The Earth is going to die. That’s the stance at the start of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and it’s made very clear from the film’s first moments. There’s no more time for rationalizations about the Earth being an infinite source, no more debate about the hazards of global warming, no more hand-wringing about how we might reverse the planet’s progressing deterioration over time. Earth is dying, and at a point in time quantifiable in mere decades, it will be dead, a dust bowl completely uninhabitable for human beings. Already it’s deteriorating; Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) knows it, ruefully observing that “this planet is a treasure, and she’s been telling us to leave for a while now.”
Interstellar is the fullest realization to date of Nolan’s grand intentions for the future of cinema. From the lush 70mm/IMAX photography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) to the film’s narrative ambitions, which are no less than an inquiry into the deepest recesses of space and the human condition, the places man has never yet been in both respects, Interstellar is a grand gesture in every way. And yet, it’s Nolan’s most humane film to date. For the criticisms levied against the director as being cerebral far more than heartfelt or earnest, here he verges on Steven Spielberg territory in his fusion of an operatic endeavor into space with the story of a family trying to stay together across galaxies and time.
Cooper is a man abandoned by the new age, a former NASA engineer who was rendered obsolete by changing circumstances and the culture of desperation surrounding Earth’s burgeoning food shortage. First the wheat died, then the okra, and Cooper knows that he only has at most a couple years left with the massive fields of corn that surround his rural home. Interstellar starts well after the rubicon has been crossed, long enough after that most of the characters old enough to remember the modern world just laugh ruefully about it. Cooper, in his own way, is as obsolete as the planet. Also much like it, he feels doomed to be left behind, simply hoping that he can provide for his children for as long as possible.
His daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) needs more than providing for, though. In the constant layers of dust that fill their home, Murph starts finding patterns, which lead her and Cooper to an underground NASA lab, where Brand (Anne Hathaway) and her father (Michael Caine), the latter a former professor of Cooper’s, offer him an opportunity to save not just Murph and his son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), but the entire human race. To speak any further on Interstellar’s many narrative twists would be to spoil much of the pleasure of its tentative endeavors into the unknown, and to counter Nolan’s clear intent entirely. Whether that’s the audience’s responsibility is a more complex question, but it can’t be denied that Nolan’s notorious shrouds of secrecy around each of his films make for a viewing experience like few others today.
That’s especially true of Interstellar, because the film only truly begins when the small craft carrying Cooper, Brand, Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi), along with a pair of borderline-sentient robots named TARS and CASE, reaches the outer rings of Saturn. And from there the film probes deeper, both into outer space and into the frail psyches of its crew. While the film mercifully keeps the space madness to a minimum, it understands the terror of the crew’s mission. There’s the ideal plan A of saving everybody on Earth, but due to eventual complications related to both that plan and to the theory of relativity, there’s also a plan B on board, and plan B comes with far, far graver implications for the crew’s lonely mission.
Interstellar is likely to polarize those who’ve already liked or disliked Nolan’s work. Similar to most of his films, there’s tension between the over-expository nature of the dialogue (penned by Nolan and his brother Jonathan) and the grandiose scope of the film. Nolan has a knack for comfortably situating audiences in the universes he creates, but it takes a surprisingly long time here, and if it’s not wholly to the film’s detriment, there’s still a certain degree of unintentional comedy inherent in nearly every character being introduced with a series of lines that “organically” set up what they do, why they’re in the movie, and where they’re probably going to end up.
But much like Ellen Page’s character in Inception, Nolan places these proxies in the film in order to get audiences to the good stuff. And while the brothers Nolan call on nearly every character to shoulder some of the talky load at one point or another, there are also enough moments of genuine, earned sentiment to make the film an emphatic overall success. McConaughey and Hathaway both find the soul of Nolan’s vision, which is to say a story of families torn apart by that very vision, and ultimately another story of humans trying to retain what intrinsically makes them human in the parts of space where the species was probably never meant to go. He mourns for his family, she fixates on the idea that a notion as simple and human as love could potentially transcend time and space, and they both give moving, rich performances in a film that doesn’t exactly offer them on paper.
That’s really the litmus test for Interstellar. Nolan wants viewers to set aside their preconceived notions of the space epic, and far more importantly, their cynicism about what a movie should do. It’s a loud, often breathtaking endeavor in every sense, thanks in no small part to Hans Zimmer’s organ-heavy score, and a film that aims squarely for the fences in every imaginable way. Interstellar believes, without a trace of irony or disaffection, that mankind was never meant to die on Earth, and that there are new frontiers, new corners of the darkness still unexplored and ready to be conquered by the brave and the intrepid. It’s idealistic in the broadest senses, a film that still marvels at the mysteries of the universe when so many films are devoted to the pursuit of blowing it up.
It’s also a deeply personal film, in both feeling and execution. It’s not particularly hard to draw parallels between Cooper’s disdain for a desperate, survivalist world’s lack of imagination and Nolan’s slavish devotion to preserving the traditional cinematic experience, from idea to technical approach to the IMAX theaters that’re showing the film days early for a Nolan-cosigned optimal experience. Interstellar offers a return to the old model of filmmaking, to George Melies’ early notions of film as a vessel for the manufacturing of dreams. It isn’t always a perfect film by any measure, but it’s that pursuit of an elusive, possibly dying ideal that sustains it.