The Problem With Interstellar
Spoilers for the movie Interstellar, by the way. If you don’t want that movie spoiled, don’t read on.
This is not a post about the science of Interstellar.
This is a post about the writing and narrative of Interstellar.
This is, as far as is important to this discussion, the plot of Interstellar.
Cooper is a retired NASA pilot. His daughter, Murphy, has weird, physically impossible gravitational disturbances in her bedroom. They decode the gravitational disturbances and use the coördinates within to find NASA’s new secret base. Cooper joins the secret NASA program to try and colonize a new planet because Earth is for some reason collapsing. That’s not important though; what is important is that the planets they’re going to colonize are through a wormhole that opened a path to a black hole system with a bunch of planets around it. This wormhole is theorized, by the characters in the film (like literally there are lines that say this), to be created by some sort of being that can control gravity, and maybe even travel through time. Before they go through, one of the gravity beings appears, but it just looks like a blob of distorted light. They go through, do some shenanigans on some of the planets there, fail a couple times, and then, on the way to the last planet, Cooper decides that the best way to help humanity is by sending a probe into the black hole to collect more data on how gravity works. And he decides that he should be part of this probe.
Everything that has happened up to this point in the movie, good science, bad science, whatever, is narratively satisfying. But then this happens.
He falls into this black hole. And then he wakes up, saved by the gravity/time beings, and finds out that he was the one who sent the gravity disturbances with the coded coördinates to his daughter’s room, and he is the gravity being that the people on the ship saw. He also sends her the gravity data from inside the black hole, so that she can rescue humanity off of the dying earth and bring them through the wormhole. Then, he’s suddenly outside of the black hole again, on the other side of the wormhole. He meets up with his daughter, who is on another spaceship from earth to go through the wormhole, and who has aged much faster than him due to him being close to a black hole (real science).
The problem with this is that we never see the gravity/time beings. We never hear about them again. They do absolutely nothing except appear at random times to facilitate plot events that would have gone horribly wrong without them; besides that, they don’t do anything.
That’s basically the classic Deus Ex Machina. And it’s very narratively unsatisfying, because it turns the narrative from one of human struggle and love and perseverance in the face of death to one of “these magical beings will give you a happy ending if you are lucky enough to be the protagonist.”
Let me rewrite the story now, to explain how you could keep the plot mostly the same, but give humans all the agency instead of making them damsels in distress (and also coïncidentally fixing the second weirdest physics problem in the movie).
1) Murphy no longer gets gravity messages in her room. Now, Cooper is contacted by Secret NASA and offered a job. Murph can still sneak into his car and visit the facility.
2) The wormhole can still be there for unknown reasons; that’s unimportant. We can even have the speculation about who sent it; but the wormhole is the only unexplained gravity/time thing.
3) Cut the gravity being/cooper part. That was unnecessary; literally just cut that scene.
4) Have Cooper not decide to leave the ship randomly; instead, have the ship break apart (which would be totally legitimate, given things that happen that I’ve skipped over.) While he’s falling toward the black hole, have him try and use any remaining propulsion to avoid hitting the black hole; he tries, but his orbit isn’t stable and he’s quickly falling in, meaning that time will travel slower for him. Fade to black, with him having the same emotional moment over memories of murph, instead of over a gravity window, through a bookshelf, to her.
5) Now we have the same flashback to earth, except that Murph figures out the gravity equations on her own because she’s brilliant and she wants to see her father again, even though he’s abandoned her on earth. Also, fix the scene with Dr. John Brand and his giving up – I had no idea what was going on, and even though everyone else I saw it with knew exactly what was going on, they all knew that something entirely different was going on.
6) She uses her gravity knowledge to build another spaceship that can take humanity through the wormhole. When she does so, she can see that Cooper’s part of the spaceship is falling towards the black hole, and using her new gravity physics, she pulls him out. But by this time, she’s very old, and by the time they finish rescuing him, she’s on her deathbed. Cue the same scene that happens at the end of the movie, and he can still steal a spaceship and go on ahead of humanity to help Amelia found the new colony.
This is literally the same plot; except there’s no deus ex machina. Even if there is deus ex machina, it’s still humans saving other humans, not mysterious beings of gravity and time saving humans.
Sure, there’s still the question of where the wormhole came from. Maybe someone smarter than me will be able to figure out how to fix that loophole; if you know how, you should leave the first comment.
PS. Also, some of the dialogue was just poorly written, but I’m not going to rewrite specific lines.