Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Cane, Jessica Chastain, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Mackenzie Foy, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace
Director: Christopher Nolan
Running Time: 2 hours 49 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Can a film be hokey, episodic, and given to long stretches of clunky dialogue where characters literally explain the plot, and despite such things, or perhaps because of them, also be a thrilling cinematic experience? In the case of Christopher Nolan's sprawling science fiction epic Interstellar, the answer is a resounding yes. For here's a picture many will criticize for fusing sentimentality with science, melodrama with quantum physics, galactic spectacle with earthbound concerns, but what the naysayers have failed to realize is that Nolan has fashioned something closer to an Arthur C. Clarke-influenced throwback than some factually-based work of speculative fiction. Additionally, discussions surrounding the believability of the scientific theories Nolan uses as narrative plot points in his script (co-written with his brother Jonathan), are warranted, but altogether misleading. Even if Interstellar was approved by NASA scientists themselves, the heart of the film has nothing to do with such threads, but rather the simple bond of a father and daughter separated by time and space. In this way, Nolan has fashioned a hugely ambitious, Steven Spielberg-esque take on the emotionally resonant blockbuster; something that packs in not only broad character strokes and tone-deaf expository dialogue, but also awe-inspiring visuals and a stirring emotional core that raises it above the mere level of empty escapism.
Truthfully, even though the film posits a future world ravaged by overpopulation, dust storms destroying crops, and nitrogen levels rising to the point where asphyxiation is an immediate global danger, it's primary concern is more on the human level than dystopian world-building. Nolan opens his film somewhere in the vast farmlands of America, centering on corn farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who lives with his father (John Lithgow), young son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). The film wisely refuses opening title cards or flashbacks intended to make sense of the dystopian landscape. Instead, there are small details; such as flying drones and ravaging dust storms, that give us clues as to what happened on Earth. During these early moments, Nolan focuses mainly on the relationship between Cooper and Murph; a significant bond that will pay off in grand fashion later, while at the same time doling out earnestly corny dialogue that will have the more analytical rolling their eyes and snickering in disbelief. Lines like "We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, and now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt", delivered in that deliberate McConaughey drawl is indicative of the kind of mawkishness Interstellar dabbles in, but what makes it all work is Nolan's open-hearted sincerity. This is a film that feels like the most expensive, dizzyingly crafted Twilight Zone episode ever made, filtered through the clinical thoughtfulness of Nolan and the emotional directness of Spielberg. In a sense, those bitching about the film's inherent ridiculousness, muddled character motivations, and maudlin excesses certainly have a point, but in highlighting these traits, they've also missed the most important point of all; mainly, that Interstellar is an example of pure cinema where the sheer visual and aural spectacle is so all-encompassing and the emotional fallout so viscerally conveyed, that the film's veritable flaws, and there are many, seem minuscule by comparison.
After the initial earthbound setup, with former pilot Copper and Murph unwittingly stumbling upon a hidden NASA compound, the bulk of the second act revolves around Cooper taking a small crew inside a spaceship to another galaxy through a wormhole near Saturn in hopes of finding a sustainable planet. Put together by an aging professor (Michael Cane, intoning various excerpts from Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night") and joined by the likes of scientists Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi), the mission only has enough resources and fuel for one flight. There's also a Plan B, though, which involves finding a planet for habitation without ever returning to Earth, thus essentially giving up hope on the living back home. This is where Interstellar soars, with Nolan cleverly playing with the relativity of time; (several decades will pass on Earth while the crew is away on their mission), giving way to a fatalistic second half that manages to squeeze in geek-ready scientific babble, humanist metaphysics, and breathtaking cosmic set-pieces.
Once Cooper and company are adrift in space, Nolan not only stages dialogue-heavy scenes in which the crew members passionately discuss gravity, relativity, black hole theories, and in one literal-minded moment, how a wormhole works by sticking a pen through a piece of folded paper, ala Event Horizon, but also gripping action set-pieces untethered to normal rules. There's a gigantic tidal wave on a time-deprived planet, a tensely dangerous attempt at docking on a spaceship decimated by an explosion, and the uncovering of a scientist left for dead on an icy planet that makes way for some old-fashioned swashbuckling-style action beats. In between all of the space bombast; (Hans Zimmer's score, a combination of ascending organ and ear-shattering swells, is often so loud it drowns out dialogue), Nolan allows for emotionally wrenching moments in which Cooper and Amelia receive messages from home. The scene where Cooper sees his now adult daughter (played by Jessica Chastain) is heartbreaking, with McConaughey delivering a flurry of gasping tears that might seem manipulative on the surface, but is played with such genuine conviction that it's nearly impossible not to be moved. Nolan's obsession with space and time, (Memento, The Prestige, and Inception all dabble in such tropes), are also smartly weaved into how the plot works here, so much so that when things get overly mushy, it never feels like the film is grinding it's gears just for the sake of optimistic uplift. In fact, things are more often driven by an impending atmosphere of dread rather than sentiment.
Interstellar is a 165-min colossus of invigorating science, awe-inspiring outer space visuals, and emotionally direct humanizing that does, for better or worse (many will say worse) descend into sci-fi silliness by the montage-ridden third act. There's a lot going on during the final reel; Chastain running around solving theorems, Casey Affleck looking unshaven and disgruntled as Cooper's grown-up son, an inexplicable appearance by Topher Grace as some kind of research assistant/doctor, but Nolan banks on shock and awe to carry the day here. Though Interstellar at times conjures Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (poetic visions of space) by way of Robert Zemeckis' humanist sci-fi picture Contact (a daughter separated from her father), by the end there's a little bit of M.Night Shyamalan at play here, with heavy doses of Twilight Zone-inspired metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. The fact that it works at all is due to Nolan's supreme confidence in inspiring wonder, and also because the ending makes emotional sense, even if it doesn't make exact logical sense. Nolan's greatest strength and the main reason Interstellar is such a majestically thrilling piece of ambitious filmmaking, with it's 70 millimeter Imax cameras giving everything a wide-canvas sense of epicness, is the fact that he believes in the power of the human spirit. Even more than technological advancement (there's some nifty robot design here), or dialogue that often plays like an astronomy Ted Talks seminar, Nolan wants us to embrace love and compassion as the very thing that makes space travel possible. Interstellar is both unrelentingly bombastic and elegantly graceful, a film that swings for the fences visually, but also remains grounded in simple human emotions. For all it's grand philosophizing about morality and theoretical physics, this is an intimate story about a father and daughter separated by the cosmos, a tale that often reaches into the infinity of space time, but remains especially focused on our need to feel significant and loved in a universe consistently outside our finite grasp. It is, in it's own special way, an epic about human connectedness and the boundless possibilities we have as a species to forge a path outside clearly defined lines, and for that alone it should be celebrated.