I struggled to understand why Interstellar didn't strike a "spiritual" chord with me. So I rewatched Contact, which also stars Matthew McConaughey.
You know, I’m usually a giant pessimist about everything, but for some insane reason I keep coming back to big blockbusters like these expecting a little microcosm of wonder to open up in my otherwise black hole of a heart. By now, I should just accept that I will never again experience the joy of watching Jurassic Park and that I will die alone surrounded by empty boxes of Milk Duds.
HOWEVER! I went and saw Interstellar ANYWAY, like a good consumer, and I return to you 17 dollars poorer to report on how terrible and disappointing it was.
I haven’t quite decided whether Christopher Nolan’s space epic was more disappointing than The Dark Knight Rises; I’m going to say it was less disappointing, because I didn’t invest several years waiting for it come out. I’m pretty sure it’s less disappointing than Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be—as a matter of principle—so there’s that to take as a consolation.
Here’s a quick spoiler-filled summary of the movie: In the future, everyone is a starving farmer because something called “the blight” destroyed all our food, except for all the farmers who are secretly astronauts. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is such a guy. His annoying daughter Murphy (Jessica Chastain) finds this annoying poltergeist (who is actually Cooper FROM THE FUTURE! Spooooky!) and it reveals the coordinates to NASA, which somehow, despite being disbanded and de-funded after the military collapsed as a result of the whole ecological disaster, found an enormous amount of resources to build twelve space capsules to send through an artificial wormhole near Saturn believed to be created by benevolent Five Dimensional Aliens with the lofty intentions to locate a new planet for humans to colonize. Professor Brand (Michael Caine), lead scientist with a penchant for quoting the same goddamned Dylan Thomas poem over and over, is trying to solve a mysterious “gravity equation” that will allow humanity to leave the planet in an anti-gravity spaceship? Once we know where to put humanity? I guess? In the meantime, he sends his daughter Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) on a spaceship with Cooper through the wormhole to confirm which of the planets (it turns out only three are viable) is the best for colonization. Long story short: lots of space shenanigans ensue, everyone dies except Cooper and Amelia, Matt Damon pops up as a villain who really likes droll monologues, there’s a black hole, and lots of time dilation.
I’m already exhausted just summarizing.
If Interstellar were a children’s book, it would probably be entitled:
- “Anne Hathaway’s Psychedelic Love Diary”
- “The Time Dilation Coloring Book”
- “Surprise! It’s Matt Damon!”
- “Goodnight Michael Caine”
- “True Detective in Space”
I have three big gripes about the movie, in descending order of gripery: First, Interstellar uses some of the same narrative tricks that Memento, Following, and The Prestige use to stir up mystery, but mercilessly explains them all away; like the blockbuster of ultimate compromise, the film balances a presentation of the mystery of the unknown with an immediate explainer for any science-dumb audiencegoers. My second biggest gripe about Interstellar is how spaghettified (woo! black hole pun) my suspension of disbelief becomes despite how faithfully the Nolans stuck to “the science” in teaming up with theoretical physicist Kipp Thorne to engineer the movie. On that front, at least for me, it’s not so much wild liberties being taken with what’s possible, but wild liberties being taken with what’s plausible, from a narrative point of view. Finally, my biggest gripe with the film is its overwrought, hamfisted attempts at profundity. Interstellar is reaching for something spiritual underneath all the special effects and grandiose dialogue and Hans Zimmer bass, but it still falls flat. A day after seeing the film, I struggled to understand exactly why, and so I thought back to the last time I saw a scifi that really struck a “spiritual” chord for me. Incidentally, it’s a movie that shares Matthew McConaughey in a leading role: Contact.
I sat down to watch the 1997 film again—I think the last time I saw it, I was thirteen—to find out if it still held up to memory. Contact features courageous and idealistic astronomer Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) as its protagonist, and the plot of the film can be summarized in one sentence: Girl has a dream about understanding the universe; girl builds a wormhole to figure it out. Contact only asks us to accept a single implausible event as its premise: that we are not alone in the universe. Instead of receiving an indecipherable “gravity equation” that requires the reconciling of quantum mechanics with quantum gravity to make sense like Brand does in Interstellar, Ellie receives a signal from the star Vega that contains prime numbers, and encoded in the signal, the schematics of a machine that can transport a single person to its origin. The technobabble sleight of hand ends there: the only other ask is that we think like the Vegans (translating the schematics requires folding it up into three dimensions) and that we believe human beings are capable of working together to build the most expensive science project in history.
Interstellar and Contact both run parallel with a father/daughter relationship that serves as a crucible for questions of love, truth, and faith in a really big and lonely universe. And of course, both feature wormholes. As one film critic notes in his unhappy review of Interstellar, both movies even share a gift-giving gesture (the watch in Interstellar, the compass in Contact) that’s responsible for saving the protagonist’s life. Where the two diverge, however, is in where they go from there, and I don’t mean physically.
In Interstellar, the main concern is time: there’s never enough of it, on this world or the next. We can’t linger in any one place too long, cinematically or emotionally. We never get to learn much about the Endurance’s crew: Amelia, Romilly (David Gyasi), and Doyle (Wes Bentley) barely have any conversations together that don’t involve near-death breathlessness. Human relationships in Interstellar are as stretched out and flat as Gargantua’s event horizon, whereas Contact, to cite one example, provides a supporting character Kent Clark (William Fitchner) whose loyalty to Ellie is expressed by his ability to share her vision when others can’t: he’s physically blind, not to mention that his enhanced hearing ability as a result of his blindness is instrumental in discovering breakthroughs in decoding the alien signal.
In Contact, the main concern is space—both physically and metaphorically. Ellie’s mother dies before she’s born, and her father teaches her how to connect with other people through technology, first through CB radio and later through stargazing. When she loses him to a heart infarction as a little girl, Ellie finds herself alone in the universe despite being surrounded by people throughout the trajectory of her prestigious career. Ellie’s lifelong search for extraterrestrial life in the SETI program becomes a metaphor for her loneliness, and her fear that without a confirmation that there are others out there like us, she’ll never be able to achieve a sense of purpose and belonging within herself. We see this manifest in Ellie’s resistance to falling in love with Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (McConaughey). As a little girl, her father tells her that despite the power of technology to bridge the gap between people, it can’t allow her to communicate with the mother she’s never met, but longs to know. Love, we learn, is a force of longing that transcends space and time, despite our human limitations: at the end of the film, the wormhole alien (taking the form of Ellie’s father) tells her, “You see, in all our searching, the only thing that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”
The Nolans have the same ambitions with Interstellar: to portray love as a “higher dimensional” force that bleeds through dimensions like gravity. But in Interstellar, all the moves are literal. Cooper and Murphy are literally separated by time and space. The “force of love” that saves the day and masquerades as gravity turns out to be, literally and in Morse code, the handiwork of Cooper in a black hole tesseract behind the bookshelf. The gift of the watch, instead of standing in for the burden of love or the fear of accepting that burden as it does in Contact with the compass, literally is the object that contains the McGuffin of Interstellar. The big hulking machinery that is Interstellar, like a shiny rampaging TARS robot, insists on hitting us over the head with all the weight of its technological prowess, while McConaughey’s Palmer Joss, in the parallel universe that is Contact, cautions us that “we’ve lost our sense of direction,” our sense of self, in the pursuit of technology: The search for truth, it turns out, is just as much within us as it is without.
What we get at the end of Contact isn’t a clumsy speech about the scientific basis for love as delivered by a flimsy scientist caricature (Amelia) just to explain character motivations: instead, Ellie’s attempt to express what she’s experienced is the genuinely frustrated beliefs of a heroine whose words are movingly honest and straightforward, simultaneously a failure and triumph to prove that what she experienced is the affirmation of her existence by an Other; love itself:
I had… an experience. I can’t prove it. I can’t even explain it. All I can tell you is that everything I know as a human being, everything I am—tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful. Something that changed me. A vision of the universe that made it overwhelmingly clear just how tiny and insignificant—and at the same time how rare and precious we all are. A vision… that tells us we belong to something greater than ourselves… that we’re not—that none of us—is alone.
The mystery and anticipation of wonder in Contact hinges on that single idea—again, what it would mean, scientifically, philosophically, spiritually, if we were to discover that we’re not alone in the universe—the gravity of which Interstellar takes for granted at the beginning of the film, and dismisses by the end as mere far-future human ingenuity; amounting, ultimately, to self-indulgence on the cosmic scale. That’s why I, for one, would rather “go” nowhere with Jodie Foster, but discover everything of human value in the process.