I sometimes think we live in the strangest of times. In our hands, we carry cellphones that have the ability to connect us to any corner of the world. We have landed robots on other planets, moons and even comets. Our telescopes have peeled back the layers of darkness to show us many of the secrets of the universe. And yet, we are also quite capable of dismissing our ability to destroy our ecosystems here on Earth. We’ve left tons of junk floating in orbit after just a few decades of space flight. And never forget that many seem to think that scientific and technological advances are supposed to just happen without cost, struggle, pain or sacrifice.
Interstellar deals with these conflicting ideals at the heart of its fable. It’s a story that tries to paint with both the biggest of canvases and the most personal of stories. It’s a movie about the power that fathers have on their daughters and the effects of relativity in travelling through the stars. A movie about reaching for the stars while languishing in the dirt. It’s more and less than the sum of its ideas and parts.
In the near future, humankind is fighting a losing battle against Mother Nature as a disease is destroying plant life and leading to massive dust storms. Former pilot-engineer-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McCounaghey) lives in the Midwest with his old father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), teenage son Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and precocious daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). Cooper still yearns for his old pilot life, but the world he inhabits needs him to grow crops. While Tom is comfortable going with the flow and yearns of being a farmer like his father, it is Murphy who questions what she sees. She challenges the world around her and takes more after the grounded NASA pilot her father once was.
Strange phenomena in Murphy’s room eventually lead her and her father to a hidden base where they find the remnants of NASA led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine). Cooper’s arrival appears fortuitous to Brand as he’s about to launch the key mission in the Lazarus program: 3 scientists (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) are headed for a spot beyond Saturn where a wormhole formed years before. NASA has already sent probes and one-man missions through the wormhole and found a system of planets orbiting a black hole. Three of those planets appear to have enough of the materials needed to sustain life – oxygen, water, organic material – to make life for humanity there a possibility.
The catch for Cooper is that, due to the distances and the speed he will have to travel, there’s a good chance his children will grow up without him. Tom is old enough to understand, but Murphy feels distraught and abandoned by the father she idolizes. Cooper has every reason to try and rush through the mission and return home alive. But given the stakes of the mission and the dangers they will face, there is no guarantee that he will make it home alive. And if they fail, humanity might well follow.
Ever since movies first began, we’ve tried to depict the grandness, wonder and dangers of space travel. From bullet ships shot out of a cannon to faster-than-light hyperdrives to warp speed, we’ve been trying to depict the various ways to traverse the cosmos in our lifetimes. The distances between planets are immense. The ones between star systems even more so. But distances are just one of the dangers that humans have to face when dealing with space travel. Interstellar tries to depict them while combining a race-against-time element to save the human species stuck on Earth. And in this aspect, the movie works well.
Working with astrophysicist/executive producer Kip Thorne, the special effects teams from Double Negative manage to create the system around Gargantua, the supermassive black hole, and give it a sense of otherworldliness. The ship the crew inhabit, the Endurance, feels real and a logical step in NASA engineering. The robots that accompany the crew, TARS and CASE (voiced respectively by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart), feel, if not realistic, then plausible. And the robots add a sense of the futuristic to proceedings. Everything the movie does is set to make you feel like it’s taking place in a future that could be ours if we’re not cautious.
I highlight the work of Double Negative because they manage to give Interstellar its sheen and sense of wonder. The crew’s travels through the wormhole are moments of sheer excitement. Later sequences in the various planets around Gargantua are thrilling and scary. They come face to face with the various dangers that explorers facing the unknown must battle: the natural environments, the time dilation, the stresses on human psyche and obviously the irresistible desire to survive in spite of the foolish dangers it can bring upon both a person and the mission.
At the core of the movie is the relationship between Cooper and Murphy, father and daughter cut out of the same inquisitive, daring cloth. McConaughey does his normal good work as Cooper, the man who dreams of life beyond the dirt he farms and the pilot who risks life and limb to save his family by finding them a new home amongst the stars. It’s a role that doesn’t require much of him for stretches of time, but he manages to infuse it with his normal charm. As for Murphy, her role is split evenly between young Mackenzie Foy at age 10 and Jessica Chastain in her late 30s. As young Murph, Foy does a decent job of bonding with her father and showing the inquisitive side that’ll propel her to a job with NASA. As adult Murphy, Chastain is tasked with being the one to solve all the equations. It’s a role that, at times, can be grating and thankless due to the situation on Earth at the time. Chastain does her best with it.
Things are even less rosy where it comes to the other characters. Look, being an admitted nerd, I know that nerds can be difficult to portray on screen. People who are really intelligent but socially difficult can be tough to get right without falling into cliché. And the cast that Interstellar has is impressive. Hathaway and Caine – Nolan regulars – represent the other major father-daughter relationship. One leads NASA in their mission to save humanity and the other is a biologist tasked with preserving humanity, even at the cost of the human race on planet Earth. But for a few moments of tears, both Brands are all business in regards to their mission.
As for the rest, they’re even more stock. I’m struggling to come up with meaningful ways that Wes Bentley and David Gyasi stood out – well, Gyasi’s Romili did age a lot in one sequence. Or did you know that David Oyelowo and Topher Grace are in this for a few minutes? They each have their moments, but they’re not in it much. Meanwhile Casey Affleck, as adult Tom Cooper, doesn’t do much but embody the worst of backwards thinking, country hick America that it becomes a bit cartoony. It’s all to create drama that equates with the tension of the situation in space, but it falls short.
That decision to intercut the tension of the space mission with the dire situation back on Earth manages to undercut some of Interstellar’s drama. Not surprisingly, the more poignant moments are those when the astronauts, displaced by gravity and distance, get video messages from back home that reveal just how much time they’ve lost with their loved ones. Children grow, fall in love, marry and have children of their own. Parents get old and die. And all the crew of the Endurance can do is watch the images, cry at what they’ve lost and endure for the sake of the mission. But this loses some of its potency when we go back to Earth and see those same characters adapting to life without the astronauts.
There’s also one sequence that feels stolen right out of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. You’ll know it when you see it. While it is a great sequence, it’s also very much another part that feels telegraphed. You know how things are going to go from the moment things begin to unspool and it’s only a question of when, not if, the other boot will drop.
I should also mention that, towards the end, things get a bit metaphysical. It’s tough to explain without going into spoilers, but let’s say that the things you figured out in Act 1 come true in Act 3. There’s never any doubt or any deviation from the obvious. It’s more surprising that they stuck to their guns to make it all happen. At the same time, the explanation for the wormhole and a lot of the events that lead to the mission for the Endurance get explained away rather easily and in such a deus ex machina way that it might confuse people. Let me say that the movie is upfront and honest about these big moments and you’ll figure them out rather easily. By then, you will have bought into what the movie’s selling or you’ll react negatively. I can see a lot of people leaving the theater mad.
So what do I make of Interstellar? It’s a beautiful looking film. Honestly, this movie does need to be seen on a real IMAX screen to be appreciated. The imagery is poignant. The sense of humanity’s smallness against the vast, uncaring cold of space is stark. The big ideas at its heart are big: the survival of humanity when Earth – the only home we’ve ever known – is no longer capable of sustaining us. The willingness of daring explorers to forego the normal lives and comforts to bring our species that much closer to the next step we must take if we are to survive. These ideas resonate with me and I love any movie that presents them.
However, for a movie that’s trying to be about both the galactic and the personal, it’s the personal that suffers. The script from Jonathan and Christopher Nolan somehow manages to provide the beats for an emotional movie without really giving us much in the way of emotion. Cooper is a father who cares for his children. His children feel abandoned by a man who kept dreaming of flying to the stars. Brand is hoping to be reunited with the man she loves. They do a good job of showing how relationships and emotions are messy things – you can both love and loathe your father or you can be blinded to the truth of what someone you care for and respect is planning.
Ultimately Interstellar feels a lot like a movie with a brain that’s seeking for its heart. It uses placeholders like Murph’s and Coop’s tears to stand for love and Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” as a rallying cry. While I cannot say it’s a bad movie, I do wonder if it would not have worked better under the hands of Steven Spielberg as originally intended. This is great spectacle and I am glad to have it. But I don’t know that it’ll have the impact on future generations of dreamers and stargazers that it wants to have.
We don’t want to go to the stars to save ourselves. We want to go because it is within us to yearn for new horizons. And this remains true, no matter how strange our times get.