The science of Interstellar is a mixed bag — what it gets right is absolutely right, and what it gets wrong is unrecognizable, while the very black holes were once thought to be purely fictional. Here's Annalee Newitz's take on how this is both the best and worse space opera you'll ever see.
If you love epic space opera, you shouldn't miss Interstellar. But before you go, you need to be prepared to overlook its major flaws.
Interstellar is a thematic sequel to Christopher Nolan's last original film, Inception. It drops us into a dark future full of otherworldly landscapes and time distortions. Its spectacular action is propelled forward by tragic family secrets. The difference is that Interstellar tries to tell the story of humanity, and that's where it stumbles.
Space Opera Rightly Understood
It probably comes as no surprise that the greatest strength of this movie is its visual impact. Nolan is famous for melding surrealism and granular detail to create imagery that makes you feel like you're plummeting through the world's smartest amusement park ride. This is a movie about four people who take a fantastic journey to another galaxy through an artificial wormhole in orbit around Saturn. The wormhole itself is worth the entire price of IMAX admission. Glittering and alien, roaring with rock concert levels of sound, it has the potential to wrap you in badass levels of wonderment.
What we see on the other side of the wormhole is equally magnificent. A gas-ringed black hole is orbited by two planets with weather systems that stretch the imagination — and test our characters' endurance. This aspect of the film, the pure Golden Age science fiction story of visiting strange worlds, does exactly what space opera is supposed to do. It takes your breath away, and fills you with a wanderlust the likes of which only a wormhole can truly satisfy.
Nolan shot the film using a lot of practical effects, and this really matters when it comes to the spaceship sequences. The pilot Cooper (a scenery-chewing Matthew McConaughey) and his crew are in a ring-shaped vessel called the Endurance, and every time the landing ships dock with it you can see the telltale wobbles that reveal this isn't a perfect, clean CGI creation. I'm not saying the ships look like models — in fact, they look more realistic than anything digital. There's a feeling of heft and fragility that you get with practical effects that CGI never achieves, and it's perfect for this story.
As writer Jonathan Nolan has said, the look is also a major tip of the hat to 2001, which inspired many aspects of Interstellar.
A Barren Future
The mind-bending vistas of space are echoed back on Earth, but in a way that's depressing rather than awe-inspiring. As the film opens, Cooper and his daughter Murphy are living on a vast corn farm, trying desperately to eke out a living (and food) in a world of massive dust storms, climate change, and population decline. We never know for sure what's happened, but we get little hints that crop blight is a constant threat — and the blight itself is an organism that is pumping so much nitrogen into the air that oxygen levels are going down. Within a generation, it's likely that suffocation will be a bigger issue than starvation.
With humanity's future hanging in the balance, a few scientists at NASA are racing against time to get what remains of Homo sapiens off the dusty, dangerous rock that can no longer support us. Brand (Michael Caine) is a physicist who has helped create the ship that will take Cooper and his crew (including Brand's daughter, a rather bland Anne Hathaway, also named Brand) through the wormhole to visit possible colony worlds. While they're gone, the elder Brand will work with Cooper's genius daughter Murphy to try to "solve gravity" so that they can create artificial worlds for humans in space.
Again, the visions of this dying Earth are spectacular. We see massive, bruised dust storms looming over burned fields, and watch the whole world suffer through a 1930s-style dust bowl apocalypse. The urgency of the problems on Earth may not be scientifically accurate, but they work emotionally.
Time and Relativity
The problem with this film is that the emotions evoked by its landscapes are not matched by the characters. Monolith-shaped robot TARS, voiced by Bill Irwin, crackles with more personality than Cooper, Brand and Murphy (Jessica Chastain). One of the great tensions we're supposed to feel in this film is between Cooper and Murphy — due to the time-distortions of relativity, Murphy grows up while Cooper is off exploring. So he knows that he's lost the chance to watch his beloved daughter grow up the instant he steps into the spaceship. The question is how much more of her life he will miss.
There are some incredible moments of dramatic urgency as we see Cooper and Murphy working to save humanity in two different galaxies, but their relationship has been sketched so lightly that their tears don't move us as much as they should.
The relationship between Brand and her father is equally light, though intended to be much heavier. Interstellar delivers nerve-jangling action scenes, but really stumbles when it comes to these interpersonal notes. And that's a problem in a movie that wants to be a psychological melodrama that just happens to be set in space.
Instead of giving us emotional relationships whose details feel as real as his exoplanets, Nolan gives us a kooky relativity lesson. The closer Cooper and the crew get to the black hole — which is irritatingly described as an "oyster" containing a "pearl" of singularity — the slower time gets, due to gravity distortions. So we see Cooper and Brand remaining young, while Murphy and Brand's father age back on Earth. Somehow these dislocated time scales are supposed to capture the distance and relatedness between all of them, but instead the scenario feels gimmicky and occasionally downright silly.
Some Very Bad Woo
It's funny that this movie, which is so in love with science, falls down when it comes to physics. Yes, there are bits of the film taken directly from the cutting-edge work of physicist Kip Thorne (who consulted with Nolan), but there is an egregious amount of pseudoscientific woo that feels wildly out of place. At one point, Brand infodumps a clumsy analogy between Einstein's theory of relativity and the idea of emotional relatedness — love between humans, like gravity, transcends dimensions. She says that love might even be the fifth dimension, where the beings who made the wormhole live.
Wait, what? Are we watching that campy flick The Fifth Element, where ladies dress in toilet paper and talk about how love is a physical force that can save the world? Unfortunately, you will begin to feel that the answer is yes about halfway through Interstellar.
Put simply, Interstellar has a strong undercurrent of cheesiness. A lot of things happen that make no sense unless you believe that love is the missing variable in all our calculations of how cosmology works. We can partly blame movies like 2001 for this trope, because that film had its share of incomprehensible transcendent something something lurking beneath its futuristic snark. Even the hyper-scientific Contact gave us a weird father/daughter, physics/love scenario at one point. But that doesn't mean it works.
Interstellar seems torn between hard science fiction realism and new age spiritual beliefs about quantum.
And that makes for a bad mix. Watching Interstellar is really like watching two movies slowly collide with each other. One is a masterpiece of space opera, whose vistas will fill you with wonder and give you hope for the future of humanity in space (and time). The other is a predictable, stale melodrama about how absent fathers are actually super great and women exist to channel love.
The result is a mess. But it's a beautiful mess, and one that I wouldn't want you to miss for the world.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9. She's the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter, or email her.