This is so chock full of spoilers that if you don’t want to know what happened, watch the movie then read this review.
Full disclosure. I am a Christopher Nolan fan. I enjoy the way his movies unfold. The experience is not so much akin to watching a plot laid out linearly as it is to watching someone solve a Rubik’s cube. Anyone can watch a story and see it to the end; in Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and the Bane/Talia subplot of The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan forces the audience to figure out the twists and turns and to solve the puzzle with him. A compelling enough puzzle captures the audience, makes us ignore otherwise glaring flaws, and has us coming back for more. I wanted to love this movie and was extremely excited to do so. I did not love this movie.
The film is set some time in the future, maybe 50 - 100 years, after a food blight has destroyed most of the food and killed billions of people. It is unclear whether we did this to ourselves with global warming, genetic engineering, or whether nature just turned on us. All that is clear is that blight has killed all food but corn, as we see McConaughey’s Cooper sit down with his family to eat 3 different preparations of corn. This corny meal should have been a clue as to what was in store. Despite the food shortage, everyone has plenty of gasoline and cars to transport them through what looks to be a recurrence of the 1930s Dust Bowl with random dust storms coating everything in their wake. Nevertheless, when a low-flying drone crosses their property, Cooper, his daughter Murph, and son Tom drive through all this precious corn to take down the drone to get its solar equipment. He claims the solar cells could power all the farm equipment, but everyone seems to have enough gas but not enough food. This garnered my first eye roll.
Murph claims she has a ghost or a poltergeist in her room, and after initially dismissing her, Cooper sees that there are anomalies and translates some of these messages into the coordinates of a secret base that turns out to be NASA’s new digs. Once there, they are told that 50 years ago gravitational anomalies like the one that led them there were discovered near Saturn. These anomalies turn out to be a wormhole, and because wormholes are inherently unstable, they theorize that some intelligent beings placed it there to help us humans find a new home to destroy. They’ve found 12 potentially inhabitable worlds and sent 12 astronauts to each to report back on the conditions there, with the most ridiculous caveat — you only get rescued if your world is habitable. This ridiculous condition comes back to bite everyone later. This caused eye-roll number two, specifically because the robots of this future world are particularly accomplished. Monolithic in shape and an obvious nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, these robots show themselves more capable at this exploration thing than the crew we watch bungling their mission.
And the notion that the new underground (literally) NASA could afford to do this despite being officially defunded and disgraced (school children now learn the Apollo landings were faked), earned eye-roll number 3. Their off-the-books investment in 12 ships would cost trillions of dollars and would require training missions that would surely be noticed by the public. But in this story, all training is virtual (eye roll 4), and as a former pilot/engineer Cooper is recruited on the spot to pilot this mission without any additional training because, hey, it’s like riding a bike, right? Eye roll 5. NASA’s new mandate: Plan A — find a new habitable world and transport everyone from Earth, after they solve a particularly difficult equation that shows how to use gravity to do so. Plan B — find a new habitable world and repopulate it with frozen embryos.
Cooper leaves his family to pilot the ship through the wormhole and Murph can’t forgive him for leaving them, setting up the story to become about the love and reconciliation between a father and a daughter (never mind that he also had a son). McConaughey’s Cooper left daughter Murph with a watch that would someday be instrumental in saving both her and the human race, in a nod to the movie Contact where McConaughey’s Palmer gives Jodie Foster’s Ellie a compass that saves her from being crushed to death. The dusty backdrop of his sad departure is quickly replaced by our introduction to the wormhole. The visuals for the wormhole are beautiful and represented in a way I have not seen in film before, though I remembered their explanation from when I was 8 and read A Wrinkle in Time, a point also noticed by Slate’s Phil Plait. He and I fundamentally agree about this movie. The minute they got through the wormhole and arrived not at a solar system, but at a black hole system, with 3 planets orbiting a black hole, my eyes were feeling the strain from the eye rolls (count at 6). My thoughts: why are they stopping here? If there is no life-giving sun, are they getting all that light from the black hole’s accretion disks? Aren’t these incredibly deadly? Why is nobody mentioning this? If one hour down on the planet equates to 7 years earth time, why not send the robot out to gather the needed data, instead of slow humans to get it? Especially after we see how fast the robot is when it needs to rescue and carry the only female astronaut to safety? I hate this damsel-in-distress trope. And the astronaut who was close enough to the ship to save himself but just stood dumbly watching the robot save Hathaway’s Dr. Brand irritated me in causing his own death.
When they return, 23 years have passed, and the astronaut who was waiting for them, Gyasi’s Romilly, chose to stay awake for much of the time rather than hibernating or leaving them there to complete the mission himself. Cooper sits to an emotional viewing of 23 years of his son Tom’s recordings, from his happy news at finding a mate, the birth and eventual death of their first child, Jesse, a nod to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford where the same actor (Casey Affleck) plays the titular Robert Ford. Only this time, Affleck’s Tom is sad about Jesse’s death. At the end we see Tom give up on his father and say goodbye. The very last video we see is finally of an adult Murph, still angry, and stating that now she is the age of her father when he left. This did not make sense to me, given the 2 years that it took them to get to Saturn, plus maybe 1 to get to where they were orbiting the black hole, making it 26 years. So 10-year old Murph would be 36? Does that mean that McConaughey’s Cooper is supposed to be 36 when we meet him? The actor is 45, and he looks a mid-forties, not a mid-thirties. Murph looked mid-thirties, and the actress is indeed 37. It was so distracting that I kept checking my math.
Having burned up too much fuel to visit both remaining prospective planets, they must vote on one. Dr. Brand wants to go see her boyfriend, and rather than really make the case for his planet on a purely scientific basis, she starts describing love as a force that transcends space and time as though this reasoning means the planet is hospitable. Of course, this completely undermines and ruins her argument. As a female engineer and researcher, if I ever gave an explanation like that for any of my conclusions, I would immediately lose all respect in my community. Based on the dearth of female astronauts and scientists at NASA, I can only assume that in Nolan’s future women are still a minority in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. We are often judged differently, and we are very aware of it. I know no female researcher who would talk like that about love, particularly to support their scientific conclusions. Scientifically, one could describe love as a biochemical reaction in the brain involving the release of neurotransmitters that mediate attachment and partner preference. Spiritually, I would say that love is the most important thing in the world. But I would never conflate a spiritual explanation with a scientific one. Hearing Dr. Brand do this caused eye rolls 6, 7, and 8. Schadenfreude got the better of me and I was happy they went against her wishes.
On the planet, they find a now crazy Dr. Mann (I won’t spoil the cameo surprise), who winds up having been so lonely that he cries upon seeing another human’s face, yet he tries to kill them all so he can complete Plan B. This whole sequence was completely nonsensical as he would need at least one uterus for Plan B and he does not have one; if he’s so lonely why’s he trying to kill everyone; if Cooper was able to subdue him, why not get off of him when it’s obvious Mann’s head butting of Cooper is damaging Cooper’s helmet and not his own? And finally, if you are trying to warn someone that they are about to kill themselves, mightn’t you mention that the airlock would blow if you opened it instead of simply repeating not to open it? And even still, Dr. Mann is an accomplished scientist. If I know what’s about to happen if he opens an imperfectly sealed airlock, then he should as well.
This sets up Cooper and the robot to sacrifice themselves for the mission. Dropping into the black hole, they are saved by a tesseract constructed to protect them. Here Cooper is given the opportunity to both reconcile with his daughter, and transmit the needed information to save the human race. At this point, I was done. I wanted to see spaghettification — what would really happen if someone dropped into a black hole. The movie could have ended when he dropped into the black hole, but then the movie proceeded to end in 2 more places, tied neatly in a bow. Cooper completed his mission then was placed right back in Earth’s solar system so that he could be rescued and see his daughter again, right before she died of old age — it could have also ended there. But after this brief, remarkably underemotional scene, he goes to find Dr. Brand Jr. To what? Bring her back? Are we going to any of these planets? Or now that we have the technology, are we good now with these space colonies we’ve created in our own solar system?
The visual effects in this film are stunning. It is absolutely beautiful. Sometimes, when we see beautiful people we ascribe more meaning to what they say than is deserving. I think it can be that way with films and audiences too. This movie is beautiful, the acting is top notch. For some, the father/daughter story is compelling. For me, it was a smoke and mirrors father/daughter story — if Murph joined the mission, she should have known the importance of Plan A, so her decades-long sustained anger did not ring true for me — once she realized her father had somehow managed to communicate to save her, she was no longer angry. But that was why he left in the first place — to save her — so why does one effort earn her love and forgiveness and the other does not? We are shown the two characters in parallel, but no longer interacting. There is no real exploration of Murph’s emotional journey, and no real relationship between the two anymore except in each other’s memory. The story is only compelling for those who see the mirror — the reflection of their own feelings about fathers and daughters. I saw smoke.
This was not movie Cheetos. Although I am vegetarian, I will use a meat analogy. This was the highest end Wagyu beef taken by misguided chefs who wanted the ultimate dining experience and marinated the beef in a concoction of puréed mac n’ cheese, ketchup, marmalade, syrup, cola and chocolate milk. While it is possible to love many of those things separately, together, it’s just too much and ruins what otherwise could have been a good thing.
Sending humans is much more expensive than sending machines, and on a scout mission why potentially send humans to their deaths when the robots could do just as good a job? We’ve only sent humans to our moon and that was preceded by unmanned reconnoissance. With satellites and robots we’ve explored Mercury, Venus, the Moon, Mars, Titan, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Enceladus, Mimas, and peripherally, Saturn and Jupiter. The idea that this unmanned approach to scouting planets would change and we would send people on one-way missions is ludicrous. If it were me, and I found myself on a desolate wasteland I might be compelled to say, “Yeah, hey guys, my planet’s great. Come get me!” A robot would not.
Even if NASA chose to send humans on a one-way mission to explore these planets, they would never ever ever send a single astronaut. At minimum there would be a 2 person crew. If anything happened to that single astronaut, the mission would be a failure. There is redundancy in every system, even in the crew.
if Plan B was the true plan all along, how were they planning on gestating those frozen embryos? Dr. Brand Jr. spoke of gestating the first ones, but in what? They made no mention of artificial uteri. Then they stated that once enough of these humans had reached adulthood, they could become surrogates. This was a very glossed over bioethical issue — part of this new world includes forced surrogacy? And if surrogacy was to be the way we save mankind, shouldn’t only female astronauts be sent? It’s already cheaper to send them — each pound sent into space costs hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel — women weigh less, eat less, consume less oxygen, oh, and have uteri for this whole repopulation thing. And as any infertile couple exploring in vitro fertilization will tell you, the success rate is about 20-40%. Dr. Brand stated that they had 10,000 embryos, which is the minimum genetic diversity necessary to have a healthy non-inbred population. But with these success rates, they would wind up with only 2,000 - 4,000 people in this colony.
Everything about the time dilation sequence was irritating. As Plait noted, the science was miserably off. To get the kind of time dilation where 1 hour equals 7 years, that planet would have had to be no more than a few meters from the surface of the black hole. A stable orbit around a black hole has to be at minimum 3 times the size of the black hole, which means that in order to get the time dilation in the movie, the planet would be just about to be sucked into the black hole, hence not in a stable orbit and clearly not habitable. That close to a black hole, something called spaghettification happens. Gravity near a black hole is not constant, but varies with distance, meaning that the part of the planet closest to the black hole is pulled more strongly than the planet furthest from the black hole, tending to stretch the planet until it pulls it apart, stretching it like spaghetti. And those crazy tides? We get tides from the rotation of the Earth and the gravitational pull on water in our oceans that is exerted by the moon and the sun. As the Earth rotates, different oceans face the moon or sun and are more subject to their pull. The planet in the film had impossibly high waves that are supposedly due to the crazy gravity of the black hole. But when gravity is that high, the planet would cease to rotate. Just as our moon shows us a single face because Earth’s gravity has overpowered its rotation, this planet would only show a single face to the black hole: no rotation, no crazy tides.
When Cooper entered the black hole, he somehow managed to avoid spaghettification. He also managed to avoid being killed by the inexplicably unmoving accretion disk of the black hole. Accretion disks are spaghettified material swirling violently about a black hole before being pulled in. The forces involved in spaghettification heat up these accretion disks incredibly to more than a thousand times hotter than the surface of our sun. This heat makes them bright, bright enough to be seen millions of light years away, and they output enough deadly radiation to destroy anything nearby, including planets, space ships, robots, and Cooper.
The tesseract irritated me. Again, a concept introduced to me by A Wrinkle In Time, a tesseract is a 4 dimensional cube in the same way that a cube is a 3 dimensional square. The notion that future humans needed Cooper to communicate with his daughter in order to save the world and built a tesseract for him inside of a black hole so he could do so, then sent him back home so he could have a happy ending and reunite with his dying daughter sent my eyes rolling so much that it was at this point I lost count. The notion that 4-dimensional beings could not communicate in 3-dimensions was ridiculous to me, since every time I write a letter, it is a 2-dimensional representation of speech. I wanted the 4-dimensional beings to send a 3-dimensional letter. And let’s just pretend that they could not directly communicate with us. They were able to send both Cooper and his robot back, his robot who had all the necessary data in the first place. If they were able to place him anywhere, it follows that they would be able to take him from anywhere. So why not just take a robot from 50 years ago when the wormhole first appeared, put the robot in the black hole to get all that data necessary for this all-important equation, then put it back so they could solve the equation much earlier?
I could go on, but then it would degenerate into a rant.