Review of Nolan’s Interstellar: on utility, time and plan A (spoilers ahead)

Interstellar is an excellent movie, and having now seen it twice, I can say that it is currently my favorite Sci-fi space travel movie, though by no means my favorite Nolan film. The “favorite Sci-fi space film” distinction is actually not that flattering as I am not a big fan of the genre, I’m more interested in crime thrillers, hence why I’m such a big fan of Nolan in the first place; he’s a brilliant filmmaker who brings original ideas and presentations to the crime thriller genre. As such, Nolan is out of his element in Interstellar, but he actually succeeds in manifesting his filmmaking brilliance nonetheless, though, given even my limited exposure to Sci-fi it doesn’t seem he has brought many new ideas and presentations to the genre, save for the images and characteristics of the supermassive black hole (which was ominously majestic in its grandeur).

The plot is fairly straightforward: Cooper leaves behind his daughter to find a new planet for humanity to live on, with the expectation that humans will be transported there but also that a colony will arise from fertilized eggs. When he finds out there is no hope of the inhabitants of earth being rescued he gives up on the mission as he is only interested in saving humanity if he can save his family, but due to freak occurrences while heading home, ends up finding the answer to how the inhabitants of earth can be saved.

On Utilitarianism 
Thus, in pursuing selfish individualist interests Cooper ends up doing what is best for everyone. This is an inverse of the argument against act utilitarianism that if everyone pursued maximizing the good, the overall state of affairs would not be the world with maximized goodness. Instead, here we see that a person not pursuing the maximization of good leads to the world with maximized goodness. This is not quite as forceful of an argument against utilitarianism as the other point, but it should give us pause as to whether utilitarianism has things right if it entails that someone not acting for moral reasons can perform a morally good action. By giving moral value to the consequences of actions we seem to flesh out morality more than our intuitions would have us do. I don’t think Cooper’s actions provoke feelings of moral appreciation from us, we think that he is a hero for what he accomplishes, but not a moral hero.

On Time and Humanity
I think it’s useful to look at Interstellar as a film in conversation with Inception. Both films draw interesting observations about the consequences of the relativity of time. In Inception the protagonists in the dream world move more quickly due to being in the imaginings of a mind so they have more time relative to the real world. In Interstellar the astronauts move more slowly due to their proximity to a black hole, so they have less time relative to the inhabitants of Earth. The questions the movies pose are, for Inception, if you could have more time by living in a dream machine would you, and for Interstellar, if by doing the right thing for all of humanity you miss your life with your family, would you do the right thing? Thus, Nolan’s recent films explore how changes in the passage of time affect how we live our lives.

With more time we would choose to relive memories in order to learn from them, per Inception, and with less time we would reluctantly perform moral acts and quit those actions at the first sight of futility, per Interstellar. In an entry on Inception that considered its implications for Nozick’s argument against hedonistic utilitarianism, I discussed how pleasure might be an intrinsic good that gives us reason for action, justifying the rationality of having illusionary yet pleasurable experiences in a dream machine. Interstellar seems to create a case for the value of pleasure as well, showing that when time constraints force one to choose between doing the morally best action and being in the company of family, one will choose the pleasure of being with family. This disjunction is sharped a tad, but it’s a fair way to understand the film, as we find that Cooper will try to save humanity when it will also save his children, but when saving humanity doesn’t involve saving his children he quits the mission. As such, all his actions are motivated by gaining more time to spend with his children by their living, such that when he finds he cannot in fact get them more time to live he chooses to spend the remaining time together.

That our actions are so influenced by the passage of time is an interesting observation of Nolan’s and one that suggests that part of being human is being at the whims of time. This is in tension with another of the grand conclusions of the movie: it wasn’t benevolent aliens who created a wormhole to other viable planets to give us a chance to survive, it was future humans who have evolved beyond the regular four dimensions and now can move about in time like it were a physical dimension. Given that our actions seem so influenced by being at the mercy of the passage of time, we should conclude that these future humans are unlike us in a crucial way, such that we should doubt that they are humans.

On “Plan A”
Anyhow, Interstellar is quite an exceptional film, featuring stirring performances by McConaughey (and an entirely wooden performance by Matt Damon), incredible visual effects, an intriguing score by Zimmer (despite what critics have said), and the great twists that are Nolan’s specialty. Here Nolan shows new talents in perfectly balancing and cutting between two long action sequences, in a way that never diminishes and only heightens the anticipation of the entire climax of the film.

Still, I have a few complaints. Despite the length of the movie, which was quite long, the film at points actually moved too quickly, as I felt that in some important scenes the camera focused on one object or person, filling the scene with an electricity of suspense, only for the camera to quickly cut away before reaching the full climax of the gravity of the situation. A slow zoom in does much to establish suspense in a scene, but it’s quite frustrating for it to cut out before getting the payload.

My other complaint is more sizeable, because it essentially amounts to the charge that the climax of the film is undermotivated (ignoring the question of whether one can survive going inside a black hole). The idea is that Cooper and the team explore a distant solar system in order to find an inhabitable planet, bringing with them fertilized eggs to start a colony of test tube babies. In the meanwhile, Dr. Brand will work on an equation that will allow them to launch a giant space station that can carry the remaining human race off of the doomed planet earth (we’re led to believe that many people have perished). Turns out the equation cannot do any good, because it cannot get past the formidable task of reconciling relativity and quantum mechanics (at which point the nerds in the audience sneer, myself included, “duh!”). But wait, we can reconcile the difference by getting important “quantum data” inside a black hole. The data is transmitted and eureka, we can launch the space station and humanity is saved.

All of this means that the only way to get humans off of earth is by reconciling quantum mechanics and special relativity, which don’t exactly contradict but are difficult of being fixed together in a theory of everything. My first question is why do we need to know about quantum mechanics to launch a space ship, or rather, why do we need to discover the theory of everything to launch a space station? I’m not sure what would be needed to be done on the quantum level in order to launch a massive space station, as I really do not know anything about quantum mechanics or rocket science, but it still seems to me that if what is holding you back from saving humanity is launching a giant space station from the Earth’s surface, give up on launching that big of a space station and launch something smaller. Start building a space station up in outer space and transport people to it. Once that’s complete fly the space station through the wormhole and take them to the other planet (on that note, why, at the end of the movie, is the space station just hanging out near Saturn, near the wormhole, and not going into the wormhole to get to the Brand/Edmund’s inhabitable world?). Or what is more, just shuttle people from earth to the other planet and junk the giant space station idea. Of course, this all sounds crazy, but not because we need to uncover the theory of everything to shoot a giant space station with all of humanity on it into orbit, but because it is generally preposterous to think we can evacuate everyone off of the planet. As such, we should see that plan A is doomed to fail, not because of the difficulty of cracking some equation, but just because of the difficulty of getting however many billion people off of the planet. If Cooper actually thought such a plan is workable then the bigger issue is not being lied to by Brand, but that he actually thought plan A might even work with a flying space station. How big would that space station have to be? Whatever its size, how could something that big be lifted off the ground with all of humanity on it? Why would “quantum data” make the essentially impossible, possible?

All of this is to say that the conditions of plan A, the motivation for Cooper’s heroic exploits are unworkable, and so we’d be well advised to change those conditions to something more workable. But then it’s hard to see why we need to transmit quantum data through a wristwatch, and so we lose the big climax. We pretty much lose all of plan A altogether, because the giant space station idea is ludicrous. With it we lose the lies of Brand, so we lose another major plot development. All told, plan A, as formulated with quantum data and giant space stations is pretty central to the entertainment value of the movie, so the fact that it’s a pretty stupid and undermotivated plan does hurt the film.

Still, Nolan does a good job of directing our attention away from this, taking cover in the audience’s lack of specialization in quantum mechanics and aerospace engineering. It’s a good and unusual Hollywood movie for all of that, and one that is worth seeing, despite its flaws. I give it a 7.5 to 8 out of 10.


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  1. #1 by rung2diotimasladder on November 24, 2014 - 12:44 pm

    Thanks for giving me an idea of what to watch on Netflix tonight!

  2. #2 by SelfAwarePatterns on November 25, 2014 - 8:07 pm

    Thanks for the review! I haven’t seen the film yet. (I probably won’t until it is streamable. It takes a lot to get me to the theater these days.) From what I’ve heard, the science in the movie is deeply flawed (Phil Plait pretty much rips it to shreds), but that it’s remarkable that the movie is so much about the science, and that it’s getting people to talk about physics.

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