According to most people, space is vast. When the phrase “the final frontier” is said aloud in an educated sounding British accent, it means that it’s the last place that we’re going to explore, because everything else is out there waiting to be discovered. This means that the great, inky blackness of the cosmos has often been the stage for great adventure stories. Going back to the books of Jules Verne, and early cinematic space adventures like A Trip to the Moon it’s proven a great place to stage these sorts of tales. As the world has become more and more mapped out, it’s just easier to go someplace out with the stars to experience the strange and exotic. Or maybe Tampa.
Something that these tales fail to mention is that space is big, like bigger than Jesus big. So that means that things take a long-assed time to happen which means that for the most part, space travel is really boring. Hell, the Millennium Falcon came equipped with holographic board games to pass the time and it could complete the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. But it wasn’t until the world was given the gift of Interstellar, did I really appreciate that the vast, um, vastness of space was so suicidally dull. Even though it’s about the saving the world, Interstellar’s exciting combination of second rate episodic structure and third rate science makes me want to swan dive onto an upward moving escalator.
This is the Takedown.
As usual, I’ll try make this quick because the structure of this refuse pile makes me existentially ill. But since Interstellar is at its discount, radioactive core an episodic story, I’m going to tackle each section in turn.
The Earth is proper fucked due to a poorly defined contagion called “the Blight” that is killing off the biosphere and somehow removing the oxygen from the atmosphere. It’s never explained what’s causing it, so I am forced to assume it’s due to Disneyland becoming self aware. Since farming has become increasingly hard, more and more people are forced to do it, including our protagonist Cooper. He once was a space pilot, but once all of the space programs everywhere were shut down he’s working his farm and finally living up to his accent. But everything changes one day when his daughter talks about a “ghost” that is leaving sand messages on her floor. Cooper works out that the lines of sand are actually a map coordinate, and soon he and his daughter Murph are on the way there.
The coordinates are actually a secret space base. It turns out that NASA wasn’t disbanded, and has actually sent astronauts through a wormhole out by Saturn to look for a new planet to live on. The Plan A is to build a great big spaceship like an Ark, but that’s further along the tech tree and they lack the science. Plan B is to find a new place and send genetic materials to grow and terraform the new planet. We’ll ignore that this seems like it would be ridiculously hard to do, but whatevs. Since there’s a dearth of pilots around, they decide that Cooper should fly the Endurance through the wormhole and determine which of the planets would be good for humans.
He says goodbye and cries a lot. Then Cooper, Dr. Amelia Brand, a robot, and a couple of Redshirts are off into cryosleep on the spaceship and we’re off on a timey-wimey adventure.
Once through a wormhole, the Endurance heads towards a planet close to a black hole called Gargantua. That name just barely beat out Black Hole McHoleFace on an internet poll, proving that people aren’t worth saving sometimes. Anyway, the planet is crazy time dilated, meaning that the time passes really quickly on the surface. The crew decides to land and have a look because they did come all the way out there, and maybe there’s a Starbucks.
What doesn’t make any sense is, ahem, why in the name of the Burning Hells would anybody think a time dilated planet circling a black fuggin hole was a good candidate for human colonization? Like, for reals. At least Mars is closer and you know, not in orbit around a black hole. Anyway, they discover the last person there was killed by massive rogue waves around the planet. Then they get what they deserve for stopping at Planet Stupid Death and one of the redshirts they brought along fulfilled his destiny and eats shit.
Meanwhile back on Earth, Murph is all grown up now because the plot says so. When she’s not hunting terrorists, she works on the equations to make that Plan A (the giant space ark) thing work. But, alas, she needs vaguely defined “data” from a black hole to work with. So she shrugs, looks thoughtful, and waits for the sweet embrace of extinction just like I do on weekdays.
Next up the crew of the Endurance lands on a planet that is covered in solid ice clouds and has an atmosphere made out of ammonia. Upon landing, they discover that the astronaut Dr. Mann is still alive. This also happens to add the biggest amount to the “Save Matt Damon” fund when they revive him from cryosleep. Tears all around, since apparently Dr. Brand was his girlfriend, or something. Honestly it’s not well explained, and I couldn’t summon a shit to give even after discount sushi. While they’re there Mann lies about the planet being habitable. Soon he and Cooper are out on a walkabout and the truth is revealed – Ice Planet is really solid ice clouds all the way down to the core. Mann sent a beacon because he hoped to be rescued. He leaves Cooper for dead and the traps he left behind send the last redshirt on his way to the afterlife. Then Mann steals one of the landers and tries to take off in the Endurance. But before he can do that, the surviving crew of the Endurance (and Cooper – who got better) shut off the docking mechanisms. Unable to dock correctly, Mann accidentally kills himself like a rube.
Mann, being an blithering idiot of truly fantastic proportions, has damaged the Endurance and now it finds itself falling towards the black hole. Much like the writers we will ignore the fact that it took years to travel to Ice Planet from Water Planet, but they’re falling back in a matter of a few short hours. Cooper decides to use the gravity of Gargantua to slingshot the Endurance towards the last planet in the area, hoping that it’s not filled with Walmarts, or other things hostile to intelligent life. But alas, the ship is too heavy and so he allows himself to fall into the black hole to save weight and allow the ship (and Dr. Brand) to survive.
Instead of dying in a horribly agonizing way he somehow survives. Inside the black hole he finds a multidimensional space that lets him interact with places in his own timeline. It turns out that he is the ghost from the first act and was basically sending messages to himself. So Cooper decides to send the data that Murph needs to make her equations work. Then once she has them, the tesseract implodes and throws Cooper out of the black hole faster than Woody Allen gets ejected from an orphanage. Cooper wakes up, discovers that 80 some odd years have passed since he left and the world has been saved. He also discovers that Murph is old, grey, and (unfortunately) no longer looks like Jessica Chastain. So Cooper leaves again by stealing a ship and goes off to find Dr. Brand, who has been single since Dr. Mann derped himself to death.
Having typed all of that out reminds me that the plot of Interstellar is so asinine that it makes me wonder if the Academy can rescind nominations. But first it’s time for another installment of:
The Takedown Lightning Round (Science Edition!)
The only thing inside a black hole is dead stuff, and if you fell into it you get the privilege of being dead stuff too. There is no tesseract inside of a black hole. If you fall in one you will not get to see what’s inside of them and all it will do is shred you like carnitas.
Massive stars are like Henry VIII, in that they get old, get fat, and then their corpse explodes. So if there was a ever a planet in that system, it’s deader than Paris Hilton’s “career.” As a bonus, if Water Planet were actually that close, the gravity of Gargantua wouldn’t just pull the water into giant waves, it would do that shit to the crust of the planet too and rip it apart. Which makes landing there just a slightly better idea than the Lifetime Network.
The crux of the plot involves Murph getting “data” for her “equations.” That’s not how theoretical science works but we can let that one slide. What make my eye twitch even as it rolls is that Cooper is able to measure this data from inside Gargantua. Either the inside is a real black hole and he’s super dead, or it’s not a real black hole and the “data” isn’t relevant. It’s easier to assume that the entire end of this movie is just Cooper’s brain fritzing out from tidal forces and the human race is all dead now. It’s really what these people deserve for sending Matt Damon into space again.
The biggest issue is that the episodic structure of Interstellar suffers from being too episodic. To get into why this is bad, we’re going to have to go to the no man’s land that is serialized television. For our example let’s stay on theme and go with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. If you haven’t seen it, go do that and come back, I’ll wait. At it’s core DS9 was about the effects of an interstellar war on a space station, but told via weekly episodes because it’s not HBO, it’s just TV.
What it managed to do that Interstellar forgot all about, was to focus on character development throughout. So if a single episode had an impact on a character, then that impact would carry through to subsequent episodes. This makes the viewer tend to focus on the characters and how outside forces of the plot affect them personally, instead of how they serve the plot. When you’re dealing with episodic storytelling, the plot of a given episode is actually less important than these personal effects. After all, the plot will be resolved in 45 minutes but a character arc might take years.
When it comes to Interstellar, there are sleeping pods that send the crew to naptime during travel between planets. But it also eliminates any possibility of self reflection as well as occurrences of zero-G sexy fun times with the Redshirts. These cuts just create a reset every time the crew of the Endurance leaves a planet, and the status quo is restored. Then since nothing of import carries over it renders what happened on each individual planet irrelevant until eventually the audience just thinks, “Oh what new creamy shit is this now?” Basically, Interstellar creates an episodic plot that feels like the main through line is the characters, and then manages to ignore them like they’re ex-wives. This wipes out the stakes. Even though characters can die they aren’t developed enough for the audience to care more about their survival than imagine exciting ways for them to perish.
Coincidentally, in the final act of Interstellar when Cooper falls into Gargantua I wasn’t thinking ,”Oh, I hope he finds some way out of this.” Instead my thoughts were, “Oh sweet! We’re going to get to watch a flat circle of time turn Matthew McConaughey into CGI spaghetti,” and I’m pretty sure when you’re rooting for the main character to die in one of the most horrible ways in the universe, you done messed up.
And that is the Takedown.
As is customary, if you would like to shout challenges and do rhetorical battle with me in the comments, I say let’s do this thing. On the other hand it’s likely I could be outnumbered, and if you would like to join the ranks of the virtuous and mount a quality defense of this sudden and honestly unprovoked attack on this waste of perfectly good CGI, feel free to do so in the comments as well.
Until next time.