“Haunting” is the word that keeps lingering as I reflect on Christopher Nolan’s new movie, Interstellar, over and over again in my mind. There is a somber tone to the film, an elegiac mood that is one of its most powerful assets. We feel the shroud of despair and apathy surrounding the people of Earth as it becomes clear that the planet is essentially turning against us, and we also experience the intense loneliness and isolation of the small crew of astronauts who travel an unimaginable distance on a last-chance mission to save the human race from extinction.
When Interstellar is at its best — which is frequent, but not constant — that mood has an emotional pull to it that bolsters the other plot elements which are designed to tug at your heart. It also suffuses the film’s often brilliant visuals, which effectively capture the grandeur of traveling across the universe while simultaneously detailing just how unimaginably small and alone we are against that vast and seemingly endless darkness. Nolan throws a lot of ideas — and a lot of movie — at us for Interstellar’s nearly three-hour running time.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a former NASA test pilot and widower who now runs a farm where he lives with his children Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothee Chalamet), as well as his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow). It’s the near future and an agricultural blight has descended upon the planet, destroying every crop but corn. There are hints that traditional institutions of society have been or are being dismantled as survival becomes the prime objective, but it’s undeniable that even that goal may elude humankind’s grasp.
The key to keeping the human race alive comes in the shape of a reconfigured remnant of NASA, to which Cooper and Murph are led to by a series of what must be described for now as inexplicable events. There they find a small team led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) who have detected the appearance of a wormhole near Saturn. Its origin is unknown, yet it was apparently meant to be found: it tunnels through time and space to a distant galaxy where planets exist that could support human life.
Previous probes through the wormhole by solo explorers have returned ambiguous messages and data at best. Cooper is reluctantly persuaded by the Brands to pilot a new and perhaps final four-person mission, knowing that the titanic distances they travel will bend time in a way that decades may pass on Earth and Cooper may very well never see his children again. But the death of humanity is almost assured if a habitable planet — and a way to somehow transport our species there — is not found soon.
To delve much deeper into the plot (the script was co-written by Nolan and his brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan) would demand the revelation of spoilers that I’m not prepared to give away. But what happens throughout the rest of the film is a balancing act between the personal, emotional, and intimate story of Cooper and his family, and the larger canvas of what is easily the most complex “hard sci-fi” film in a long time. Cooper and his crew — Amelia plus scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) — venture to other worlds, grapple with the effects of relativity and even tangle with a black hole, while back home characters age, some die, and others strive to find their own answers to the same questions the crew of the Endurance are trying to solve untold light years from home.
Like many of Nolan’s films before this one — including The Dark Knight, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises — the filmmaker’s desire to tell us as much story as he possibly can occasionally gets tripped up by both his own heavy-handedness, as well as leaps in logic or story structure that can test one’s suspension of disbelief. The Nolans’ script is big and ragged and feels bloated in some ways: there are scenes — most of them on Earth — that could be compressed or dismissed altogether with a cleverly thought-out image or perhaps a bit of exposition, although this is already an exposition-heavy movie. The director’s propensity for stacking up climaxes or set-pieces and then cross-cutting between them actually works to his detriment here (unlike, say, in Inception), because it lessens the impact of what is happening in his main story, with Cooper and the crew (I hate to imagine a scenario where an actress like Jessica Chastain could have her role diminished considerably in a film, but that’s kind of the case here).
And yet despite those issues and a penchant for repetition when it comes to his key themes (by the fourth time we hear the main verse from Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” I found myself thinking, “Okay, we get it.”) I can’t help but be dazzled, occasionally moved by, and haunted (that word again) by Nolan’s galactic adventure. I ultimately have the same relationship with this movie that I have with most of his previous ones, especially the Batman blockbusters and Inception: their sheer ambition, production value, scope, and earnestness outweigh their flaws in the end.
Nolan to me is really a darker, more serious-minded and adult-oriented version of Steven Spielberg when he’s working in genre, only with two or three endings in his films instead of one contrived happy one that is grafted onto the story like a reverse appendectomy. He shares the same desire to go as big as possible and show the audience sights they’ve never seen before, and he believes in the story he’s telling and the theme he’s trying to get across, even if he lacks some of the skills necessary to transmit them as effectively as possible. And yet he is also still capable of a quietly devastating moment like the one in which the crew of the Endurance find out just how much of an effect the theory of relativity and the distortion of time has on one short trip to a planet’s surface (it all comes down to just two words of dialogue and nothing else).
There are some big ideas in the movie, and their visual components are handled brilliantly from start to finish. On a pure filmmaking level, Interstellar is jaw-dropping and almost demands to be seen in IMAX. The film is so immersive that you will feel like you’re flying through that wormhole or plunging into that black hole. Cinematographer Hotye van Hoytema (Her) and production designer Nathan Crowley (The Dark Knight Rises) do a splendid job in creating and filming our blighted future Earth, the mysterious expanses of space and the surfaces of the planets that the Endurance visits. Nolan’s trademark requirement that everything be grounded and functional has led to a hybrid of miniatures, fully constructed sets, and CG that is pretty much seamless.
Once again, he has also surrounded himself with a strong cast who make the most out of roles that are, to some degree, more archetypal in nature. McConaughey shines as Cooper, playing a character who seems closer to the actor himself that some of his other recent work, and centering the film with his innate decency and everyman worldview. Hathaway is striking as Amelia Brand, whose icy, guarded exterior hides a vulnerable core. The scene-stealer of the lot is actor-comedian Bill Irwin, who controls the movement of the crew’s two robot companions, TARS and CASE, and voices TARS with a delightful blend of dry humor and matter-of-fact observational wit (CASE, who is the more reserved personality, is voiced by Josh Stewart).
Credit also to composer Hans Zimmer, who likewise goes very big in his scores — especially for Nolan — and whose trademark style on the Dark Knight films has been aped and parodied for the past few years. The score here is just as grandiose, but he employs as his main instrument the organ, which provides the perfect musical equivalent for the film’s tone and can embody both the finality of death and the infinite mysteries of the heavens at the same time. I loved his work here — I’m a huge fan of the organ — even if the music and some of the sound effects frankly drowned out large swaths of dialogue at the screening I attended (although I understand that this was most likely an issue with the theater itself — the TCL Chinese in Hollywood — than the film).
Interstellar is a huge film and strives to do what science fiction does at its best: show us some truth about the human condition through the filter of scientific discovery or theory. It doesn’t succeed as well as it could; its worst moments are clunky and disjointed, but its finest moments are extraordinary. This is top-notch filmmaking by a director who wants to make the most ambitious film he can in whatever genre he’s working in. Interstellar may not be as mind-blowing as many of us hoped, and may be too manipulative for others, but Christopher Nolan reaches for the stars with this one, and his journey is just rich enough to keep us along for the ride.
Interstellar opens on IMAX screens on Wednesday, November 5 and in theaters everywhere on Friday, Nov. 7th.