“We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” – Matthew McConaughey as Cooper
Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ is exactly the film it aspires to be – intelligent, visionary and actually quite stirring. It does NOT aspire to be this generation’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, which may explain why some have been less forgiving of its perceived faults. Where Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece about man’s interactions with both technology and the cosmos told its story mainly through haunting imagery and stillness, ‘Interstellar’ aims to be somewhat more accessible. That’s not to say that the film dumbs things down for the audience – on the contrary, it trusts the audience a great deal to follow its multiple explanations of wormholes, quantum physics and other such phenomena. But it is certainly a more plot-driven, dialogue-heavy film than ‘2001’, with a fascinating logic that proceeds toward a satisfying and totally unambiguous finale.
The comparison is justified, though, because Christopher Nolan (who wrote the screenplay with his brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan) has named ‘2001’ among his favorite movies and a direct inspiration for his new space epic. Certainly its influence is present as Nolan borrows elements that worked in that film – total silence in its space scenes, exciting jump cuts, and talking robot companions. Rather than carbon copies, these techniques are appropriate and inventive riffs on Kubrick’s innovations, and they are impressive examples of the craft on display throughout ‘Interstellar’. There are a number of space sequences here that are elegant and beautifully rendered, especially as displayed on an IMAX screen (a highly recommended experience – I saw it here). In keeping with Nolan’s preferred cinematic style, the effects are not overly polished or glitzy. You feel as though you may be looking at actual spaceships and black holes – detailed, but not necessarily crystal clear.
Beyond being driven by an intriguing plot and fascinating imagery, I found ‘Interstellar’ to be a very compelling emotional experience, due primarily to the father-daughter relationship at its core. Matthew McConaughey is well-suited to the role of Cooper, a former NASA test pilot and father of two who is reduced to operating a corn farm when global staple crops begin to die. In keeping with a time-honored Hollywood tradition, Alberta, Canada doubles as the American midwest – the setting for the first hour of the film, as well as later crucial scenes. With its sparse prairie population and malevolent dust storms, the earth-bound set pieces strike just the right tone of weariness and dread, as well as Cooper’s yearning for something grander. Earth is faced with a rather plausible environmental crisis, and it becomes clear that mankind’s existence is quickly becoming imperiled. In the final two-thirds of the film, Cooper and a team of NASA explorers employ interstellar travel to search for a new planet that will sustain life for humanity.
Meanwhile Cooper’s daughter, Murph, searches for the meaning behind an apparent coded message that routinely shows up in her room, which would sound weird if it weren’t totally convincing in the film. Murph is a smart, plucky amateur scientist in her youth and her exchanges with Cooper are more than just cute dialogue– they show a love of science taking root within her. It is truly wrenching to see father and daughter separated as Cooper, armed with knowledge about Earth’s impending doom, opts to journey to another solar system. Those scenes work, and payoff wonderfully in the film’s climax. As Murph grows to be a middle-aged theoretical physicist (Jessica Chastain), she searches for a way to overcome the challenge of gravity and shuttle the planet’s inhabitants to a new home, if indeed it can be found. She must also deal with the pain of her father’s absence and hang on to the diminishing hope that they will be reunited, all while Earth becomes increasingly scorched and barren.
This film has done its homework, (noted physicist Kip Thorne contributed a lifetime of research to the project) and yet it never sounds like a science lecture. There is real substance in discussions about gravity, space-time and higher dimensionality, but characters do not dwell on unnecessary explanations. We are given enough information to orient ourselves, and we move on. A common complaint about Nolan’s ‘Inception’ was the higher-than-usual amount of exposition required to lay the ground rules. That was true to some extent, but never as distracting for me as it was for some. However, I found that ‘Interstellar’ had almost no unnecessary or even obvious exposition. Each time an explanation is needed, it is organic, economical and highly engaging. Even the film’s humor is actually funny this time (thanks to the robot named ‘TARS’, voiced by Bill Irwin), instead of the groan-inducing kind found in previous Nolan films.
There were many things that worked for me in the film. I appreciated the theme, stated in the quote above, of pioneering and exploration – elements increasingly absent from our society. One of the trends I analyze in my job is the current lack of strategic vision and purpose in the Department of Defense, and NASA in particular. Those agencies are using R&D funds to pay for increasingly expensive, aging (and ironically ineffective) legacy military systems, thus robbing investments in crucial next-generation technology. Recent events have underscored the lack of direction and purpose at NASA, and there is real worry about the future of American innovation in general, which now seems to aim no higher than cranking out the next smartphone. It is refreshing, therefore, to see a dramatic portrayal of people embarking on an expedition with real stakes and uncharted territory. I also found it refreshing to see the robot character ‘TARS’ represent a more hopeful, non-threatening view of artificial intelligence and technology. It has become rather tiresome for a film to include a warning on the dangers of technology run amok, when a lot of the advances I see in fields such as robotics are more optimistic and affirming in reality. A key theme here, as Cooper’s team moves among possible new homes for the human race, is that evil is not found in technology, or even nature – it is found in our flawed human nature.
I did have minor quibbles, but nothing to detract from the film’s overall trajectory or impact. Cooper’s son, Tom (Casey Affleck), was not as developed as he could have been with even a few more lines (or a proper sendoff), but there are some heartfelt moments shown between father and son. The scientist Brand (Anne Hathaway) is notably sterile considering her prime position on the intrepid team of explorers, as well as her eventual fate. However, she delivers a key poetic interlude about the quantifiable nature of love, and the film’s ultimate impact does not depend on the audience fully embracing her character. Hans Zimmer’s wall-of-sound score was slightly overwhelming at times (possibly due to the eardrum-shattering IMAX sound), yet even here there are grace notes. His use of organ music in particular evokes the lofty, grand themes inherent in a story about mankind’s search for a new home among the stars.
‘Interstellar’ is an exciting, thoughtful, and life-affirming epic more akin to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ or ‘Contact’ than ‘2001’. It mixes substantive “science speculation” with a touching human story that I, as a parent, found very powerful and resonant. Perhaps I have neglected to convey how genuinely thrilling the film is – there are sequences on the prospective new worlds that are quite suspenseful, propelled by Nolan’s clever editing of parallel lines of action. I was surprised to find the pacing of this nearly three-hour movie to be so crisp. The film plays neat tricks with time and employs it as an effective device in one particularly thrilling sequence on a world composed primarily of water. ‘Interstellar’ is a film of ambition, ideas and logic, but it also conveys something that I have long believed about the universe – love is a powerful and penetrating cosmic force. How many Hollywood films dare to say something like that these days? None, that’s how many.