Thursday, November 13, 2014

11 Big Questions That Were Absolutely Answered By Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar' and Why None of Them Matter

So I planned to see Interstellar with a friend earlier this week, but after that friend came down with the vomits and poops, I was left with a choice: hang out with my roommates who also had the vomits and poops or go see the film by myself.*

I went. Loved it. Lots of thoughts. Maybe. It was pretty dense, and I don't know quite where to start. But it's been stuck in my head since I went. My sentence long review I posted to Facebook was "I think Inception had larger goals but left me with disappointments. This did not. Loved it. A++ would buy again."

A day later I saw someone post this article (spoilers):

A few guys I know through making movies were all commenting with agreement. Mostly praising the film, but with a "one foot out the door" tone of voice. "Oh yeah, it was good, but I didn't like ______."

Well guys, I'm here to tell you that the list of plotholes in that article are bogus, yo, and you shouldn't be concerned with them. Every one of them is either irrelevant or explained in the film. I'm gonna explain why. And somewhere along the line, maybe I'll uncover some of my own larger thoughts about Interstellar. Then I'm gonna tell you why you're right anyway despite how much I liked the film, and how we should all get a beer and talk this thing over because I miss y'all and that conversation would be a lot of fun.


Spoilers abound below.

Let's take this article one point at a time, second person talking to its author.

(1) If food is growing scarce why does everyone drive so gleefully through corn fields crushing the crop?

This happens twice. First time it's to catch a drone, and given Cooper's excitement, odds are whatever he can do with the tech in that drone is a lot more valuable than the relatively small amount of corn they're likely to lose. Since electronics are not being produced anymore, that's super valuable.

Second time it's Murph, who's literally seconds from getting out of the car and burning the field to the ground. I don't think she minds running over a few stalks on the way.

(2) Why *is* food so scarce anyway?

From the article: "Yes yes, plants are on the way out due to the blight, but we already live in a world where many of our consumables are man-made so wouldn’t that be even more prevalent in the future? We’re not given a wide glimpse of the world and its remaining population, but it can’t be as simple as everyone with knowledge of engineering, chemistry and manufacturing having died from starvation or dust inhalation. Machinery still works, so food products could still be made."

I'm not super up on the state of the food industry, but something tells me living off fruit roll-ups and Doritos isn't a good long term solution. Plus, man-made consumables, in addition to being worse for people in general, are more expensive to make. It's more resource efficient to farm. Yeah, once all the crops go extinct people may be able to live on man-made consumables, maybe even on healthier ones than candy. But it'll be harder to do that than farm or food wouldn't be scarce.

But more importantly, why do you care? Sure, maybe you want to know, but it's so easy to make up a reason. I just did. It's completely irrelevant to the story at hand. If the plot took a turn towards the agricultural and delved into Casey Affleck's journey as a farmer, then yeah - I'd want to know what research was being done on the synthetic food front. I'd want to know how people were going to go about saving samples of old foods to clone / replant in case the planet could be saved. Maybe. That all sounds boring. Yeah we could have a long conversation about it to work out the details, but why spend our time on that?

(3) Why are people being taught — and worse, believing — that the Apollo moon-landing is fake?

"It’s entirely possible I missed some subtle explanation once Basil Exposition (Michael Caine) showed up to tell Coop why NASA was hiding out in the desert, but Coop is supposed to be in his early 30s in the beginning and had flown for NASA earlier in his life, so presumably the space agency was around at least partly into the past decade. So in those ten years NASA became a scapegoat of some kind? Science became untrustworthy and the education system decided to teach that it was all a fraud? Maybe I’m missing it, but why are people holding a grudge against NASA over a world clearly dying from Earth-based problems (blight, climate change, the lack of okra)?"

As the school teacher in that scene more or less tells us straight up, kids are being taught that so they'll focus on farming and not on space. It's propaganda to get the middle class into farming instead of dreaming of bigger things. Easy.

Just because NASA was around ten years ago doesn't mean people liked it then. An organization like that doesn't disappear as soon as public opinion turns against it, it takes time for such a thing to get crushed. Conversations between Cooper and his father-in-law indicate there's been a disdain for science for as long as Cooper's been alive. NASA's been a scapegoat longer than just those ten years.

Why are people holding a grudge against NASA? Once again the answer is in the film - Michael Caine gives a speech about how people were angry about spending billions on space when the government could be spending billions on food.

4) Speaking of the secret NASA base, did anyone consider allocating some of those billions of dollars towards maybe a cure for the blight?

"We’ll assume yes, but even if they did and failed wouldn’t someone still think it a good idea to spend some R&D funds on manufactured foods? Maybe take some of the remaining plant-based foods that aren’t yet contaminated and secure them away to a location where they can’t be infected? Or spend the cash on underground bunkers where people can live, form communities and keep mankind alive until they can eventually return to the surface? Or maybe share the technology they’re using to keep their astronauts fed and oxygenated for years in space with the people who are actually starving and suffocating here on Earth? Nah, instead they’re sinking every last dime into “solving gravity.” What the what?"

Easy - all these things are being done. We see people in NASA doing experiments on corn / okra. These are smart people - it's safe to assume they're saving and storing these plants. And all those people leaving town towards the end of the film? It's specifically referenced that they're going to live underground. It's not like the entire government budget is going to NASA. Someone would probably notice that.

5) Why aren’t MRI machines available anymore?

The argument in the article basically goes "why couldn't there be MRI machines?" I answer: well, there could. But  MRI machines break down, and in a world focused more on food than on treating fancy diseases, an MRI isn't what you want to spend your time repairing. You want to spend that time on repairing tractors. Instead of treating brain annurisms, cancers, and other more exotic diseases, you want to spend your time getting dust masks to everyone. Vaccines. Asthma. Stuff that affects kids, because you want to make sure the population doesn't vanish. It's so much more cost effective to focus on broad problems than the specific ones MRIs are designed to scan for. Thus, no more MRIs.

6) Why is Cooper’s son an asshole as an adult, and is it because his father clearly doesn’t care about him?

"Seriously, Coop wakes up from his deep space sleep and never even asks about Tom — hell, he doesn’t even inquire about his own grandchild — but more than that, is there something being said here about farmers versus scientists? About the supposedly uneducated versus the intellectuals? Tom seemed like a perfectly well-adjusted kid early on and even into his first appearance as Casey Affleck, but suddenly he’s a monstrous prick who’d rather watch his family die from dusty lung than accept some help from someone with a PhD?"

I don't understand the question. Cooper wakes up from deep sleep and is told they can't send any messages home, so he doesn't. His son is kind of a dick because that's the kind of guy you become on a world trying to kill you and your family. Large-scale resentment of NASA, especially when there's no one else easy to blame, that's believable to me. And a parent in denial about the health of their child when the alternative is choosing between that child's life and the life of the farm, especially when accepting that would involve admitting some long-term anti-scientist prejudices have been wrong... that's so easy to understand for me.

7) This whole space station by Saturn… couldn’t they have just done that all along without even giving the wormhole a second thought?

The author asks why NASA couldn't have been building these stations all along. And again, the author just missed some stuff.

That whole Plan A thing that Michael Caine kept talking about, this was that plan. The problem was one of resources: it takes a ton to send up a spacestation like that, and the Earth didn't have them. That is, unless Caine could solve his gravity equation. That was the whole point. The reason they weren't sending them up earlier is that they couldn't until the equation was solved, and the equation couldn't be solved until Murph got all the black hole quantum data from Cooper, which happened right at the beginning of those 73 years.

8) Is travel through the “fifth dimensional bookshelf” or whatever just random, or was Coop intentionally picking the perfectly-timed spots to peek through?

First, it doesn't matter.

Second, we have no indication that Cooper does have access to every moment of her life. It's possible the only ones he had access to were the few he affected.

Third, he had to hurry because--

"And before you say he had to hurry because the space library is collapsing in on itself I remind you that the folks who built it have mastered time so we should assume they also know how to build a sturdy bookshelf."

--actually I was going to say because he only had a limited supply of oxygen left.

But the real point here is that you're making all kinds of assumptions about how this weird fifth dimensional space works, or rather saying that the fact that you don't understand the rules is a problem. But that's part of the point - we can't understand all the rules there. And more than that, there's no way to expect Cooper to, either.

9) Why have nearly three hours of father/daughter love only to toss it aside in final two minutes for Anne Hathaway?

"All that intergalactic effort to reunite with Murph just for her to say she’s fine and hey why not go visit the lady doctor back at camp?"

This one kills me.

The reunion with Murph was one of the most touching scenes in the whole film for me. It's so bittersweet - it's this amazing moment of catharsis and pain for Cooper as he finally, finally has physical proof that what he did was worth it, that he did make a better world for his children. But it's so painful too, because the cost is that he had to give them up. Murphy sending him away at her deathbed, showing him that he's no longer needed here, that's like a twisting knife as much as it is everything he's hoped for since he left. She's come to terms with the fact that he left, and there's nothing left for him. Just as he told her when she was ten, he's a ghost to her.

That moment is so powerful for me. As you say, it's all that intergalactic effort to reunite with Murph just for her to say she's fine and wave him away from her deathbed. Just imagine being Cooper and hearing that.

But then I also think you've misunderstood the implied ending relationship between Cooper and Hathaway. I didn't take this as a romantic thing in the slightest. Instead, it's Cooper recognizing that there's no place for him back in our galaxy, and that Hathaway is out there destined to be alone for the rest of her life. By going to her, he can provide a friend company. He can give her the gift that Matt Damon gets earlier of another human face after expecting never to see one again.

And with nothing for him left in our galaxy, that seems pretty good.

10) If it’s been fifty years since Murph figured out the messages why is Hathaway still only just setting up camp while everyone else hangs out on a space station?

You just missed this one again - Cooper and Hathaway lost 50-some years when they sling-shotted around Gargantuan in the climax. Hathaway doesn't land on the planet until the same time Cooper gets spit back through the wormhole.

11) So, did we build the wormhole? If so — and even if not — is this movie the biggest bootstrap paradox ever?

It's not if you don't think of it as a paradox, if you just accept that time is fixed. But if you want to stick with "yes" for this one, that's fine. I don't consider that a plot hole or a problem.

The author's insistance that this message that we're saving ourselves is deflating is another painful thing to me. How is that painful? To me it's a wakeup call - no one's going to step in and save us, we're going to have to do it ourselves. God isn't looking out for us. We are. And we should damn well start acting like it.


Listen. People don't spend half a decade working on a project like this and not have answers to questions like the ones in this article. The fact that the answers don't come up because the story doesn't need or care about them does not make them plot holtes. It simply makes them off screen.

The problem here is that you missed all these answers. Well, that's not quite right. The problem isn't that you missed them, because again, I don't think the answers really matter to the movie at all. The problem is that you were BOTHERED by them. If your brain had time to be bothered by them, it wasn't being engaged by the film. You tuned out. And that's a problem for the movie. A legit one! So let's talk about why you moved out and not the things you missed while you were snoozing / in the bathroom / thinking about the review you were going to write.

Back in point (6), the author isn't understanding Cooper's son's motivations. THAT's a problem. I think there's perfectly reasonable explanations for his actions, but if you don't, let's talk about why you feel that way instead of saying there just isn't.

In (11), the author thinks the idea that humans are helping humans is as deflating as the idea that it's worth sacrificing the rest of your life in order to make your friend's remaining years better. Why do I feel so strongly opposite in my read of the ending than the author? THAT's what we should be talking about, not obsessing over endless details irrelevant to the plot or explained when you weren't paying attention.

We should talk about the music, which the author strongly praised in their review but which I found at times obnoxious and repetitive, pulling me out of the moment.

We should talk about how while the ending seems to be trying hard to say that humans need to be taking care of each other because no one else is going to, it also lets us off the hook once we've left the theater by saying that "eh, those guys in the future will handle it".

We should talk about how different people experience movies so differently. I attach more strongly to a tight script and plot (however complicated they may be) while others are pinged more by emotions and characters. A lot of my favorite critics have talked about how the emotions were all too shmultzy for them. A bunch of physics grad school friends have said their piece about the science of the film which I just don't give a damn about.

Where was the point where each of you felt disengaged from the film? Because I walked out with no questions, no feelings of plot holes, just catharsis and appreciation. Why was that different for the two (or four or eight) of us?


I really didn't like this article, in case that wasn't clear. It's focused on all the wrong things. I respect the author's opinion, because the film made him feel a certain way, and you can't change how people feel. But I'd be so much more interested to see him dig deep and think about why the film didn't do enough to sweep him off his feet and away from these nitpicks. Where did the film fail emotionally that let him get distracted by easily explainable logical questions?

Let's go talk about that.


*Quick aside: riding solo to the movies is something I first experienced last year when I lived within walking distance of the local indy theaters. I went every week I could before winter started. I thought I'd hate it since the first thing I want to do after walking out of the theater is talk with someone about what I saw, but no one ever wants to talk to me then. Dummies. Turns out it's very satisfying to me. The company you watch something with colors your perspective so much, or at least it does mine. There's something pure about going alone and getting a reaction I know is my own and not that of whoever was sitting next to me.