Christopher Nolan has never shied away from a challenge and the one he has taken on with Interstellar may be his most prodigious thus far - bigger than delivering an end-to-start chronology in Memento, more impressive than the mind-bending contortions of Inception, and more daunting than re-imagining Batman into the most unique superhero franchise of the 21st century. Interstellar is simultaneously a big-budget science fiction endeavor and a very simple tale of love and sacrifice. It is by turns edgy, breathtaking, hopeful, and heartbreaking. It's an amazing achievement that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen with the best sound system possible. Nolan has crafted Interstellar as a movie theater experience. Watching it at home, no matter how good the sound system is, won't match. This is one time when the IMAX surcharge is worth it.
Interstellar is science fiction. It's not space opera. It's not futuristic fantasy. It's what the term "science fiction" was coined to represent. It presents a viable future in which space travel, while possible, is dangerous and uncertain. Starships aren't zipping from planet to planet. Space craft aren't firing lasers, phasers, or photon torpedoes. Travel across long distances uses the dangerous and unpredictable method of entering a wormhole, not engaging Warp One or making the jump to hyperspace. Time dilation comes into effect in the presence of a black hole and there's even a little bit about the relationship between quantum mechanics and relativity. This isn't Star Wars, Star Trek, or Guardians of the Galaxy, and anyone who approaches it with such expectations will be disappointed. It's more along the lines of recent movies like Contact (which also starred Matthew McConaughey) and Gravity in that it acknowledges science rather than ignoring the rules of reality as we understand them.
It will be difficult to find a review of Interstellar that doesn't reference 2001: A Space Odyssey and there's a valid reason for that. Nolan at times uses Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece as a template, especially during moments of grandeur. Hans Zimmer's score is no less crucial to Interstellar than "Also Sprach Zarathustra" was to 2001. Yet, this is no mere copy of Kubrick's film; in fact, it goes far afield. There's heroism, a la The Right Stuff. It's also a warmer, more emotional experience - less stately and abstruse. In fact, found at the core of this big budget adventure is the most relatable thing imaginable: the feelings of love and trust that bind father and daughter. It's almost a fusion of Kubrick and Spielberg.
Interstellar opens at an unspecified future date in America's farm belt. Although the film is careful not to identify a year, it's probably around 2050. The world has fallen victim to famine caused by overpopulation and a blight that is killing crops and creating massive dust storms. With nitrogen on the rise in the atmosphere, total asphyxiation is the inevitable endgame. Earth as a bastion of humanity is doomed. Former NASA engineer and test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) owns acres of corn that he farms along with his family: son Tom, daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), and father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow). Drawn by almost supernatural means to a chain-link fence around a super-secret location, Cooper finds himself face-to-face with what remains of his former employer: an underground think-tank dedicated to saving the human race. Led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), NASA has developed two plans. The first involves creating a massive space vehicle to transport as many humans as possible into outer space. The second involves using frozen embryos to colonize a distant world. There are problems with Plan A - namely, overcoming gravity to launch the massive space ship - but Brand is convinced he can solve the necessary equations that will make this possible.
Cooper learns that a wormhole has appeared in space near Saturn, presumably placed there by (alien) entities of great intelligence intent upon giving humanity a path of survival. Ten years ago, astronauts were sent through to scout the dozen potentially habitable planets on the other side. Now another craft must make the journey to determine humankind's final destination. Mindful that his children's future is at stake, Cooper agrees to pilot the craft. He is accompanied by a small crew of four: Brand's daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway); scientists Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi); and the sardonic robot TARS (Bill Irwin), who recalls HAL 9000. Murph is resentful of her father for abandoning her - an anger she nurses into adulthood, when (now played by Jessica Chastain), she becomes Brand's second-in-charge working for the same entity that took her father away from her.
Like Contact, Interstellar displays an uncanny knack for making complex physics accessible to laymen (partial credit to Executive Producer and CalTech physicist Kip Thorne). Yes, there are times when the dialogue is dense but it never becomes impenetrable (although there are some odd passages, such as one in which Cooper and Amelia discuss the meaning of "love"). Does the movie occasionally fudge? Of course, but it sticks closer to Einstein's laws than most space-faring movies and when it speculates, it does so in a believable manner.
The movie remains Earthbound for its first 45 minutes, establishing a dire scenario for the planet and depicting the day-to-day struggles of those who survive in this blasted, inhospitable future. Most importantly, however, this part of the film establishes the closeness of the relationship between Cooper and Murph and introduces the mystery of "them" - the mysterious "ghosts" who will play a part on the periphery for the rest of the movie. In the end, Cooper must embrace the philosophy that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." He promises to Murph that he will return, knowing he may not be able to keep that promise.
Once in space, the white knuckle moments begin. Limiting the use of CGI, Nolan relies on practical effects to craft a movie that feels more like a real journey than a video game. There are some tremendous action set pieces and the narrative is wonderfully unpredictable. The movie takes some chances with its endgame, which resolves a lot of plot points but at times seems rushed. Interstellar is at its most complex during its final 20 minutes and even those who pay rapt attention may leave the theater with some unanswered questions.
The film is nearly three hours but there's enough story here for something a lot longer. In condensing it, Nolan has made something 169 minutes in length that breezes by faster than many productions half its length. He accomplishes this by establishing a blistering pace during Interstellar's meatier sections, including expert cross-cutting between Earth and space during a powerful "fire and ice" sequence.
Visually, Interstellar looks great. Nolan understands all the facets of special effects technology (except, perhaps, old age makeup) and uses them to their best. Hans Zimmer delivers an operatic score that, although occasionally drowning out dialogue (more a mixing issue than a scoring one), adds to the overall experience. Sound is important to Interstellar - when the rocket lifts off around the 45-minute mark, the bass shakes the entire theater.
It has been a tremendous year for McConaughey. From Dallas Buyers Club to True Detective to Interstellar, he has won a Golden Globe and an Oscar and been nominated for an Emmy. Interstellar will give him another opportunity for Academy recognition: he's the glue that holds everything together. He's the human factor in a vast universe. His love for his daughter and his pain when he acknowledges her despair invests this movie with a warmth and feeling that no previous Nolan movie can boast. The supporting cast, which includes Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Caine, is strong, but McConaughey represents the heart and soul of Interstellar.
For those who appreciate the Mobius strip approach Nolan is known for, Interstellar offers a little of that. There are some twists and non-chronological jumps, although not so many that the story becomes confusing or unintelligible. Time dilation (the slowing down of time for those in close proximity to a dense gravitational source) isn't just a convenient plot device; it's an integral element of the narrative. Like nearly everything else in Interstellar, it is used effectively.
For anyone with a hunger for real science fiction rather than the crowd-pleasing, watered-down version Hollywood typically offers (and that I often enjoy immensely), Interstellar is a satisfying entrée. I'd rank this alongside Memento and The Dark Knight as the best Nolan has done, and it's an immediate contender for one of 2014's best. The film deserves the label of an "experience" and the bigger the venue, the more immersive it will be. As event movies go, this is one of the most unique and mesmerizing.
© 2014 James Berardinelli