Watching the nearly three-hour experience that is Chris Nolan’s Interstellar, I expected to be bored, even sleepy. But while it was often bogged down by discussions of detailed science that may or may not be real, and which would certainly have made Isaac Asimov proud, it was lit up by spectacular cinematography and a plot that jumped from timeline to timeline, from story to story. In the process, it examined our relationship with the Earth, our family dynamics, and our understanding of what we’re called to be as individuals and a species.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer because that’s what everyone has been forced to become as the Earth begins to reject humanity, but he longs to see what’s out there. When a series of events lead he and his daughter, Murph (as a girl played by Ellen Burstyn, as an adult by Jessica Chastain), into contact with an old colleague, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Cooper heads off with the best-of-the-best to find a new world for the people of Earth to inhabit. The storyline then splits to follow Cooper and his fellow astronauts (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi) and the artificially intelligent TARS as they travel through a wormhole, while Brand leads a team to determine if they can solve the equation of gravity to lift off a big enough ship to save what’s left of humanity to follow the explorers.
I’ve never so badly wanted to pick the brain of a scientist after seeing a movie; frankly, Nolan’s Interstellar makes Gravity appear to be a walk-in-the-park, PBS special for kids by comparison. But it’s also one of the weaknesses of the film: like a later generation Tom Clancy novel, it gets bogged down in the details of the science, solely to try and convince us that this will actually work. It’s a better film when it focuses on the humanity of the situation and allows space to wow us, to cause us to wonder, whether it’s to dead silence (they can actually hear you scream) or to the spectacular score of Hans Zimmer. It’s a stunning film, both from the bombastic sounds after moments of silence and in the way that it was filmed (two of the planets that the astronauts visit were real-world Icelandic locations – amazing!)
Movie fans will recognize that the film itself, while original in its blending of genres and stories, is derivative (most films are) with obvious nods to certain films. Disney’s The Black Hole and Wall.e came to mind, while there was a certain amount of M. Night Shyamalan and the Wachowski Brothers to the whole experience. [How shocking is it that Darren Aronofsky can’t get away with fallen angel-trees but Nolan can have audiences accepting metallic Gumbys as the future of artificial intelligence?] Nolan admits to the desire to replicate some of those previous sci-fi experiences, and it lends itself to an overarching feel that this is an old-timey kind of film: it’s not solely intent on blowing things up with explosions and gunfire (filming in Iceland rather than a green-screen studio helps). [Ironically, I thought it had strong ties to the 1997 Carl Sagan/Robert Zemeckis sci-fi drama Contact, also starring McConaughey… about a woman trying to reconnect with her father through space.] Nolan is most concerned with the story.
What would it take, Interstellar asks, for you to leave it all behind, to sacrifice everything for the good of your family… or humanity? That’s the thing that one of the film’s pivotal character proposes, that the final frontier for humanity is to get people to care about complete strangers. They will sacrifice for themselves, even people who they are close to, but they won’t sacrifice for a stranger. That, ultimately, is the big question I found Interstellar exploring: can we learn to “love our neighbor” in a way that fundamentally changes everything? Or are we content to starve, to grind in the dirt without looking up, to cease wondering, and accept that this is all there is?
Stay Tuned for Part II: Spoiler Alert!