Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” is a film which demands to be seen on the biggest screen nearest you. Like “Gravity,” seeing at home on television will not have the same effect as seeing it in a darkened theater, and that’s even if certain people around you forget to turn off their cell phones (doesn’t anyone ever learn?). Whether or not you think “Interstellar” is Nolan’s best film, you can certainly say it is his riskiest and most ambitious to date as he combines elements from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” Phillip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff,” and even Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact” to make a most enthralling space adventure for us to experience.
“Interstellar” takes place in a not too distant future when Earth is unable to sustain humanity as crops are constantly ravaged by blight, dust storms keep laying waste to towns everywhere, and teachers have changed school textbooks to make children believe the Apollo moon landings were faked (blasphemy). In the middle of all this is farmer, widower, and retired astronaut Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who spends his days tending to his farm and raising his son and daughter with the help of his father-in-law Donald (the always dependable John Lithgow). Cooper keeps going about his business but still takes the time to indulge his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) in her curiosities about outer space and the ghost she believes is haunting her bedroom.
One of those curiosities ends up leading Cooper and Murph to a secret NASA space installation out in the middle of nowhere where they meet Professor Brand (Sir Michael Caine) who informs them humanity will not survive for much longer. However, scientists have discovered a wormhole orbiting Saturn, and this presents the possibility of new planets for humans to inhabit. Cooper volunteers to pilot the experimental space shuttle Endurance into the wormhole, and he is joined by a crew of three as well as a couple of multi-purpose robots on a mission which will take several years to complete. But the mission also means Cooper must leave his family behind, and this ultimately devastates Murph who begs him not to go. Cooper promises Murph he will return once the mission is complete, but this may be a promise he might not be able to keep.
I don’t want to reveal much else of what happens in “Interstellar” as it is full of surprises, and it helps to come into this movie free of expectations and knowing only so much about it. We all love his “Dark Knight” films and have been following his work ever since he made his breakthrough with “Memento,” but this is really Nolan at his most emotionally open and, dare I say, sentimental. Almost nothing he has made previously compares to what he has given us here.
The movie does take a while to achieve liftoff (pun intended), and I know many have complained about the “sluggish” pacing in the first half. The way I see it, I admired how Nolan took his time with the story as many other filmmakers would have been pushing to get into outer space a lot sooner. These days we are in such a hurry to get everywhere and nowhere, and cable channels like IFC are content to speed through the end credits of a movie as if none of the hundreds of crew members who worked on it ever mattered. It’s nice we get to know these characters to where they have enough depth which makes us want to follow them on their journey to where no one has gone before.
I also liked how “Interstellar” deals with real science and doesn’t go out of its way to heedlessly disregard the laws of physics and gravity. Granted, there’s a lot of technobabble dialogue here which is at times hard to decipher and makes certain scenes a little confusing, but considering how much work Nolan and his fellow collaborators (which includes noted theoretical physicist Kip Thorne) put into researching space travel, this movie does have the feeling of plausibility throughout. We still may be years away from the kind of space travel presented here, but Nolan and company make you believe it will become a reality at some point.
Along with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan captures some exceptionally beautiful images as Cooper and company seek out new life and new civilizations. Some of the shots are bound to remind viewers of “2001,” and Kubrick’s classic film is certainly a huge influence on the story. Still, Nolan takes us on a journey which feels surprisingly unique to others captured on celluloid recently and previously.
At this point, it should go without saying that McConaughey is on a roll. When he first made his breakthrough in “A Time to Kill,” many were heralding him as the next Paul Newman when they should have just let him be Matthew McConaughey. This led him to star in a number of dopey romantic comedies which were far beneath him and his fellow co-stars, and many quickly lost faith in him. However, the last few years have seen him turn in one remarkable performance after another in “Mud” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” His work in “Interstellar” is remarkable and heart wrenching as he watches videos of his children who are growing up without him, and he grieves over the things he has missed out on.
Anne Hathaway, who previously worked with Nolan on “The Dark Knight Rises,” turns in a strong performance as Amelia (as in Earhart?) Brand, an astronaut and scientist whose heart threatens to get in the way of her duties as a scientist when hard choices have to be made. David Gyasi is also very good as physicist Romilly, and time proves to be a real burden for him throughout the movie. As for Wes Bentley who plays geographer Doyle, he is underutilized here as he has little to do other than spout off a lot of technobabble, and his character never gets much in the way of development.
But one of the best performances to be found in “Interstellar” comes from Jessica Chastain who plays the older version of Murph. Still resentful of her father for leaving, she channels her anger into her own work with NASA as she works with Professor Brand to bring him back. Even as the film threatens to be a little ridiculous with answers that may have been better left to the imagination, Chastain keeps you hooked into her character’s quiet desperation to find her father and save the world to where you are begging for these two to reunite sooner than later.
Another collaborator of Nolan’s who really challenges himself here is composer Hans Zimmer who has given us some of the most exciting music scores in the last few years. With “Interstellar,” Zimmer abandons the usual thrilling bombast of “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” for something more spiritual and Phillip Glass-sounding. His music acts as a requiem for the wonders and perils of voyaging through space and of the solitude humans are forced to endure when stuck in another galaxy. You can usually notice the Zimmer sound in each film score he does, but his work here sounds so remarkably different from what he has done in the past.
This movie does have its flaws, and there are moments towards the end which strain credibility to where things threaten to become laughable, but its strengths eventually overcome its weaknesses by a large measure. Just when it looks like the plot will go off the rails in an M. Night Shyamalan way, it doesn’t, and it speaks to how deeply Nolan feels about the story and what it implies.
In the end, “Interstellar” is not another science fiction movie about astronauts looking for little green men (it would have been a disaster if it did). It’s about the power of love and how it can transcend both time and space no matter where you are. Regardless of the laws of physics and gravity, love carries on from one galaxy to the next and can never be easily conquered. I came out of this movie happy to know that, even in the deep, dark and silent void of outer space, love can remain constant.
For the record, I saw “Interstellar” at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in IMAX 70mm. I am more than convinced this is the best way to see it, and it also represents one of the last chances for all of us to see a movie projected on film. I’m sure it looks great in digital, but film still works best for Nolan.