Interstellar is a film out of time about a man out of time. It’s set in a future world in which climate change isn’t solved, leading to food shortages, dust storms, and economic collapse. In other words, it’s our world if we don’t get our acts together. It’s gotten so bad, a highly skilled engineer and pilot like Cooper (an earnest Matthew McConaughey) has found those jobs gone, forcing him to take up farming. There amidst the cornfields he, widowed, lives a frustrated life with his kids (Mackenzie Foy and Timothée Chalamet) and his father-in-law (John Lithgow), working the land and watching the skies, lamenting the lack of opportunity not just for himself, but for his children as well. They’re doomed to work the land for a starving planet losing habitable soil by the day. His father-in-law tells him, “You were born forty years too late, or too early.” How strange to hear that said about a future person, wishing himself back in our day.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan is a man out of time as well. His brand of pop seriousness, with the likes of The Dark Knight and Inception, may be in vogue, but his insistence on un-franchised tentpoles and shooting on film (full IMAX and 70mm, no less) make him an outlier. Sure enough, he, along with brother Jonathan who co-wrote, makes Interstellar an old-fashioned science fiction tale. It’s built out of bits and pieces of major sci-fi landmarks past, with the slow build of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the workaday travelers of Alien, the matter-of-fact procedure of Contact, the trippy leaps of 2001. There’s also some Gravity, Apollo 13, and The Right Stuff mixed in. And the opening sequence even has talking heads literally reappropriated from Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl, an odd choice.
The film steadily takes its time, gets its thrills out of the power and excitement of the unknown, and finally leaps beyond its reach into an ending as intuitively satisfying as it is both literal and baffling. Cooper is recruited by one of his old bosses (Michael Caine) to join a secret last-ditch effort to save humanity by looking to the stars. The plan is to travel through a wormhole near Saturn to a distant galaxy perched on the edge of a black hole and scout habitable worlds. Feeling the weight of the doomed Earth dying fast and taking his kids’ futures with it, he agrees to embark on this difficult and potentially indefinite mission. The film, which up until this point is appealing without being gripping, achieves liftoff at the same time the spaceship does.
The scientists (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, and David Gyasi) joining the journey are embarking on exploration meant to resist the prevailing earthbound public sentiment to merely manage decline. No, they’re out to discover a way to save mankind, a standard sci-fi trope here done slowly, seriously, and well. Nolan takes the opportunity to find the absorbing detail of scientific exploration, the majesty of awe as all manner of cosmic phenomena drift by.
Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema makes gorgeous images out of the interplay between the gunmetal grey ship and the gleaming, glittering panoply of stars, nebula, wormholes, and singularities lighting up the night sky. A host of talented artists conjure gorgeously rendered effects as beautiful as anything Douglas Trumbull cooked up for 2001 and The Tree of Life. Hans Zimmer’s score makes use of a pipe organ, making the connection between swirling space and spiritual reverence, the resonances of hope and progress as a light in hopeless darkness, the cosmos a cathedral of wonder and fear. It’s a film that’s reaching, and often thrilling in that reach.
That’s all in line with Nolan’s typical interest in concept over all else. His filmmaking is interested in process and rules, in films that constantly explain their preoccupations with puzzling over magic tricks, rattled memories, and layers of dream spaces. This is narratively his most straightforward film, thrilling to the step-by-step procedures that launch our team of astronauts (plus a Bill Irwin-voiced faceless box of metal robot who gets all the best lines) towards strange new worlds. There they find moments of peril and thriller plotting, including a late-arriving big name put to great use in a twist a lesser actor wouldn’t sell nearly as well.
The screenplay’s construction is clever in its use of the theory of relativity’s stretching space travel time to tell two connected stories on vastly different tracks. First, the tense interstellar mission spanning what feels to the characters like weeks. Second, a decades-spanning story for those left on Earth, like Cooper’s kids who grow up to be Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck, wondering if their father will ever return or if he’s lost in space forever.
This is the film’s animating anxiety, not the potential end of humanity, but a broken family trying to pick up the pieces. They’re separated by time and space, in need of reconciliation and reunion that may never come. That’s the big beating heart at the core of the film, for all its spacey wonder and eventual squishy mumbo jumbo conclusion. The stars are an impressive backdrop, and the tense spaceship maneuvers and equation crunches are gripping outgrowths of, moments as simple as a father weeping while watching his children grow up fast from afar. The people in the film are representations of ideas more than round characters, but the talented cast breathes life into them and the feelings shake through. It’s a testament to the level of craft on display that the film can routinely verbalize every idea, and then feel them, too.
It’s Nolan’s most humane film, building on the metaphors for grief that drove Inception, working towards greater heights of narrative tension as expression of character needs. In the end, these twin, sometimes fumbling, impulses towards scientific and emotional exploration lead the film into a resolution that’s partially an explosion of abstract images, but more often an overly literal explanation that actually doesn’t make much sense. But the journey there is often stirring and exciting, overwhelming and marvelous with powerful images and sensations. I couldn’t help but admire the overreach of the final moments anyway, as it turns sci-fi loops that resolve the story tightly where I might’ve preferred a greater sense of poetic ambiguity. It’s a film of great ambition, a big, uneven, intensely personal vision that sneaks up and overpowers my objections.