'Interstellar' Robot TARS: Terrible or Awesome? Let's Discuss

If you survey the crowd flocking out of a showing of Interstellar, you’re bound to get some contrasting opinions. The ending: poignant or meaningless? The science: airtight or filled with holes? The emotionality: rich and heavy or broad and disingenuous? But beyond any and all other Interstellar questions and debates, perhaps the most divisive element in Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster is TARS the robot: an unparalleled magnum opus of creativity, or absolutely ridiculous?

Imagining for some reason that you haven’t seen Interstellar and are still interested in the frenzied debate over the merits of Nolan’s mechanical concoction, I’ll explain just what (or who) TARS is.

Aboard the galaxy-hopping spaceship with scientists Coop (Matthew McConaughey), Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), and Doyle (Wes Bentley) are two hulking, monolithic pseudo-sentient robots: the affable and businesslike CASE and the far more memorable automated wiseass TARS. The latter commands the vast majority of the comedy we see in Interstellar, operating at a 70 percent humor level and showering Coop in particular in a barrage of sardonic insults. (Although CASE’s congeniality does cost him the celebrity of his acerbic counterpart, he does have one moment to shine that I’ll address a bit later.)

While many have adopted a fervent affection for TARS and CASE, the robotic brethren did too incur their share of eye-rolls. So let’s look at the situation in earnest: are these innovations of Nolan truly terrible or bona fide pieces of inventive genius?

TERRIBLE

The argument here likely stems from the dissonance in tone that hits when you first meet TARS halfway through a “bad cop” interrogation of Coop, who has been apprehended trespassing on NASA’s secret grounds. The assumption of human gesture by what amounts, really, to a large metal brick is worthy of a chuckle or two, and furthermore the question of whether or not you are supposed to be laughing. Is this intentional comedy, or unrecognized ridiculousness?

The same sensation occurs later on (and here’s a relatively significant spoiler), when CASE rescues an injured Dr. Brand from the gravitational clutches of a lethal water planet (one with a nasty penchant for robbing you of decades of your life). When the helper-bot notices that his human commander has fallen incapacitated and might soon suffer the wrath of a mountain of waves, he springs into hero mode: CASE takes shape as a motorized asterisk and scoops Brand up in his talons, Officer and a Gentleman-style.

Again, it’s easy to see why some might have thought this was… silly. And in such a grave and serious movie, is “silly” really welcome?

AWESOME

Yes. “Silly” is welcome. “Ridiculous” is amenable to the otherwise dire tone. “Weird” is necessary.

The very dissonance described above is what makes TARS and CASE such an important element of Interstellar — they are, in this world that has eschewed academia in favor of base survivalism, the last exploits of imagination. And it’s rather hilarious that such instances of imagination and surprise spring from things that look like tremendous refrigerators.

TARS is one of the few, if not the only, character that accesses creativity in his everyday lexicon: he is actively humorous, grabbing for irony and wit at every conceivable opportunity. Meanwhile, his actual human counterparts spout out barefaced diatribes and scientific jargon without much value for quirk.

CASE, in shape-shifting rescue mission, exhibits one of the film’s greatest surprises, and easily its most joyful one. The result of the robot transforming into a renegade windmill shouldn’t be scorn but delight — even in a backdrop as pitch black as this, Nolan finds room to play. Any number of more conventional designs might have been employed for CASE’s big scene, but the wackiest one must have been a mighty conscious choice. With fun and joy come a revival of hope, which is essentially what this movie is about.

So, if you laughed at TARS and CASE, questioned their places in the film, or even felt embarrassed by the irreverence that seemed to envelop their design, think about just how little an accident that may have been: these impossibly engaging characters are by no mistake the most fun pieces of the dark and drab Interstellar. They are not bound by fear or sorrow, so they can be whatever we — their in-universe inventors, and their out-universe creators — want them to be. So, we make them what we wish we could be in times like this: practically human.

Images: Paramount Pictures (3)