Only Christopher Nolan.
Only director Christopher Nolan can make a movie like Interstellar. Only he would try. On the heels of some of the most entertaining, original blockbusters of the last decade, it may be that he is the only person in Hollywood who can even say he has the freedom to try.
As with many (all?) of his other films, I am drained by the experience -- so drained even a day later that I'm struggling with how to begin summing it up. Let's start with the bizarre and mostly effective story pairing that makes up the spine of his film. Interstellar is about both intergalactic exploration and the intimate, deeply personal love shared between a father and daughter. It is truly about both too -- not a space travel flick with a side of family sentimentality or the reverse.
Matthew McCounaghey is the star, a former NASA pilot named Cooper -- "Coop" for short -- who has turned to farming like everyone else on Earth as blight and severe dust storms have conspired to threaten the world's food supply and thus humanity's very existence. NASA, we find out through Coop's daughter Murph, played at the start by Mackenzie Foy, has been entirely discredited -- the moon landings a bit of clever propaganda devised to trick the Soviet Union in to bankrupting itself. Murph, much like her father, is as precocious as she is intelligent. She persists in telling her classmates that the lunar landing was real. At home, she, like many other 10 year olds, believes there is a ghost in her room. Where she differs is in her attempts to translate the books the ghost is knocking off of her shelves in to Morse code.
Coop finds a different meaning in the strange happenings in his daughter’s bedroom, and through it he is drawn to a secret base where the discredited NASA is still operational. Here, he is reunited with Professor Brand, of course played by Michael Caine, his daughter, of course played by Anne Hathaway and the rest of the crew — Wes Bentley as Doyle, David Gyasi as Romily, Bill Irwin voicing a wisecracking, hard-edged, rectangular robot TARS — that will journey with him far away from his home planet in an attempt to save the people living on it. As the Professor reveals, Earth’s ecosystem is in much more dire shape than most of the people left realize. His is not merely a caretaker generation. His daughter’s will likely be the last to survive on the planet. And so NASA has sent 12 astronauts through a wormhole near Saturn and in to another galaxy in search of a planet that can support life.
Coop and company’s mission is essentially to do some reconnaissance — to make a determination on where humanity should ultimately reside and to either signal back to Earth that the water in here is just fine or, should the Professor’s space station not be ready in time to save the humans on Earth, to dump 5,000 fertilized eggs on the surface of a suitable planet and have humanity carry on in that fashion.
It’s at about this point that I should raise my first qualm with Interstellar. What I’ve recounted so far only covers about the first 45 minutes of the film. All of it is critical information. None of it is the usual edge-of-your-seat stuff you come to expect from this director. One of Nolan’s great strengths is his ability to push the viewer on with a sort of relentless energy even as his plots introduce complex (sometimes even inane) concepts. But it must be said that he is also all about his rulesets, and with this film he has chosen an exceedingly complex one over which he can exercise the least amount of control of his entire career: an accurate and supremely rigid adherence to theoretical physics.
Wormholes and black holes and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity are a helluva lot more difficult to explain than the fact that Batman won’t kill his enemies or how you can rob someone by infiltrating their dreams, and it is here that Interstellar paradoxically stumbles and staggers about and also flourishes. It spends a lot of time explaining itself, but somehow those explanations seem to carry more weight and to drag less than they probably should. It still feels inefficient — too burdened by its own constructs — but somehow those flaws manage to feel more forgivable than they otherwise should.
The film does manage to gather considerably more steam once McCounaghey, Hathaway and company are through the wormhole near Saturn and on the trail of the now three planets that may be able to accommodate human life. Not only does the adventure finally arrive in grand fashion — one planet features skyscraper-sized tidal waves, another is a diabolical double of Hoth, the ice planet from The Empire Strikes Back — but so too does human interest. There is an emotional pull that the usually cool, distant Nolan has never been able to claim before.
On the other side of the wormhole is a black hole called Gargantua that, when their spacecraft gets too close, dramatically slows down the passage of time relative to that of Earth. On the enormous-gnarly-tidal-wave planet, an hour is equivalent to seven years. And so this is how you wind up watching McCounaghey receive messages from his now grown son Tom (Casey Affleck) and his bitter, brilliant daughter (now played by Jessica Chastain). And it is how you wind up watching Hathaway learn of her father’s declining health, light year after light year between them. And it is how, for the first time in his entire career, Nolan molds you in to ball of emotion in the middle of one of his usual mind-bending stories. The stakes are high enough — what with the future of humanity at stake — but now we have the slow, sure heartbreak of fathers and daughters to consider too.
Interstellar has a number of major blemishes, and if you choose to focus on those and thus discredit or discard the film, well, I won’t argue. It drags at the beginning, as has been mentioned already. It is so bewildering at the ending (for more detail, check out our upcoming podcast!), that you might need an enormous infographic to make sense of what just happened (it helps, trust me). And yet it also has more than a handful of terrific moments. It has heart and soul, a chewy, surprising, delightful emotional center. It has mind-blowing and true-to-life science, inspired and vetted by a real physicist, Kip Thorne, that ought to make you think at least as much as it confuses you. It has Nolan’s usual pleasing visual aesthetic and effects. It even has a sarcastic robot.
Flaws and all, this is a film that you can’t ignore. It is one that will stick with you — that you will want to mull over with friends and read about endlessly in the days after you see it. It leaves an impression — a mostly positive one — and for that reason I’m quite pleased to have it around.