How Interstellar Crashes in Its Third Act

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NOTE: Like the title would imply, this is pretty-much one big gigantic SPOILER for Interstellar’s story, plot and major twists (and also the plot twists of a handful of much older films). So if you don’t want to know, read something else for now – how about this? Or you could watch the SPOILER-FREE review here. Anyway, consider yourself spoiler-warned.

The problem with building a surprise into a story is that, most of the time, if you’re playing fair with your audience, you have to leave open the possibility that they’re going to figure it out before you want them to. The modern movie twist by which all others are still judged, Bruce Willis’s supposed child-therapist in The Sixth Sense being a ghost himself the whole time, should be blindingly obvious to anyone who’s ever heard a ghost story before. That it gobsmacked so much of its audience back in 1999 was a testament to a once-promising filmmaker’s skill at hiding a reveal in plain sight — never “cheating” but simply making everything else in the story so tense and interesting that no one’s mind ever had a chance to wander and work it out on their own; whereas in a lesser fright-film Cole Seer’s (Haley Joel Osment) early admonition that the specters haunting him “Don’t know they’re dead” would’ve been cue for the audience to start suspecting everyone in the peripheral cast of being a potential poltergeist.

The exception tends to be when a film is playing around with genre (or genre conventions): Fight Club’s absurd third-act switcharound (“We have just lost cabin pressure”) is fairly ridiculous when you stop and think about it, but David Fincher spends so much of the film playing around with stylistic gimmickry that it already feels close to a science-fiction (or horror) film well before the insane truth of Tyler Durden’s existence finally comes to light.

The big twist to Interstellar (well, the biggest — technically there are three, but we’ll get to that in a moment) is built into the story’s inciting incident: Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a highly-skilled space-pilot turned farmer on a slowly-dying near-future Earth, discovers that his precocious daughter Murphy wasn’t just imagining her claims of a “ghost” in her bedroom: Something unseen has been moving objects and dust around into what turn out to be Morse Code messages, which in turn leads Cooper to a top-secret NASA project aiming to send human crews to explore an inexplicably arrived wormhole near Saturn, which they believe may lead to another galaxy where a new home for mankind may be found. And wouldn’t you know it: They could really use another highly skilled space pilot. What are the odds, right?

Now, speaking only for myself: I can’t quite wrap my head around anyone walking into Interstellar being even tangentially aware that it involves astronauts traveling beyond the barriers of time and space (wormholes, black holes, etc) and reaching this scene without immediately guessing “Oh, so at some point Cooper is going into the black hole, which lets him leap back into his kid’s room as either a literal ‘ghost’ or a hard-scifi explanation for one.” Maybe that’s me being presumptive as a guy who watches movies and analyzes their structures for a living, granted, but I don’t think I’m going to be alone.

The error, in my view, is that we’re actually given too much information too early: As a storyteller, Christopher Nolan worships at the altar of exposition (hence why his best film by far, Inception is made up almost-entirely of characters explaining rules, explaining plans, then explaining how the various rules and plans are working or not working as they go through them); but even before he boarded Interstellar it was already a film whose raison d’être was giving hard-science backing (the project was originally conceived by theoretical physicist Kip Thorne) to what feels structurally like a more metaphysical “high pulp” genre work — a good shorthand description for its aims might be: “Open like Close Encounters, end like 2001: A Space Odyssey, explain how everything actually worked.

In any case, come Act 3, the “workings” (in the actual storyline) have come tragically undone: The supposedly superheroic advance-scout (Matt Damon, in a “Hey look! It’s Matt Damon!” surprise cameo) whom Cooper’s team has journeyed for decades (thanks to the time-shifting effects of relativity) to rendezvous with turns out to have gone stark-raving mad alone on an alien world, tries to kill them and hijack their ship — damaging it in the process. Back on Earth, the now-adult Murphy learns that the NASA scientist behind the project (Michael Caine) has been lying to everyone: He gave up his “Plan A” of transporting Earth’s human population years ago, and always intended the “Plan B” of Cooper’s crew restarting humanity from scratch in the new galaxy as the only plan.

(Oh, and Cooper’s other child, Casey Affleck, has turned into a self-righteous “Git offa mah land!!!!” redneck caricature who refuses to let Murphy save his wife and son from the toxic air of their farm; which fails to feel like a completely pointless artificial tension-extender only by virtue of how egregiously Damon’s “the audience will be restless if there’s no tangible Bad Guy to punch” heel-turn has already sinned in that regard.)

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With all hope seeming lost, Cooper sacrifices himself to save remaining crew member Anne Hathaway, which leads to him tumbling into the black hole … wherein he experiences a 2014 version of 2001‘s legendary “Star Gate” sequence and lands in a fourth-dimensional netherworld that lets him look and reach (via gravity-pulses) into … yes, Murphy’s bedroom at all points in time at once, allowing him to both accept that Hathaway’s character was right an hour or so ago about love being the only force other than gravity that can transcend dimensions (no, really), send himself both the original “Find NASA!” message and send future-Murphy his new-found understanding of fourth-dimensional space (oh, his talking robot friend went into the singularity with him, so that helps with the data-crunching) to finally crack the elusive Save The Human Race equation, thus, well … saving the human race.

Okay. Hypothetically, not a bad ending. You can even see how it must have read, on paper (or in concept) as an indescribably epic moment: Paternal Love pierces the boundaries of time and space themselves! McConaughey’s — literal — Astronaut Farmer (he’s Buzz Lightyear and Woody at once — an apotheosis of 20th Century masculine ideals) is rewarded for his unimpeachable selfless bravery with momentary godhood through which to direct his own destiny and save the world! The visuals practically render themselves, and the staggering emotional weight involved should have the audience sobbing buckets, their heaving gasps muffled by a soaring Hans Zimmer’s score that almost feels appropriately-weighted (for a change.)

And yet … I was sitting their, watching it play out as stone-faced and impatient as the line at a DMV, and the rest of the theater (granted, it was a press-only screening) seemed to be similarly-unmoved. All of the pieces are in place for what should be (when you think about it) the “thinking person’s version” of the “Goodbye scene” from Armageddon (yeah I know it’s Michael Bay and the rest of the movie sucks, but he NAILED that one key part) …but the waterworks just won’t come.

And the reason why was immediately apparent: We just couldn’t get swept up in the moment because the movie would. Not. Shut. UP.

From the moment Cooper falls into the singularity’s light-show to the moment he’s zapped off to… nah, I won’t spoil all of it… the chatter between him and the robot never lets up. Visuals and sonic-cues that should be (and were the first time) awe-inspiring were they allowed to wash over the audience and speak for themselves are instead undercut by McConaughey and the robot breathlessly explaining both the story-mechanics by which things are happening and the various scientific principles behind them, and the effect is a profound mood-killer. Imagine trying to watch a fireworks display while a pyrotechnics-geek is talking your ear off about chemical-compounds, ignition-points and the history of gunpowder; or making love with instructions (possibly NSFW).

This is remarkably frustrating, and not only because it fits so depressingly well into the caricature of Nolan as a popular-cinema’s Demystifier In Chief. This doesn’t seem to be an accident – “2001: A Space Odyssey but with an explanation” is almost exactly what the film set out to be even back when it was a prospective Steven Spielberg project; so it’s not like one can fairly pin the issue solely on Nolan’s sensibilities being fundamentally incompatible with the material as some criticisms of his radically-revisionist comic book movies have.

It’s possible that the film sets itself an impossible task from the beginning: Hard-Physics and Metaphysical-Spirituality are two fairly polarizing forces to try and find common ground between, and that’s without taking into account also making the solution work as part of aural/visual narrative through-line for an audience in the home-stretch of a nearly 3 hour IMAX-scale blockbuster. It could well be that what’s supposed to be happening in Interstellar’s big all-roads-lead-to-this Superman reverses the time-stream blowout finale i.e. Cooper has transcended dimensions via the Power of Love is something you just can’t do halfway: That you can either have your hero literally punching the walls of time and space so hard his pre-teen daughter hears him 23 years in the past and just let the bigness of the concept overwhelm the audience’s emotions or you can clinically undercut it by explaining the “magic” away (“What’s actually happening is electric impulses… gravity… fractal-space… etc”) in a bid to communicate difficult scientific concepts to an audience, but you can’t do both at the same time.

It doesn’t help, of course, that both before and during all of this the film is making other decisions that seem deliberately selected to be conventional and over-literal at the precise moment the film seems to want to become transcendent. Did they really think that audiences wouldn’t engage with Cooper as a hero if they couldn’t plot-generate a Bad Guy for him to conquer in a fist fight? Was there really no way to raise the stakes than having Damon and Casey Affleck’s characters morph into ham-fisted “evil mirrors” of Cooper i.e. Driven Astronaut and Protective Rural Dad? Perhaps most-problematically, was there really no other way to unify Murphy’s triumph with Cooper’s than making it an explicit plot-point that the girl (later woman) “chosen to save the world” owes the entire foundation of her breakthroughs to the guiding hand of The Omnipotent Dad?

Interstellar was supposed to be the Winter Blockbuster that made us think. The one that kept us talking, debating and chewing over the details across various Holiday meals, office parties, cross-country travels and bittersweet Skype chats. And it probably still will be – just not in the way anyone was hoping: People will be asking each other about this film, certainly … but I suspect more often than not the follow-up will be “So what do you suppose went wrong there?”

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.