Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Bill Irwin
It was only a matter of time before Christopher Nolan made a space epic. In Interstellar, he treats the universe in a similar way he treated dream-space in Inception; that is, he plays boundless absurdity with such straight-faced showmanship and serious sense of purpose that the movie feels much bigger and more important than it actually is.
Interstellar is about Matthew McConaughey saving humanity from the dry near-apocalypse of climate change. He plays Cooper, a widower engineer-turned-farmer who lives in the Dust Bowl of the future with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and two children. It’s easy to tell that Cooper’s daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is his favorite, though we’re not with her or her brother Tom (Timothée Chalamet) as children long enough to really understand their relationship.
In an early scene we watch him and his kids chase down a surveillance drone that’s roaming above their farm. Tom drives their truck through a cornfield while his father (I assume) hacks into the drone and forces it to land. It’s an energetically filmed (and scored) but oddly placed sequence, one of the movie’s many sore thumbs.
Cooper talks about being able to put the drone to good use, but what does he mean by that? In the next scene, he sits down with Murph’s teacher, who instructs the children that the moon landings were faked. Thanks to Cooper’s own uncensored textbooks at home, his daughter thinks otherwise. With these two back-to-back scenes, Interstellar hints at a brainwashed anti-science surveillance state, but the rest of the movie quietly backs away from it. Its political statements are window dressing; to Nolan it’s not important why the world went to hell, but the grand, risky ways scientists can fix it.
As is true with many of the character interactions, Interstellar is often more concerned with resolving things rather than expounding on them. Though it’s nearly 3 hours long, it wastes almost no time in getting Cooper to space. Mysterious, otherworldly codes in Murph’s room soon lead them to the remnants of NASA, which is now an Area 51-like base that the government finances but refuses to acknowledge.
Michael Caine, head of future NASA, explains that Cooper likely won’t see his kids for years but humanity needs him to find a new home, and that brief exchange is enough. He gets in a spaceship with Anne Hathaway, and the two blast off with a couple of other exposition-explaining scientists and a sarcastic talking robot (Bill Irwin). They then hop through a worm hole near Saturn to a distant galaxy with three potential future Earths. I was pretty glad Nolan rushed to get to this point, because he’s clearly much more interested in dramatic, otherworldly images than in anything else here.
He and his co-writer/brother Jonathan use scientific shop talk about relativity and worm holes to set up some truly daunting, overwhelming experiences. The crew’s first stop is the most crippling to their morale: for every hour they explore this planet, seven years will pass on Earth. When they land on it, it’s a knee-deep ocean of water with no visible land in sight. Huge waves come. Neil deGrasse Tyson says they might be that big when a planet is so close to a black hole, like this planet is.
I believe him, but I wouldn’t find this sequence any less effective if I’d gone home and read that it was completely scientifically inaccurate. Despite Nolan’s fixation with explaining the mechanics of his visual fantasies, his true gift as a director is often with pinpointing their emotional undercurrent with his actors. As Cooper’s spacecraft spins from one planet to the next, from gray tidal waves to gray frozen clouds, Nolan walks a fine line between entertaining and pummeling. He’s able to largely avoid the latter because McConaughey, Hathaway, Jessica Chastain (as adult Murph) and a slew of others give the movie a resonant emotional core.
Nolan’s thematic obsession with memory is well documented in Memento, Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, but for a while it looked like Interstellar was going to branch away from that a bit. For most of the movie it’s about a man missing out on making memories, who has to sustain short-lived relationships with his children via one-way video messages. But in the final half hour the movie reverts back to more familiar territory. A trip through a black hole becomes Cooper’s gateway to reliving and influencing every important moment, a way to communicate his love for his daughter across the cosmos.
A serious movie where love becomes a measurable element in space-time is easy to laugh at, but Interstellar goes to admirable lengths to avoid that mocking chuckle. It’s a universe where a person’s character is determined by how they respond to desperation, where massive IMAX shots meant to make humanity seem small and insignificant also show people walking together. It’s a go-for-broke mess on a grand scale.