Adventures Through the Black Hole: Interstellar (2014) and Others

Instellar movie poster

This weekend, Interstellar (2014, Directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain) was released in theaters Interstellar promised to be a visionary science fiction film about hope, space exploration, and the future of mankind. But does it deliver on this promise? In my opinion, yes, but not without having a few flaws, and a terrible ending. This review will avoid direct spoilers, but will discuss some concepts and ideas of the film which might lead genre savvy readers to guess some important plot points. Apologies if that is the case.

Interstellar is the story of the NASA Test Pilot/Engineer turned corn farmer Cooper. In a future were unspecified calamities (there seems to have been a general war that has substantially reduced the population) has led to Earth rapidly running out of food and breathable air. Cooper finds a role as pilot on a last ditch space expedition seeking potential new homes for humanity on the other side of a wormhole. Back on Earth his daughter (who from Cooper’s perspective is aging rapidly due to time dilation) attempts to find a solution that will let the rest of humanity leave its dying planet and find a home among the stars.

There is a lot to like about this movie. It has exciting scenes of exploration, cool alien worlds, and generally tense moments. However there is a lot of time spent on metaphysical discussion of abstract concepts, resolving of family issues, and theorizing about love and gravity. At close to three hours, it also suffers from the bloat that affects most big movies nowadays. I think there is an excellent two hour movie that could be created from this. I recommend seeing it, because big budgeted sci-fi with a hard science background deserves fan support, and there are several suspenseful sequences. However, I feel that the movie is let down by an infuriating ending.

Interstellar wears it influences on its sleeve, as the latest in a long line of movies/novels that are combination of psychological wool gathering and deep space exploration. Some of the movies that bear comparing with Interstellar include:

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; Directed by Stanley Kubric and starring Keir Duella and Gary Lockwood)

Kubric’s visionary story of a doomed space expedition to Jupiter, and an alien monolith’s influence on human development, 2001 regularly appears on lists of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time. Arresting, but often ponderous, and with a bizarre ending that has become a cultural touchstone, 2001 is well worth seeing. In fact Interstellar seems to be a response to 2001 replacing the latter’s stark rationalism with emotional stakes.

It is followed up by 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984; Directed by Peter Hyams, with Roy Scheider and John Lithgow), a sequel which focuses on the efforts to salvage the mission launched in 2001 as well as what the alien monolith plans for Jupiter. It is a much more straight forward sci-fi adventure movie, but an interesting artifact of how the 1980s viewed the future.

Oddly, 2001 is a case of the movie preceding the book. Although Kubric based his movie on an Arthur C. Clarke short story (“The Sentinel” – 1948), Clarke did not write the novelization until after the movie was in production. Clarke followed the book up with three sequels: 2010 Odyssey Two (1982) and the basis for the 2010 movie; 2061: Odyssey Three (1987) which deals with an expedition to Halley’s Comet, and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) which examines the secrets of the alien monoliths.

Contact (1985) by Carl Sagan

Radio Astronomer Ellie Arroway discovers an alien signal, which turns out to be blueprints for a strange machine. The device is built (and turns outs to be a wormhole generator/travel machine). Dr. Arroway travels through the device and meets with aliens who discuss humanity’s place in the universe and the nature of time and space. Made as the movie Contact (1997; directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster, James Woods, and Tom Skerrit). This movie also features Matthew McConaughey in a scene that echoes one in Interstellar. This is an excellent book, and a decent film. The ending works better in the novel however, as the visualization of it in the film is not entirely successful.

Solaris (1961) by Stainslaw Lem

Solaris provides an interesting example in how adaptors of books can choose what to highlight in their film and actually change the nature of a story. Solaris (1968) is the story of Dr. Kris Kelvin, a psychologist sent to the space station orbiting a planet named Solaris. His job is to uncover the source of the bizarre phenomena that plaguing the crew to uncover why its staff is having psychological problems. Dr. Kelvin discovers that the problems stem from an alien intelligence’s attempt to contact humanity, but on a level beyond human understanding.

Solaris was filmed three times with each director focusing on a slightly different aspect: Solaris (1968) is a black and white adaption for Soviet Television follows the book faithfully; Solaris (1972; directed by Andrei Tarkovsky) is a loose adaptation of the book that focuses more on issues of grief, loss, and human relationships and relegates the alien mystery to the background; and Solaris (2002, directed by Steven Soderberg) who tries to split the difference between Lem’s novel and Tarkovsky’s film but adds naked George Clooney to the mixture.

Most of the reviewed films and novels have posited humanity’s interaction with wormholes/advance alien intelligence as good thing, but three works of speculative fiction offer a contrasting view of the place outside of our universe as something best to be avoided:

Sphere (1987) by Michael Crichton sees a crew of scientists investigates a craft that has traveled through a black hole and returned with the power to make ones hopes and fears a reality. It was made as a serviceable film also called Sphere (1998; directed by Barry Levinson and starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, and Samuel L. Jackson).

Event Horizon (1997; directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, and starring Sam Neil, Lawrence Fishburne, and Kathleen Qunilan) sees a space vessel (the titular Event Horizon) pass through a black hole to a place outside the universe (quiet possibly “hell”) and return possessed of the desire to feed on fear and kill.

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