The Earth is in bad shape, and mankind is on the fast track to follow okra and obesity into extinction. A devastating blight has swept the planet, killing off plants and crops and making way for epic dust storms (haboobs to anyone who’s spent time in the Sudan or Arizona) that leave the small communities that remain in constant struggle for food, good health and cleanliness. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer growing the only viable crop left, corn, but his heart is in the skies above. A NASA test pilot before nature and societal pressures grounded him – this is a time/place where textbooks teach that the Apollo moon landing was a hoax – he now settles for the more earthly life along with his two children and father-in-law.
But someone, or something, wants him to reach for the skies once again, and they’re communicating through his daughter Murph’s (Mackenzie Foy as a child, Jessica Chastain as an adult) bedroom bookshelf. He’s soon forced to choose between the draw of his family and that of the unknown, and with the fate of humanity at stake he’s compelled to choose the latter. Along with a few other astronauts he sets out for a wormhole that promises to hold the key to the continued existence of our species.
Interstellar is in many ways as ambitious and messy a film as the sci-fi adventure it’s portraying, and its themes, visuals and pockets of bald emotion are guaranteed to appeal to fans of director Christopher Nolan’s (who also co-wrote with his brother Jonathan Nolan) previous films. It walks his usual line between science and heart, hope and cynicism – that’s not a knock – and delivers an experience well worth a trip to the theater, but it’s also a disappointing series of diminishing returns. As the ideas and images grow in scale to epic proportions across its nearly three hour running time their actual effect becomes less and less satisfying.
“Science is about admitting what we don’t know,” Murph tells his daughter early on when she tells him there’s a ghost in her room, and in that regard Interstellar is a very scientific movie. Of course it also gets into specific details about space travel, black holes, relativity and more, but the film drops viewers into a world filled with knowledge gaps destined to remain unknown – are scientists not fighting the blight? why don’t MRI machines work? is Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” the only poem left in existence? This is by design as what remains of humanity has decided their survival necessitates accepting only what we can feel between our fingers – “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” – instead of imagining what we can accomplish with our minds. (It’s no accident the strange, intergalactic messages emanate from a bookshelf.) But while niggling plot details can be imagined by viewers, there’s an unavoidable disappointment when major events are kept entirely off screen.
It’s for this reason and others that the film’s first half is its greatest accomplishment (even though the second will be the most memorable and discussed). Nolan doesn’t do “small” anymore, but the first act finds great power in the simple relationships between Cooper and his family. His interactions with Murph especially show a bond that, while important later on, finds its greatest weight here as a father and his daughter discuss expectations and ambitions in a world on the brink. America is now a giant dust bowl, and the dirt and debris is given tangible heft to the point that we feel it in our eyes and on our skin. It’s a world mostly resigned to this fate, but Cooper and Murph stand alone from the rest – at least until Basil Exposition (Michael Caine) and his scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) arrive to whisk Cooper away.
From that point forward we’re treated to grand ideas and visuals to match alongside nods both subtle and boldfaced to other “big idea” science fiction films of the past. Nolan’s head is in line with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey while his heart is in sync with James Cameron’s The Abyss, but those elements remain as distinct and disparate as the filmmakers who birthed them. That doesn’t stop Nolan from trying to mix them though, at least for a while, before finally choosing a side.
Credit for the big emotional beats though rests more with the cast than it does with Nolan-squared’s script as certain elements and events are glossed over – surely not for time as again, the movie’s nearly three hours long – before jumping to what should be a poignant revelation or reunion. The build-up is frequently absent leaving us only the resulting moment, but what the film fails to prepare us for the actors create seemingly out of thin air. Everyone here does strong work – helped in part by every character’s need to apologize, tearfully, in the hope of earning a second chance from others – but McConaughey stands out throughout. He captures both the earthly feel of a man working the land as easily as he does a man who dreams for and achieves more heavenly goals. His most affecting moments are opposite a lo-fi TV screen, and that’s a telling detail in a world filled with grand and grandiose imagery.
Just as it never bores the eyes, the film also never droops our attention. Far from an action film, the movie finds time for a handful of sequences that eschew dialogue (but not Hans Zimmer’s attention-grabbing score) for momentum and suspense, and they work beautifully. A dangerous docking attempt feels at first reminiscent of Gravity but quickly finds its own rhythm and identity as the stakes and the fallout become clear, and other planetary surface escapades are equally fraught with tension and excitement. While these sequences are relatively sparse across the film it still manages to never be dull. We eventually grow to care less, but we never stop caring enough.
Interstellar loses its way and its grasp on our desire for logic and answers, but it still delivers an experience so often missing from today’s movies. This is big, occasionally bold filmmaking designed to shake us in our seats (quite literally in an IMAX theater), and while the questions you’ll be asking as you exit the theater will be more nitpick-oriented the ideas about love, destiny and the drive for survival will stay with you far longer. Scientifically-speaking, of course.
The Upside: A sensory thrill ride; doesn’t spoon-feed viewers; Matthew McConaughey gives strong, mostly internalized performance; impressive visuals; thought-provoking ideas; robot personalities
The Downside: Third act loses itself in explanation; some idiocy; final minutes
On the Side: The film was originally set to be directed by Steven Spielberg who had hired Jonathan Nolan to write the script back in 2006.