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Interstellar ••••1/2

Interstellar_film_posterStarring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: R
Running Time: 169 minutes
Release Date: November 7, 2014

Cooper: Single, P-PP Emotional/Spiritual, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)

Time: System, N-N, Ant (Time Villain)


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s just as I thought — Matthew McConaughey is a space cadet.

This could have been called 2001: The Year We Make Contact. Let’s recap:

We meet a man named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who lives on earth in the not too distant future. The Earth at this point is a dying planet. Dust storms and blight are ravaging a dwindling human population that relies on a weakening agrarian economy. Cooper has a teenage son and a 10-year-old daughter named Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), whose bedroom is the scene of odd occurrences. Books fall off her shelves and dust arranges itself in strange patterns. Cooper figures out that the dust contains coordinates to a location nearby. When he and Murphy drive there, they discover a huge, secret NASA base.

Because the Earth is dying, the only way out is towards the stars. By some miracle a wormhole has emerged near Saturn (why so far away?) and NASA has sent 12 men and women out to find planets on the other side of the wormhole (near other stars) that could sustain the survivors of Earth. But there is a “Plan B” – they’ve in vitro-fertilized enough eggs to start a new colony of humans on a habitable planet in the event that it takes too long to find a safe world. Take too long, you say? Well, because of the relativistic effects of space travel and flying near black holes and through wormholes, what seems like a few years to our heroes could be a century back on Earth. So, NASA has asked Cooper (a former astronaut) to man the final mission and find the habitable planet. But, he will have to leave behind his young daughter. Will he return in time to save her? Or will he be marooned in space leaving behind the last of his kind?

Interstellar is a complex, ambitious, space epic. It’s a long movie, covering almost three hours, and its topic and detailed story are so complex that if it were a television show it could be a long-running mini-series. As a movie, it could have easily been carved into a trilogy. But the decision was made to condense this sweeping arc into a single 170-minute long film. The result is a movie that is breathtaking in scope but a bit too densely packed to give its grand cosmological theme the room it needed to breathe.

Still, I was impressed. Interstellar is no lightweight escapist science fiction story. There is a lot to sink our teeth into here, and some of it is pretty heavy emotional material. The earth is in its death throes, the close bonds between fathers and daughters are being shattered, and heroic astronauts are dying in space while trying to save humanity from extinction. We learn that John Lennon was prescient when he sang “love is the answer” more than 40 years ago, as love is interwoven with physics during the film’s many attempts to explain the workings of the universe.

When you look at Interstellar you cannot help but compare it to classic science fiction movies gone by. It has the trippy look and feel of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it is far more coherent than Kubrick’s masterpiece. And, like Contact, the relationships and bonds between father and daughter are at the core of this story.

And that is what I really walked away with in Interstellar. As any good story should be, this is a story about relationships. The physics and high technology were amply evident (who cannot love robots with the personalities of Marines?). But this is very much a story about people. We see how a planet reacts when the food supply runs out. We see how people grow to fear science they cannot understand. There’s a wonderful scene where a teacher replaces textbooks with government-issue books explaining that the Apollo missions were faked as a way to bankrupt the Russians. And there’s a quote about sending Cooper’s older son to college to study farming because “the world doesn’t need any more engineers. We didn’t run out of planes and television sets. We ran out of food.”

As hero stories go, you can’t do much better than Interstellar. Cooper follows the classic hero journey almost to the letter. He is sent out into space (the unfamiliar world) and he is charged with saving the world. All heroes are missing some quality, and in Cooper’s case he is missing an understanding of what binds the universe together. The answer is not unlike what Dorothy discovers in The Wizard of Oz — the answer is love, home, and gravity.

Ironically, Cooper mentors himself, or more specifically (using wormhole time-travel magic) Cooper’s older self serves as the mentor to his younger self. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and an older version of Murphy also assist Cooper on his journey. At the end, Cooper is a transformed individual, having gained an understanding of his place in the universe. Overall, it’s a textbook hero story.

I think you’re giving short-shrift to the message here. While Cooper already understands how to love – he has an undying love for his daughter. But he doesn’t see love as a binding force in the universe – as much as we see time or the three dimensions. He has an argument with co-astronaut Brand (Anne Hathaway) who wants to let her heart be her guide. She posits that finding her lost love (one of the astronauts who went before them) is just as valid as calculating orbits and fuel ratios.

And this is the lesson that our hero ultimately learns. It is his love for his daughter that finally drives him to make a connection with her in the past. He manipulates time and space to send her a message that will save her and what is left of humanity. In the end, the lesson learned is that love binds the universe just  as much as any other dimension. That’s pretty heady stuff for a geek movie.

If you want to look for villains, we see a different take on villainy here. Professor Brand makes the decision for all mankind that trying to escape Earth and transplant the existing humans on another planet is fruitless. He has decided that Plan B is the ultimate solution. So, he’s lied to his daughter as well as everyone else on the mission. Plan A was never the goal. This villainy is different from most that we’ve seen. This is the villainy of a lack of hope. The Professor gave up hope for all of mankind and reasoned that the only hope was to start over.

One of the castaway astronauts was Dr. Mann (Matt Damon in a surprise appearance). He knew about Plan B. But the planet he found was not appropriate for human colonization. He purposely sent back a glowing report so that someone would come and rescue him. He has the villainous attribute of self-centeredness. This is also the point where the movie talks about preservation of the species and preservation of the individual. The conclusion is that the species can never overcome the selfish aspects of self-preservation.

There is a good reason why Interstellar is a November release rather than a summer popcorn release. This movie makes us think, not just feel. We are treated to fabulous CGI effects, of course, but more importantly we are compelled to ponder deeply about our place in the universe and what lengths we would go to save our planet. The integration of love and gravity as the glue that binds us all together is an inspiring take-home message. I give this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

As I noted, the hero story would make Joseph Campbell proud. Most of the central elements of the hero’s journey from classic myth and legend shine through in their fullest form. Cooper possesses just about all eight of the Great Eight characteristics of heroes: he is strong, smart, resilient, charismatic, reliable, caring, selfless, and inspirational. There is even a reverse form of “atonement of the father”.  I give him 5 Heroes out of 5.

The villainy in this movie is difficult to categorize, and you’re correct, Greg, that it defies convention in some ways. Professor Brand and Dr. Mann are possible villains, yes, but Cooper’s main opponent is Nature. He is in a constant race against time and other laws of physics. Interstellar is not a movie about a hero defeating a villain. It’s about a hero solving problems of the heart and problems of nature. For this reason, my villain rating is a mere 2 out of 5.

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I agree, Scott. Interstellar was clearly released in November as an Oscar contender. It has high-caliber stars (McConaughey, Hathaway, Caine, Damon, Chastain) and high-value CGI. But that wasn’t enough for Gravity last year. We’ll have to see what Meryl Streep is up to this year. Still, I was totally engrossed for the full 170 minutes. And I am the target demographic for this movie (Baby Boomer Geeks). I give Interstellar 5 out of 5 Reels.

McConaughey really delivered in this film (although there were a few truck driving scenes that seemed to echo his recent “Lincoln” commercials). As a hero Cooper has everything we look for. He is so selfless that he gives up a lifetime with his daughter to save the human race. That’s a lot of self sacrifice. I give Cooper 5 out of 5 Heroes.

And I hate to agree with you three times in a row, Scott, but it’s true: Time is the villain in this story. It is warped and twisted in ways like no other villain we have studied this year. Still, you need a human character to have an argument with, or  to be betrayed by. Professor Brand and Dr. Mann weren’t the strongest of villains, but they exposed two different parts of the villain’s psyche (lack of hope and self-preservation) that we haven’t seen before. I give them 3 out of 5 Villains.

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