I really like Tolkien’s idea of “eucatastrophe,” the ending that miraculously saves or redeems the protagonist from certain doom. If it’s done right it can be beautiful, but as I’ve mentioned before, it’s easy to botch it. Which brings us to last year’s film Interstellar (warning: spoilers).
The film is set on an Earth dying because of a blight wiping out all plant life. A serious of mysterious gravity anomalies lead Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn at different ages) to a NASA base where Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is working on an anti-gravity theorem that would enable humanity to leave the Earth in massive ships (there’s not enough regular fuel to get everyone away). And after that? There are three potential homeworlds accessible through a wormhole. The professor convinces Cooper, accompanied by Brand, to fly a research mission to check them out and see if any of them are really suitable. And in case the professor can’t crack the anti-gravity secret, the ship will carry Plan B, a collection of frozen embryos to start humanity over.
The search is grim. Murph hates her father for leaving. The ship will be traveling in slow time due to approaching light speed, so they’re aging super-fast from Cooper’s perspective. And the planets, of course, pose their own challenges, including freakishly high gravity and Matt Damon as the unstable survivor of a previous mission (“You haven’t been tested like I have.”). And Damon reveals the professor lied: he can’t crack the antigravity so the embryos are humanity’s last hope. He hid the truth because he suspected Cooper wouldn’t take the mission if he knew it couldn’t possibly save anyone he cared about.
Finally, with one potential planet left and their ship badly damaged, Cooper manages to launch it in the right direction with the younger Brand aboard … but in the process he jettisons himself and the ship’s robot (which looks more comical and less convincing than I think it was supposed to) into the heart of a black hole. This both strips the ship of some weight and, Cooper hopes, will enable the robot to broadcast gravity data from inside the black hole and give the professor the information he needs to make his equations work.
Except instead of being ripped apart on the event horizon, Cooper tumbles into a tesseract created by far-future humanity trying to help their ancestors. Through the tesseract he can see back to his time on Earth and when he attempts to contact Murph, he creates those gravity anomalies (unsurprisingly since I went into this aware it might have a time-travel element, I figured that detail from the first). And finally he’s able to make his daughter see that the anomalies contain the key to cracking the equation—humanity is saved! Cooper passes out, awakens back in our solar system (where humanity now lives on artificial worlds) and gets a last reunion with his aging daughter (Burstyn) before heading out to reunite with Brand on the final world.
Eucatastrophe, unquestionably, but for me an unsuccessful one. It’s not exactly deus ex machina, as the movie does set up the anomalies early on, but it comes too damn close. And it simply doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. Up until that point it’s been in the spirit of the classic short story “The Cold Equations,” in which an innocent girl dies because realistically there’s no way around it. I could have bought a eucatastrophe if it stemmed out of Brand and Cooper’s work, or Murph cracking the equation on her own (subject to executing it well), even if the science was fudged. But having far-future humanity execute a miracle? Not in this movie. Certainly not after more than two hours of supposedly dark, grim struggling.
It goes into the time-travel book, but not into my heart.
(Rights to image with current holder)