Man’s ability to dream and desire to explore has long been one of our defining features and what’s helped make our species, for better or worse, the dominant one on Earth, allowing for travel far beyond what was possible only 100 years ago. However, there is an argument to be made – a valid one – that we’ve stopped looking outward to the stars and the possibility of what lies beyond, and are now entirely too focused on the pettiness of looking down. Though it hasn’t much in recent memory, science fiction can show us a better future or at least a desire to create one. Christopher Nolan addresses this, and a whole lot of other things, in his new film Interstellar, a throwback to the space exploration films of the 1960s, now using state-of-the-art special effects and IMAX camera technology. It’s refreshing to see an old-style sci-fi film, however, on a story level, Nolan’s reach may have exceeded his grasp, and probably the audience’s too.
Clearly influenced (almost ridiculously so) by Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar is a lofty idea for a film, focusing on mankind’s final efforts to reach a new habitable planet whilst rapid deforestation, debilitating dust storms, and a dwindling supply of food make continued life on Earth a finite prospect. It’s also the only film I can think of to focus so extensively on the Theory of Relativity as it pertains to time near black holes. It shows us a completely fictionalized, and ultimately schmaltzy, account of what could happen to a person inside a black hole. The science of a lot of it toward the end doesn’t make any sense, or at least none by what we currently know about science, although it tries to explain it all with the Nolan Brothers’ trademark technobabble and potted philosophical nonsense.
The movie follows Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a former NASA test pilot and brilliant engineer (and only McConaughey could be a good enough actor to make us even halfway believe that could be possible) who has since become a farmer, like the rest of the world, once a terrible blight began destroying crop after crop. While his teenage son seems content with their life, and his father-in-law agrees, his ten-year-old daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) thinks like he does and wants to learn more about the universe. She becomes aware of what she calls a ghost in her room, which is knocking things in a specific order off of her bookshelf. She believes it to be Morse code, but Coop thinks that theory is probably just childish nonsense. However, after a dust storm, Coop can’t argue that there is a definite pattern emerging in the room, and he says it’s not a ghost, it’s gravity. Okay.
He determines the gravity to be coordinates and one night he and Murphy drive to them to find the remnants of NORAD, which is now the home of the secretly rebuilt NASA, that just so happens to be run by his old friend Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway). A decade ago, they’ve sent twelve scientists through a wormhole they discovered near Saturn that take them to another galaxy which has twelve conceivably-habitable worlds. While they lost contact with several of them, there are three that are still broadcasting. Coop is recruited, because he is (of course) the best pilot they ever had, to fly the mission to track these new planets and find out which can support human life. Then, they will begin the Earth evacuation process or, failing that, begin life anew with frozen embryos and propagate the species.
A great deal of the movie is spent with Coop worrying about getting back to his kids. The mission to Saturn will take a couple of years and then the wormhole will be who knows how long. There’s also, conveniently, a black hole near a couple of the planets, especially close to one particular planet, which causes time to dilate for the travelers but progress normally for everyone else. Meaning, every hour they stay on the first planet they investigate will cost them 7 Earth years. This naturally leads to time speeding up back on Earth, relatively speaking, and eventually Coop’s children become Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck. But the mission isn’t over yet.
There is certainly a lot to admire about Interstellar, starting with the dazzling cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, who previously shot features like Her, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Let the Right One In. It would be very easy to just CGI the whole movie, but there was a real effort, it seems, to make the space travel elements look more realistic through the use of models, again hearkening back to 2001 and its ilk. The planetscapes are gorgeous to look at and a great deal of attention is spent trying to make them feel real, which largely they do. The performances are also top notch, and a lot of emotional depth is delivered amid the pseudoscience.
Where the movie falters, though, and it’s a fault with a great many Nolan films, is that the script attempts to be too clever by half yet again. Not every movie needs a twist or a mystery to solve. Interstellar would have been incredibly successful if it had told a straightforward story without trying to weave in a preposterous “love conquers all” message and an “of course, it all makes sense now” revelation structure that’s telegraphed from the first frame. Nolan’s films, at least the non-Batman ones, all have a weird twist, yet we give him a pass while we decry M. Night Shyamalan for doing the same thing. Certainly Nolan’s a much better filmmaker, but his reliance on making every story a mystery with an “a-ha” denouement is absolutely his Achilles’ Heel, especially in a movie that’s already pushing 3 hours long and has plenty of moments of awe without it.
It’s never a bad thing to try to emulate the best, and as far as space exploration movies go, 2001: A Space Odyssey is certainly that. But just because Hans Zimmer’s score sounds like “Thus Spake Zarathustra” for long stretches and you put in boxy helper robots (more an allusion to Silent Running than 2001, granted) and you start talking about “them,” or 5th dimensional beings that are helping us for who-knows-why doesn’t make your movie 2001. Interstellar is not unenjoyable and there’s plenty to feast your eyes upon, especially in IMAX, but it fails to deliver the proverbial “good sci-fi movie” that Kubrick set out to make in 1968. For a movie that tries to make us think about traveling outward into the cosmos again, it spends far too much time tied to the Earth and tries to make us think that, apologies for saying so, time is a flat circle and has too much interest in its own cyclical cleverness to truly be about the wonderment of the beyond.