About three-quarters of the way through "Interstellar," the new science fiction epic from Christoper Nolan, I realized there was no way out of the predicament into which the writers of the movie had put themselves.
The astronauts (Matthew McConnaughy, Anne Hathaway) are marooned in another galaxy.
On Earth, humanity is trying to figure out how to get off of the planet before a blight sucks all the oxygen out of the atmosphere.
To top it off, McConnaughy is suffocating in the ammonia-rich atmosphere of the earthlike-but-not-quite-right planet on which the astronauts have landed.
The writers must pull out all the stops, and they do. The rest of the movie is an improbable dash to the final miracle moment, where McConnaughy finds he's able to communicate in past time with his 10-year old daughter by pushing books out of a bookshelf.
If you haven't seen the movie, don't worry, it's way more bizarre than I'm making it out to be.
And because of the bookshelf, everything comes out all right in the end.
Yep: tick, tick, tick. Everything.
"Every American movie has a happy ending," declared my college sophomore stepdaughter the other night. And that's true, every American movie does have a happy ending, unless it doesn't.
But if a filmmaker wants to have any box office at all, the happy ending is de rigueur.
Critics call this the Hollywood Effect. You have to follow certain conventions that American audiences demand.
I call the effect mythology. A myth is a story that is told over and over again because it reinforces a culture's values.
And Americans are raised on, and rabidly consume, cheap grace.
I do, too, I have to admit. The last scene of the movie coaxed a tear from my eye.
What was Christopher Nolan thinking? Why did he feel compelled to trot out a miracle (several, actually) in order to get the ending we all wanted? Was it a failure of creativity? Did studio executives make him do it? Did test audiences not like some darker, original ending?
Maybe all of the above. But maybe primarly because American cinematic science fiction storytelling is collapsing under the weight of its own tradition.
We are, to my mind, well into the Silver Age of American cinema; most of the best movies we're going to produce as a nation are behind us. The same thing happened in ancient Greece. A flowering of storytelling in a new genre of literature happened-- in Greece, it was drama-- and for somewhere between fifty and a hundred years, it thrived.
But then the inventiveness of the culture flagged, authors began looking back to previous classics, and something a scholar once called "the anxiety of influence" occurred. And that closed the book on the Golden Age.
"Interstellar," with its notes of "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Star Wars," "Star Trek," and who knows how many other sf books and movies, falls into that Silver Age category. It tries to pay homage to those stories, and it tries to go them one better. It is bigger, it is louder, it is more visually stunning.
And the story is supposed to be more intense and impossible to solve.
Which calls for an equally spectacular ending.
And that's where CGI, actors, directors, tech, and everything else can't help. You've still got to write a story. And ending a story is extremely difficult in the best of times.
So it makes sense that the ending did not come up to the expectations the rest of the movie-- and the film culture-- laid upon it.
Consider a parallel: In 413 BC or thereabouts, in the late maturity of Athenian tragic drama, Euripides presented a play called "Electra." It was the latest in a long line of plays about the aftermath of the Trojan War, a subject made famous by Aeschylus nearly fifty years before.
"Electra" was strange. There were a lot of references and allusions to earlier versions of the story. Euripides also pointed out inconsistencies in the earlier stories. It was very meta, in an ancient Greek way.
Faced with all this precedent, Euripides tried his best to be different and better, but still wrote himself into a corner-- there was no way of resolving the drama in a naturalistic way, and Euripides wasn't going to repeat a previous ending.
So he introduced a deus ex machina, a god from the machine.
Except this time it was not one god, but two, suspended in a crane above the players on stage. Castor and Pollux, the divine twins, directed traffic and sewed the whole thing up properly. To paraphrase a certain gum commercial, it was double the pleasure and fun: a bigger, better ending.
Except that it was ridiculous.
I believe the same thing happened with "Interstellar." And the future of science fiction creativity will follow the same path, at least for as long as studios and audiences insist on a traditional ending.
Because mythology, like a spaceship, can only take you so far.
Another view of the movie here.