If there’s one thing Interstellar taught us, it’s that the right wormhole can bridge solar systems. If that’s the case, certainly the proper wormhole can also serve as a bridge between interstitial ideas, tropes, attitudes, entire systems of thought? In the case of Interstellar, director Christopher Nolan builds several such cognitive bridges and asks us to accept them as wisely joined. Are they? Or are parts of Interstellar more like a bridge too far? Let’s grade four such wormholes:
The plainspoken wisdom of America’s vast plains wormholed to the more plane-spoken wisdom that organizes our understanding of the vast universe – As Mark Harris pointed out, the interesting divide amongst critics is less about the merits of Interstellar as a whole, and more about the merits of the film’s first hour. Nolan is hardly the first to wormhole together farmers and astronauts; heck, Schoolhouse Rock did it 40 years ago with “Little Twelve Toes.”
Personally, I liked the long, languorous look at dust-covered farmville, and the implication that heartland values should be enough to get us through the farther reaches of time and space. Filmmakers must consider the appropriate length of an opening, precursor section: how to make this linger in the audience’s mind when we hit the meat of the story? Think about the almost dialogue-free D-Day sequence of Saving Private Ryan. How long should that have been? 40 minutes would have been too long, too horrifying, too out of balance with the rest of the story. 5 minutes would have been too short; we wouldn’t have remembered all the sacrifices that establish the characters’ antagonisms throughout the film. Spielberg got that sequence just right at 20 minutes. Nolan’s heartland probably didn’t quite need an hour. A small problem is that Cooper isn’t exactly saving the plains; his actions only seem to lead to their revival in space, in a sort of Field-of-Dreams-meets-Inception ballfield near film’s end. However, the juxtaposition between the landscapes of Andrew Wyeth and Chesley Bonestell was a reasonable idea. The Iowa-Io wormhole: A-
John Glenn wormholed to John Walton – In our world, not necessarily Cooper’s, kids have grown up idolizing superheroes, pirates, teenage wizards, and super-spies – none of whom were parents. Thus, it counts as original thinking to center a would-be blockbuster around a dad who just wants to see his daughter again. It’s like McConaughey transported Kiefer Sutherland in 24, Denzel Washington in Man on Fire, and Liam Neeson in Taken into outer space…or would have, if Cooper had just one or two more real action scenes, and not just the somewhat shoehorned “Matt-fight” he had on Hoth (or whatever we’re calling that frozen planet). Such motivations made absolute sense for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, so why does it feel like a cliché to have Daddy doing anything for dear daughter? Is it because of that clunky line from the trailer – no one would have ever said this to Ripley, even in Alien: Resurrection – about choosing between humanity and seeing your kids again? (Only the most selfish S.O.B. in the S.O.lar system would choose the latter.) Of course every filmmaker hopes that his/her oh-so-original idea will happen to hit all four demographic quandrants, but there’s something about combining Chuck Yaegar with Cliff Huxtable that crosses the event horizon from clever over to desperate. It probably doesn’t help that films with Big Thinkers like Interstellar’s Michael Caine character feature the man in a state of power and his daughter in a state of potential…as when President Obama defends his feminism on behalf of his daughters’ futures, not their current situation. Granted, Interstellar makes up for this hoary trope, sort of, with its ending, featuring an old female scientist dying on the space station named for her. John-John wormhole: B
The Endurance’s left-wing wormholed to its right-wing – Is partisan wrangling a wormhole or a rabbit hole that many people dare not venture down? Some would like to keep politics out of Interstellar, but ideology triumphs even and especially when you’re not looking for it; you can rely on talking heads to use Interstellar in Sunday-talk-show arguments just as they’ve used The Dark Knight. Is Interstellar a cautionary fable about global warming, about good guys in government-sponsored suits saving humanity from itself? Are we the ones we’ve been waiting for, as Cooper and Obama repeatedly suggest (and I mean repeatedly, across time and space)? Or is Interstellar about necessary imperialism (over another star system, even) through the exploits of a government program succeeding because it’s doing more with less? Unlike the Glenn-Walton wormhole, this is a non-bumpy one where the Nolan brothers cleverly split the difference. Look in a little girl’s book-saturated bedroom, and you see the hopes of intellectuals/wisdom of children or you see the exceptional individual solving problems with what some would call divine intervention. People will see what they want to see – maybe that’s a gift to us from future generations! Ooooooo. Partisan wormhole: A
Active speculation wormholed to action spectacle – Put another way, the existential philosophizing of space-set films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris wormholed to more action-oriented space adventures like Star Wars. Critics are complaining that compared with Kubrick’s bleak, aliens-are-smarter perspective, Nolan is a little too up-with-people, too adherent to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (the 17 hero steps that Luke Skywalker also took), too all-you-need-is-love-y. My problem is a little different, which is that Nolan doesn’t quite commit to love or humanity as a solution. Having heard Brand’s speech about love as an artifact of a higher dimension (!), we are primed to suspect that Brand was proved right by the events that connect the center of the black hole to Murphy’s experiences when she was 10…but we’re never all that sure if love connected them. This Coop de Grace could be considered delicious ambiguity if it didn’t also feel like a slight Coop-out. Cooper certainly speculates that future humans are the “them” who have set up the wormhole and the events in the “event horizon,” but if that’s true, why not have at least as much hand-wringing over the time-travel paradox as we saw in, say, Terminator 2 when Sarah carved “NO FATE” on the picnic table? If Cooper is traveling as much to Calvinism as to another galaxy – every moment pre-destined – why not have a fellow astronaut challenge him with motions designed to demonstrate free will? You can’t half-cook your thoughty thoughts and then pass them off as steaks designed to be bloody. Inception presented a far more kinetic-action-inducing-yet-thought-provoking landscape, partly because Nolan was freer not to adhere to limitations of physics. Think-about-it-don’t-think-about-it wormhole: B
Total grade for wormhole bridges: B+ Good enough for government-approved work!