Sunday, November 09, 2014

"Interstellar": Christopher Nolan does not try to save or even "love" everybody, from a climate-driven slow apocalypse

Getting to “Interstellar” today (Saturday, opening weekend) was itself an event, as I was determined to see an Imax print on the widest screen possible.  Traffic around Tyson’s Corner, VA wasn’t too bad for pre-Black-Saturday, but the 4-level garage next to the super AMC had zero spaces, with cars cruising helplessly.  People were getting mean about parking spaces when someone left.  I’ve never seen it like this.  I finally found a space a quarter-mile away by Bloomingdales, on an upper level.  Good thing I gave myself an extra hour to get there.  And the lines inside the AMC Tysons were the longest ever, as they were in concessions and food court and Friday’s.  Good thing I brought a printed ticket from home (couldn’t get the Stubs account to work on their website) and ate elsewhere. Posters were given out to the audience, rather clumsy to carry around into the IMAX theater.  

The seat was too close to the curved screen, but no matter.  The presentation was interesting.  Some scenes were the usual Cinemascope with top and bottom cropped, but the most critical scenes, especially those in outer space or on other planets, filled the entire screen top to bottom, so the aspect ratio varied.
Now, since I published a sci-fi short story in my DADT-III book (“The Ocelot the Way He Is”), have a novel manuscript (“Angel’s Brother”) and am developing a database-backed shootings script for “Do Ask, Do Tell: Conscripted” in a retro-sci-fi setting – and since I have a fondness for basing goings-on at Titan, the interesting moon of Saturn, I feel I’ve circled around the same ideas as Christopher Nolan’s massive epic (164 minutes).  I am interested in matching the ideas in this movie to my own stuff, and it’s rather critical for me. 
There’s no point in retelling the story. The two best examinations of the ending – with spoilers – are this one on Slate by Dave Haglund, Alisha Harris and Forest Wickman, here, and on “What Culture” by Alex Leadbeater, here. 
The first half hour did not seem that convincing.  A crop disease has destroyed the world’s agriculture and turned the planet into a 30s dustbowl, with destructive haboobs.  But think about it.  What if a plant virus destroyed all photosynthesis on Earth?  Then the oxygen supply would gradually be depleted.  In a few generations, it would be over, if mankind couldn’t leave.  Could global warming cause this?  Speculation.  But I do wonder how Venus became a furnace, probably rather suddenly, within a few hundred million years or less.  For all we know, it may have had life once.  Venus may be a tragedy.
The next problem is how society deals with its gradual destruction.  It tried to hide its technological past from kids.  That sounds almost like a communistic tactic, but maybe politically necessary.  It didn’t seem as convincing during the movie as it does now, upon reflection.
I also found Cooper’s (a lean Matthew McConaughey, cast as our cultural ideal male father figure with a young-to-teen family, and tragically a widower) stumbling on the NASA “Area 51” as a bit contrived and a setup.  We learn later something about the nature of the aliens (pan-dimensional gods or God, who put the worm-hole portal near Saturn -- it wasn't our doing. Coop's relationship with his daughter (MacKenzie Foy at 10, to become Ellen Burstyn) is overwrought, but will make a point later about the moral place of family in the “big picture” when the larger society really does face an existential threat.  I don’t recall a sci-fi movie before where a man remains a 40-year-old “young adult” while his daughter dies at 100, and not of progeria. 

As to the astronomy, I don’t think that planet revolving around a black hole or neutron star are likely to be suitable for life. (They’d have been blown away by the supernova, but might have been captured later.)   You need a sun-like star.  A smaller red star is interesting, leading to a radiation-bathed tidally locked planet (like in Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus) interesting for colonization but not an original civilization. 
You can’t go into a black hole and live, either.  But a “superior being” – a God – probably could, and black holes are rich with stored information (which may largely be on the surface, though).  As beings with free will, no wonder we worship an entity that can master more dimensions than we can.  In fact, the whole concept of this movie, understood this way, really supports traditional religion.  It’s a conservative film, where the strongest and most suitable survive (although who gets saved is a good question – but the Rapture would leave people behind, too.) 
The two planets getting extended tours didn’t show a lot of imagination.  There was a waterworld (complete with tsunami), and a snowball Earth, rather like dry Antarctica, with vertical layers into the sky. At the very end, after the colonists have set up their little wrap-around space stations (like little pieces from “Rendezvous with Rama”) near the worm hole (near Saturn, perhaps near Titan), the younger Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) gets to explore a third planet (accessible through the hole) that really looks like the Mojave Desert.
But of course, there’s more to this (with an all-star A-list cast to utter inevitable aphorisms composed by others).  The moral quandaries, about the tension between self, family and all of civilization come through some other characters, most of all Donald (John Lithgow), who makes a comment about people not wanting to have kids, and the bachelor astronaut Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) who, when rescued, rationalizes his selfishness that nearly destroys but ironically winds up saving the mission.  Cooper’s son Tom (Timothee Chalamee – another “Timo”) has to face being tracked as a farmer rather than an engineer (like Coop himself) because this commie-like world needs peasants. Tom grows up to an impressive young man played by Casey Affleck.  Brand’s professor father, played by Michael Caine, has all the answers early on. The idea ("Plan B") that only a few people might "go" and take fertilized eggs to repopulate another world is itself controversial.  (I review "Evacuate Earth" on my "CF" blog, Aug. 30, 2013.)
In my own novel, people are being culled by a bizarre RNA virus, which actually strengthens some people (who become “angels” holding the life memories of others) as individuals “consolidate”.  Then at the end a space ship built by the real angels take the survivors (and some of their fans, like “Bill”) to – guess where – Titan, but not after the CDC, DOD and CIA get a run at the whole thing as civilization implodes in front of the reader (not before the story starts).  And there are clues in the “remote viewings” of some of the characters, and the supposed layered fiction of one writer (that’s me) whom the hackers decode,  Is there something sinister about a conclusion where only the strong (and a few loyals) survive (like “only lovers left alive”) to carry on civilization while the rest die out and dead end?  It does suggest it is hard to “love everybody”, an issue during my days at NIH in 1962.  But I seem to have the save view of this idea now as Christopher Nolan.
Then in my screenplay a character likes me wakes up in a mysterious situation, which may be a hospital, a job interview, the afterlife, or a space station (on Titan), or all of these.  The “angels” run the show, and it is up to “Bill” to decide which “angels” are really good enough to rebuild civilization, as Bill relives the bizarre events that led to his “abduction” and then watches the beginning of the end of civilization unfold down under (back on Earth).  Again, love is transitive;  we don’t take care of everyone, and collectivism dies. But I've always wondered, are there those among us who are more like "Gods" already.  A captivating, if divisive idea.  Maybe a Clark Kent can exist (although our cultural ideals define the ideal man -- John Galt -- in advance).  
The Google Play site for “Interstellar” is here.  See this in Imax if at all possible.  It’s “go big or go home”. 

Note that a simple wristwatch functions to conclude this film in a manner similar to the spinning top in "Inception" (July 16, 2010).  I love the way he shows the same bookcase at different points in time in his dimensional tunnel near the end. Nolan shows a picture of Stephen King's "The Stand" (the spine) at one point.  That was a TV film in 1995.  
The music score by Hans Zimmer is typical, with a lot of use of passacaglia; he comes to one stunning orchestra climax at the end of the first section of the film as the space stuff starts.  The closing credits are brief, and this time the music ends quietly, much as with the Mahler Ninth.  

Update:  Nov. 11

Christopher Nolan has responded to his critics in an article on Uproxx, circulating now on Facebook, here.  There is a book that he co-wrote with Kip Thorne, "The Science of Interstellar", which I will have to look at later.  (My reading queue is pretty full.)  But I guess I need to get at it because some of the science contradicts mine in my own "portfolio in progress".

As for screenwriting, I think that Nolan's technique (which his brother helped develop) for keeping track of different simultaneous "layers" of reality (dreams, space-time coincidence, fiction-v-fact, etc) is fascinating and could be taught in screenwriting courses.  I think some of his ideas occur in the little 1998 film "The Last Broadcast" (Avalos and Weiler) which I saw at the University of Minnesota years ago. Of course, in Nolan's "Memento" (2001), events unfold backward in time.  That's actually based on younger brother Jonathan's short story "Memento Mori". We can always ponder Benjamin Button (Dec. 29, 2008). In fact, the ideas of "The Nolan Brothers" permeate the gay sci-fi hit "Judas Kiss" (June 4, 2011), by Tepnapa.

In fact, it's appropriate to share the diagram of the "Memento" Timeline ("fabula v sujet") from Wikipedia, with original source link here. I do thinks kind of plot analysis with Microsoft Access.

Update: March 19

Here's a story about Nolan's original ending for this film. 

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