In many ways, Interstellar feels like the film Christopher Nolan was born to make. I’m not sure if he’d agree with that assessment himself, but everything about the film screams a labour of love. It’s a space odyssey, it’s a human drama, it’s all the pathos and love and hope and glory of humanity squeezed into just short of three hours. It’s laden with intense introspection and sci-fi spectacle tempered by a focus on the humanity at the heart of it all. It defies expectation and breaks convention at every turn and takes cues from the sci-fi greats like Kubrick’s 2001, Zemeckis’ Contact, and even the recent and incredible Gravity by Cuaron.
Interstellar stars the always affable Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a former NASA test pilot and engineer turned farmer. The film is set on an earth a few generations from now where dust storms ravage most of the planet and food struggles to grow, save for masses of corn. Cooper stumbles upon a secret mission to send humanity to other planets through a wormhole supposedly left just outside Jupiter’s orbit by a benefactor extra-terrestrial species to save humanity. While most of humanity seems content to remain on earth and toil in the dying soil, Cooper seems to know that we are meant for more.
The science all checks out, supervised by super genius physicist Kip Thorne. The wormhole that leads to another galaxy, and the monstrous black hole of Gargantua with its endless abyss of crushing gravity, it’s all possible. Though when you watch it unfold on the big screen, the experience of the stars bending around the black hole and the spherical wormhole tearing the fabric of reality asunder are sights to behold that will nullify all questions of science in an instant and make you feel very, very small.
In hands less able than Nolan’s, there would be a danger of spectacle overshadowing humanity, of the void of space snuffing the spark of exploration and survival that keeps us all moving forward, but the film is perfectly paced. There are moments that will reduce you to floods of tears, especially if you’re a parent. McConaughey carries the humanity of Interstellar on his weary shoulders and has excellent chemistry with scientist Brand (Anne Hathaway) and thankfully they don’t take the easy route with this relationship. The two are constantly at odds with one another, and tough decisions of survival, of the selfish against the selfless, rise again and again.
When Interstellar began life back in 2006, Spielberg was at the helm, and his hand is felt keenly throughout. Cooper leaves his children behind for the mission with a promise that turns into a lie, and if you’re unfamiliar with relativity you might be too busy scratching your head to receive the appropriate level of heart string tugging, but Cooper’s relationship with his 10 year old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is in many ways the beating heart behind all the science. Murph’s hurt at being left behind by her father is bitter and palpable, and Spielberg’s motif of the lost and abandoned child repeats here. Murph’s stubbornness matches her father’s, and it provides a moment midway in the film that will make you weep bitter tears.
The science is explained well through narrative handholding that manages to avoid veering too far into exposition, though a segment explaining the folding of space by folding a piece of paper feels like a cliché that’s been done to death. One of the surprising achievements of Nolan’s space epic is that you leave the film with a real desire to learn more about the science behind it all. It’ll make you want to swallow everything you can find about black holes, relativity, time and space, and the vast sea of stars all around our tiny planet. The humanity in the film anchors it, stopping the spectacles feeling just like that and nothing more. You’ll want to weep at the beautiful brutality of the planets through the wormhole, but Cooper’s relationship with Murph and the denouement of the film will make the tears flow freely.
It seems strange that Nolan’s name has become synonymous with realism, but his two big hitters besides The Dark Knight trilogy have been Inception and Interstellar, two films that somehow feel like flights of fancy, two films that are layered like onions and need (and deserve) to be digested slowly. While Inception deals with dreams and the impossible, Interstellar is very much concerned with the real, with the possible future of humanity, and if nothing else, it’s worth seeing for that alone. It’s worth seeing to try and recapture that thirst for adventure and exploration, that desire for humanity to survive and grow. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) the genius behind the whole mission comments at one point that every bolt on the spaceship could have been a bullet instead. Maybe it’s worth us considering the opposite.