Let’s Talk About Dr. Mann in ‘Interstellar’
First of all, if you haven’t seen ‘Interstellar,’ well, this is your one and only warning that major spoilers lie ahead. We good? Let’s continue.
About three-fourths of the way through ‘Interstellar' -- a movie I mostly think is pretty good -- we finally meet a character that we’ve been hearing about for the entire movie, Dr. Mann. Now, Dr. Mann’s appearance in ‘Interstellar’ is a little shocking because Dr. Mann is played by Matt Damon, who is a very famous actor, and no one is advertising that Matt Damon is in ‘Interstellar.’ If you don’t know he’s in it, it’s kind of shocking in a pleasant way because Matt Damon is an actor that most of us like. The problem is, everything about Matt Damon’s character in ‘Interstellar’ is awful.
(If it’s not clear, I enjoy Matt Damon as an actor and I am not saying he’s doing a bad job at acting, it’s just that his character is terrible.)
OK, here’s my best attempt to sum this up as quickly as possible as to where we are in the story when we meet Matt Damon’s Dr. Mann. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), and Romilly (David Gyasi) are the last surviving members of a mission through a wormhole to another galaxy to find a hospitable planet to host the repopulation of humankind. There are three planet candidates and each planet has been visited by a human who, if the planet meets the correct criteria (like being able to breathe), will send a signal that informs NASA that, “yes, it’s OK to come here.” Dr. Mann has indeed sent this beacon of hope to Cooper’s crew.
Cooper, Brand, and Romilly reach Dr. Mann’s icy planet – OK, technically it’s not an icy planet, but the clouds floating in the atmosphere are frozen solid; it’s a neat effect...
They are required to wake Mann out of cyrosleep and, from the first second, something just feels “off.” There’s a foreshadowing that screams, “Oh, I see, this was a fairly nuanced movie about love and the future of our planet and now this guy is going to try to kill everyone, isn’t he?”
Yes, yes, he is going to try to kill everyone. And the thing is, we know that it’s coming, yet we still have to go through about 25 minutes of pretending that Dr. Mann isn’t insane. Eventually, we get to watch an intergalactic space-wrestling match between Cooper and Mann that involves head butts and flying booster rockets. It’s a scene from a completely different movie, and one that would have made more sense in ‘Armageddon.’ Actually, Dr. Mann is a lot like Steve Buscemi’s character from ‘Armageddon’ – the formerly sane genius who starts blowing everything up for no reason.
“For no reason.” OK, sure, we’re told there’s a reason – he wants to go home! – but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what Mann’s plan was supposed to be. I don’t consider this a “plot hole.” Instead, I just hate this character.
I understand that Dr. Mann isn’t mentally well, but he is at least mentally stable enough to fool everyone else for a considerable amount of time. Mann admits later that he activated the beacon because he didn’t want to die and all he wants to do is return home. This strikes me as normal behavior, because who really wants to die alone on an icy space cloud? I suspect if I was in a similar situation, I would probably also activate that beacon. When Cooper, Brand, and Romilly arrive, Mann lies about the planet, insinuating that there is a breathable atmosphere on the surface. We later find out that there is no surface, that underneath those frozen clouds is just the abyss. I feel this was Mann’s first mistake. Instead of lying about a non-existent surface, why not just point around to what the planet does have and say, “Pretty nice, huh?” When the others balk (which they would have), maybe just play dumb and say, “What, you don’t like it? Well, I’m sorry you wasted a trip here. I guess we should leave.”
(I won't get into the whole Plan A and Plan B plot point because, at this point, even though Mann knew the truth about Plan A and Plan B, he doesn't seem to care about that anymore.)
Remember, Mann just wants to go back to Earth. And what’s weird is, when Cooper mentions that he wants to see his family again, Mann admonishes him for that and starts babbling about “the mission.” Instead, why didn’t Mann just say, “I’m with you, you really should see your family again. We should return home.” Instead, Mann decides that the best way to return home is to kill Cooper, kill Romilly, then steal their spaceship, abandoning Brand forever on an icy space cloud.
Why? I truly believe so we could have a dumb fistfight between Cooper and Mann that involved booster rockets. It really was as if someone decided, “There’s just not enough action in this movie; we need to include something stupid.” Everything about this sequence felt like it belonged in another movie, seemed to last forever, and made me actively hate a movie that I had been enjoying up until that point (and then enjoyed again once Mann was gone). Damon took Mann from “reasonable human being” to “nut job who wants to kill everyone” in what seemed like seconds. It reminded me of the last act of ‘Sunshine,’ an also mostly nuanced movie about reigniting our sun that becomes a slasher movie. Remember in ‘Gravity’ when George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski shows up in the third act? I honestly thought for a split second that he was going to try to kill Dr. Ryan Stone because this is just what happens in movies like this. (That obviously didn’t happen.)
And moments after Mann is gone, the movie returns to being a fairly nuanced movie about exploration and love, and I just pretended the Mann sequence never happened. Actually, I’m still going to pretend that never happened. Who is Dr. Mann? Why would you think Matt Damon is in ‘Interstellar’? That’s ludicrous. And there’s no way that ‘Interstellar’ depicts an intergalactic fistfight that involves booster rockets and head butts. It never happened. I swear.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.