Yet Another Defense of Interstellar

The Golden Globes were last night. Interstellar was not even on the radar, which I consider a crime.

There is a peculiar amount of dislike for Interestellar. It had a profoundly mixed reception from fans of science fiction and I feel like it’s unjustified. Most of this dislike appears to focus on the crazy deus ex machina ending. First of all, I do actually like Christopher Nolan in general, but I wouldn’t call myself a fanboy. I am certainly not going to make the claim that he is anywhere near the caliber of Stanley Kubrick, though I do intend to draw some comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is widely regarded as a flawless movie.

Some people think it’s slow, a perception that I do not agree with or even understand. I frequently fall asleep during movies. Even action packed thrillers. But something about this movie (and it was kind of long, wasn’t it?) had me rivetted from beginning to end. There was not a moment when my attention wandered. This film sank its hooks into me with a ferocity that I had not expected. It had everything. The realistic portrayal of a family torn apart by forces beyond their control. Indeed, it’s a story that has been told many times. It’s the father going off to war. It’s the father killed in a car accident. In this case, it’s the father who’s going off to save the entire human race. It is maybe a bit of a stretch, this “only pilot that can drive this thing” scenario. But I can defend it on the grounds that this is a world where nobody looks to the skies anymore. No one flies planes anymore. The things that are flying are unmanned drones and such. This is a world that has lost its ability to imagine what could be. And so perhaps it is convenient that he happens to live next to NASA’s secret headquarters, but it is established that he is an engineer of no small skill and it is also established that he has ties to the people that run NASA, so I don’t feel that it’s a completely unreasonable plot element. It’s a bit cliche, but I feel that it works.

The tesseract at the ending is the primary beef that people seem to have with it. There was this air of the fantastical to it that maybe broke some people’s suspension of disbelief. I feel sorry for people who had this experience, because the whole thing blew me away. Here is where I’m drawing the comparison to 2001. When Dave Bowman is transported across the space and time via the monolith in orbit around Jupiter, the viewer is treated to a hallucinatory vision as Dave is transformed into the Star Child which now gazes down upon the earth.

Here’s what Kubrick is doing. 2001, like the novel it is adapted from, is hard science fiction, all the way to very end, after which, it branches off very much into the speculative. The fanciful. But I argue that it does not become actualy fantasy. “Here is what we think science is actually capable of acheiving” says 2001 through most of the movie. Here are the things that, given our current knowledge, we think it’s actually possible to acheive in a reasonable timeline.

The end, however, is a speculation of what might be possible if we could continue to develop unhindered by whatever forces hold us back. Here is a pure imagining, a chance to say, “What if,” a moment of pure speculation. Dave Bowman is reborn as a higher form of life. We might make the mistaken assumption that 2001 is just “crazy” at the end, but if we approach the filmwith the assumption that everything that happens is entirely comprehensible to a being of sufficient intelligence and insight, we can surmise that Dave has encountered some greater being(s) which have elevated him, allowed him to transcend his mortal self to become the higher being.

Nolan does the exact same thing in Interstellar. He builds a fantastically tense scenario all thoroughly grounded in science (some admittedly still theoretical, but soundly theoretical), and it is only at the end where he departs from what we know about the universe and begins to speculate about what might be possible if only we could find a way to tap it. It’s a conceit to be sure, but it’s the kind of conceit that we should be willing to indulge. It’s the kind of conceit that we need today. It dares us to dream about what might be possible if we can only be as clever as we like to think we are.

And maybe the whole tesseract inside the black hold is impossible. Sure, maybe. But remember the black holes present a paradox in which they seem to violate some laws of physics; namely there is the black hole information paradox, which states that information disappearing inside a black hole must somehow not be irretrievably lost (through some mechanism or other).

So the whole disappearing inside the black hole and actually managing to get a message out is not irretriavably stupid. Especially if we can play with the idea of a hyper advanced race of beings (possibly even hyper evolved humans), instigating it, building the tesseract in the first place, and shunting him off into this new place where time appears like a spatial dimension.

It’s not that it’s something we think it’s possible. It’s a sort of what-if. It’s not the “power of love” that saves the human race here. It’s the power of the imagination. Imagination is, as cheesy as it sounds, the most critical ingredient of science. Asking the question “What if?” is the most fundamental part of science. It’s the formation of the hypothesis, the first step of the scientific method.

The thing is, it is science fiction’s job to inspire the next generation of scientists, and I believe truly that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar does this more than most doomsday scenario movies which discourage inquiry and cause fear of what sorts of disasters scientists might bring on us in their hubris. And it does a heck of a lot more than the glut of superhero action flicks too (which are also designed to appeal to the dreamer/fantasizer demographic). I think in the future, we will see a whole crop of new astronomers and physicists who will list movies Interstellar and people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson as their inspiration, just as the last was inspired by 2001 and Carl Sagan.

Why “Inception” is a great film

The word “dream” in the English language is a complicated one. On the one hand, it can be used to refer to a person’s hopes and aspirations. For instance, it might be your dream to own your own business or to make out with Ellen Page. Or Leonardo DiCaprio. I suppose it’s a matter of preference.

The word “dream” also refers to the activity of the brain during REM sleep, when our unconscious mind creates a world for us to inhabit while we slumber. Both of these meanings of the word are applicable in the case of the fantastic film “Inception,” by visionary–and I do not use this term lightly–director Christopher Nolan. You might remember him from such films as “Memento” (it wasn’t as good the second time, though we all must admit it was really, really good the first time) and also, of course, “Batman Begins” and incomparably, “The Dark Knight.”

Spoiler Alert: You have been warned.

“Inception” works as a film on several levels. As a science fiction film, it is totally in the vein of Phillip K. Dick. It’s a sub-genre of science fiction which is commonly called magic-realism. We have a device, this dream machine, which is totally fantastical, and yet Nolan has deposited it into modern day, and the characters in the story treat it as commonplace. It has been seamlessly integrated into our modern world. Its functioning is not explained and doesn’t need to be. How it works is not important. What is important is that we, as the audience, can accept it because the characters do. This was a common technique in Dick’s stories. Recall the Empathy Boxes and Mercerism from Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep.

So what Nolan does with this science fiction device, by making it commonplace and not bothering to spend absurd amounts of exposition explaining how it works (a very huge mistake made in a lot of modern sci-fi movies), is open himself up to exploring the important themes of the film. And boy, there are a lot of them. First, he discusses the concept of an idea as a virus. This is something that is proven every day. I’ve discussed memetics before on my blog, but this film hits it on the head. The main character (Leo DiCaprio) is plagued by the guilt of having murdered his wife essentially by implanting an idea into her head. Her death came about as a direct result of his first attempt at the inception of an idea. An artificial inspiration which caused her to commit suicide. The idea that he put in her head is another big theme that is lightly but poignantly touched on by Nolan. Namely, death as an exit from reality. Death as a solution to a reality that can’t be verified.

What I get a kick out of in terms of theme is how Nolan integrated the idea of memory. How memory changes the way we view the past. I recently read about a psychologist who had set up video cameras all around his home with the intention of capturing all the significant events in his growing child’s life. After so many years, he was remembering his child’s first step. He remembered it as happening in the evening in the living room. When he reviewed the tapes, he discovered that the event had actually occurred in the upstairs hall in the middle of the day. This is because when we remember things, it is not like replaying a video tape. Every time you remember a significant event, you are reconstructing it. Re-experiencing it and at the same time, changing it. Every time you remember something, you remember it differently. And this is why it is interesting when Cobb (DiCaprio) builds these memory worlds where he is trying to change the past in his own mind. All he really succeeds in doing is torturing himself, because, despite his sharp memory, he cannot actually recreate the entire event or the characters in their entirety any more than he can deliberately change them. His dead wife as a subconscious projection is a shadow of the real person. She becomes something malevolent. Something cancerous in his psyche. Something that haunts him and his work.

It is also important to point out the film’s success as an action film. And if we do this, it becomes necessary (and somewhat enjoyable) to make the obvious comparison with The Matrix. I say pleasurable because I can finally drop The Matrix from my list of movies to ever watch again. Inception does everything that The Matrix did only better and in greater abundance. The Wachowski brothers took the Platonic idea of the Cave or the Brain in the Box, if you will, and made it into an action film. It took the philosophic and touched on it and used it as an excuse to make what amounts to an escapist fantasy. Then they tried to pass it off as deep when in the end, there’s nothing of real substance or value.

Nolan has done something completely different. Instead of posing the question and then never bothering to answer it, Inception continues to dig, relentlessly exposing more facets of the question of dreams and the unconscious just as the characters, Cobb in particular, continue to dig deeper, moving further and further into the meta-dream. Dreams within dreams within dreams. The thought that he and his wife spent fifty subjective years in their own world, constructed from their own thought goobers, is astonishing.

And again, looking at the action of the film, I find it to be very successful. It is not as…”techie” as The Matrix. They didn’t use as many wires or CG. In fact, there’s very little CG. Nolan likes to put stuff on film as much as possible. And he does a great job of it. The fight scenes are more believable, even if they are fantastical. The action is more exciting because the characters are more realistic. The dream-within-dream time dilation thing is incredible. That there are, at one point in the film, three different action scenes happening at the same time and at different speeds is pure magic.

It is rare to see a film so expertly plotted. And we can see echoes of this in his big breakout film. Memento was very well plotted and had the mark of something very cool. But it was, in the end, premature. I can’t watch that movie anymore. I don’t even particularly like it. I am a little nervous that Inception won’t stand up to repeated viewings, but I am cautiously optimistic about it.

In the end, I think what makes Inception successful is a sort of perfect storm of very cool things. The cast is superb. The acting and dialogue are stoic in the places they need to be, funny where appropriate, and emotionally challenging at just the right moments. The set design is immaculate. The world-building (the meta-narrative) is perfectly executed. The integration of themes, the mixing and matching of what amounts to be a sort of theme-salad, is so well proportioned, doesn’t stifle the action, and manages to flourish while nothing else suffers. It is not didactic, I mean and The Matrix is horrifyingly didactic, which is absurd considering it has the intellectual depth of a kiddie pool. Inception is magnificently plotted and paced. I was spellbound. I was entranced.

In the end, Inception did something for me that only a few films do. It affected me. When I walked out of the theater, I found myself questioning my state of awareness. Was I asleep? Was I awake? Was the world real? The idea infected me and even today, about twenty-odd hours after watching the film, I’ll find myself looking for clues that I am awake.

Zu träumen ist zu leben.