to an end) there is no room for love or creature comforts or care when measured against the survival of the species. No character represents that better than Doctor Mann (Matt Damon). Sure, the name is a bit on the nose because we’re our own worst enemies, get it? That doesn’t stop his behavior from being cold. The guy’s sole goal is to survive and to bring humanity to its new home with the big ol’ sperm bomb, but in his hubris he has convinced himself that it can only be him to bring us that salvation. In doing so he actually puts the species in danger. He doesn’t have those outside connections, that emotional tie that subverts the calculating one and would have led him to make the ultimate sacrifice but Cooper does. Mann dies in his arrogance, calculating but selfish, and it’s the lack of a mixture of science and love that kills him.
That moment in the film, the “docking scene,” is not only the most badass setpiece in the entire film but also the best representation of what Nolan is trying to say. Mann busts Cooper’s helmet, leaving him to suffocate while monologuing about the drive that pushes humanity to hang on just a little bit longer. He’s a coward about it too, unable to watch the guy die or even listen after a minute, and that love Cooper has for his children enables him to push right up to the edge and survive. They head to the ship to stop Mann, but the dude’s own arrogance winds up damaging the station and sending it spinning out of orbit. In the absolute coolest moment of the entire film, Cooper mutters simply that “it’s necessary” and then proceeds to spin the ship underneath the crashing station while an awesome Kit-Kat robot perfectly maneuvers the ship into the docking lock and lifts them out of orbit. And Mann was right, because if Cooper hadn’t been desperately clinging to the idea of saving his kids then he wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to push through and pull that off. It’s incredible, stunning to watch, and the most exciting scene in the film.
But then we get to the one that either made the film or broke it for you. We enter the black hole.
They’ve given us all the pieces, all the talk of gravity and dimensional reality, and all that exposition pays off. Cooper and his Kit-Kat robot ditch Brand to allow for her escape from the black hole’s gravitational pull. They figure that if they can transmit any data out of the black hole then she could relay it to Earth and it would be what allows us to build our ships and leave. What he finds, however, is the most terrifying thing we could have imagined.
So the whole time they’ve been mentioning the fifth-dimensional “THEY.” Something opened a wormhole (a phenomenon that occurs in space but cannot hold naturally) and led us to a new galaxy with a habitable world. We don’t know why, that doesn’t matter, but they did so. Inside the black hole they’ve constructed a metaphysical tesseract that allows their fifth dimension to be seen and understood by a three-dimensional being, one that boils down one physical location and allows it to be visible throughout all of time. He’s in the bookshelf in his little girl’s room throughout the entire existence of that particular room, left to wander until he finds the exact moment to somehow relay the data he and Kit-Kat robot have gleaned to the girl. That connection, the ability to feel something between two people across now FIVE DIMENSIONS, leads to the salvation of the human race.
And that’s it, that’s the message of the film. We’re doomed to die out slowly due to excess and selfishness, but if we’re able to connect with each other and meet science halfway then we may just squeeze through and be okay (wow, so that’s kind of poignant right now, huh?). These emotional connections are what drive us to fight so hard to keep going, even when it seems impossible, and even if we have a cold understanding of reality our ties will keep us moving forward. I think the message came off as cheesy and inconsistent to a lot of audiences when they saw it but…we kept seeing it. I saw this in the theatre and walked out with a buddy. We went to Old Chicago and didn’t speak for like twenty minutes, only to then explode into discourse and go back again the next day. So few other films have left me in such violent awe. And Nolan pretty much nailed it with this one, a long contemplation on love and intellect corresponding and leading to evolution. That’s beautiful.
By the way can we just address that Cooper has to seem like a goddamned alien to humanity after all that? The guy is a hundred and twenty-four years old, which is bugnuts already, but he also appears out of nowhere in space after emerging from a black hole and then through a wormhole to float around Saturn with his Kit-Kat robot till picked up. The humanity he finds is nothing like the one he left, and it just feels wild. I just wanted to address that.