Silver Screen: Interstellar ****
In Interstellar, writer/director Christopher Nolan sets out to destroy the world, save the human race, peer into a black hole to glimpse the secrets of the universe, and reveal the next evolution of mankind. Say what you will, he doesn’t lack for ambition.
Nolan certainly has the technical mastery to accommodate a grandiose vision. He’s intermittently capable at choreographing an action sequence— the same guy who staged a limb-twisting zero-gravity brawl inside a hotel hallway in Inception is also responsible for the stiff, oddly static fight scenes in his Batma’ trilogy— but he has a knack for breathtaking images and elaborate setpieces. As a filmmaker, Nolan is an odd combination of Rube Goldberg and Swiss watchmaker. His greatest challenge has been to imbue that machinery with a soul and ground his stories in recognizable human behavior. In that sense, Interstellar is a tidy microcosm of his entire career. But even if the movie doesn’t entirely work, it’s sure easy to admire the effort.
The world is ending. You know the world is ending because this is an American movie circa 2014, where all movies must first choose their preferred apocalypse. In this case, it’s the slow, boring, science-y kind. Atmospheric changes are causing a sharp rise in nitrogen levels and a gradual decrease of oxygen, while an unspecified blight has killed every crop save for corn. The lack of vegetation leads to massive dust storms that coat everything in ghostly powder. A previous and even more unspecified war has led to a destabilization of the American government and the collapse of the technosphere.
The result of all these momentous changes is a small-town Heartland setting that looks pretty identical to the world we’re familiar with, plus a little extra dust. Here widower and former test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) lives with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and two children, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and the precocious Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). He grows corn but dreams of the sky, so when a series of seemingly supernatural phenomena point him toward a secret government outpost, he barges in without a second thought.
Cooper has stumbled on the last vestige of NASA, which the American government— which we’ve just been told has collapsed, but whatever— has secretly funded to the tune of several billion dollars in an attempt to find a way out of what seems like humanity’s last great predicament. A wormhole has opened up in space near Saturn, where it serves as a conduit to another galaxy filled with potentially habitable planets. Head NASA scientist Professor Brand (Michael Caine) believes the wormhole was intentionally placed there by intelligent beings trying to lead us to a safe haven. He oversaw the first mission, in which twelve astronauts set out in individual spacecraft to send recon back from a dozen planets that could possibly sustain life. Of the initial twelve, three sent back positive data, although disturbances created by the wormhole— also a handy plot device— distort the communication. Brand asks Cooper to serve as a pilot on a last-gasp mission into the wormhole to visit the three planets and see if one of them can serve as a replacement for the dying Earth.
Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne served as an executive producer and technical adviser on the movie. As to whether the science of Interstellar makes any sense, feel free to ask Kip Thorne when you see him. Mostly it doesn’t matter, because Nolan is more interested in using the setup as a launching point for an episodic space adventure and a testament to the endurance of the human spirit.
But this is Nolan’s world, so the elaborate mechanics of the plot contort even a traditional power-of-love storyline. Time being relative, especially nearer to the black hole at the center of the new galaxy, Cooper and his crew (David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, and Anne Hathaway as Professor Brand’s brainy daughter) age at a different rate than their counterparts back on terra firma. The acceleration of time for the astronauts heightens the tension, as it means that not only must they move quickly lest the atmosphere turn toxic before they find a solution, but also that even if Cooper makes it back home his children may have died of old age. This bent timeline allows for an adult Murphy (played by Jessica Chastain) to work with Professor Brand to help her dad navigate through the mission and solve the riddle of the equation that could unlock the science necessary to save the Earth.
Interstellar is Nolan’s most humane movie, which makes it both superior and more confounding. The characters spend half their time spouting expository dialogue to help guide the audience through the labyrinthine plot, yet ultimately that plot exists mostly to underscore the power of love and human connection— two elements that become obscured by the techno-babble and fussily intricate narrative. Hathaway’s character, for instance, is driven by her desire to travel to one of the new planets discovered by her boyfriend, yet this love that compels her remains entirely abstract if we never see said boyfriend or know anything about him. Thus, it becomes more about the concept of love rather than anything we might recognize as love. It’s difficult to feel a deep connection to characters who don’t speak or act in ways that are at all relatable, and it’s telling that the movie’s warmest character, the only one capable of making a joke, is a robot named TARS (nicely voiced by Bill Irwin).
Nolan’s movies invite you to pick them apart because so often they seem calculated to impress with their intricacy. That’s why it’s equally easy to be dazzled by their brilliance or annoyed by tiny implausibilities. The biggest culprit here is the arbitrary availability of technology. Cooper’s new America is posited early on as a kind of regressed agrarian society, something like one of James Howard Kunstler’s luddite fantasies of a world made by hand. Yet when it’s more convenient the movie introduces flawlessly functioning technology of the highest order, funded by a government that doesn’t exist and kept a secret for reasons that remain vague at best. Paired with the frequently unrecognizable behavior of the people who populate the narrative, these inconsistencies create a strange undertone of incomprehensibility to a movie otherwise struggling so valiantly to convince you of its reality.
Still, if you can ignore that dissonance, Interstellar has much to offer. Nolan’s extravagant vistas of space are gorgeous, and his renderings of currently unknowable physical phenomena— what does it look like traveling through a wormhole, or on the inside of a black hole?— are awe-inspiring and demand viewing on the biggest screen available. He borrows a lot from other chilly, far more cerebral sci-fi epics, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, but he borrows well and puts his stamp on the material. Nolan is striving to make a movie big enough to encompass almost literally everything, yet never lose sight of the individual. His inability to be one-hundred percent successful at this absurdly lofty proposition doesn’t mean the attempt isn’t a beautiful thing to witness.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.