Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker’s filmmaker, a creatively restless soul who challenges both himself to push the boundaries of his skills and his chosen medium, as well as to challenge the notions of viewers who show up for his movies. This is largely a good thing; his films occasionally feel overstuffed, but never fail to make one think about Big Ideas, though with Interstellar, co-written by the director and his brother/writing partner Jonathan, Nolan seems to struggle with making those deep thoughts mesh with the more down-to-earth melodrama he ties to them.
For a movie about transcending the earthbound limitations of mankind, he seems firmly entangled in them, and as far as deeply meaningful space epics go, his science fiction epic is less 2001: A Space Odyssey and more 2010: The Year We Make Contact. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does suggest that hardcore Nolan fans may want to temper their lofty expectations for this outing.
One of Interstellar‘s strong points is its refreshing reliance on science fact as a foundation for the science fiction, much like Gravity but with a broader scope. The movie is set in the near-ish future, after an economic and environmental collapse has turned much of the planet into the Great Depression 2.0: the economy is stagnant, technological development has stalled, and career options are limited due to the needs of a greatly reduced population relying on an even more reduced food supply. In short, humanity is about to be snuffed out by a global Dust Bowl.
Enter test pilot-turned-corn farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), recruited by Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), head of a struggling NASA working underground, in both the literal and figurative sense due to massive budget cuts. Brand knows that mankind has at best a generation or so left before it goes the way of the dinosaur, and that only hope for the survival of the species is to find another planet to live on.
Conveniently, a wormhole to another galaxy opened near Saturn more than a decade earlier; probes and a manned exploration mission was sent through, but never returned. Cooper and a small crew — Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi), plus the robot assistant TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) — are sent after them to find out which, if any, of the 12 potential worlds are habitable while Dr. Brand struggles to ready an ark of sorts. Cue a series of episodic misadventures involving the physics behind black holes, wormholes, time dilation, exotic planets, and the rigors and obstacles posed by the deepest of deep-space exploration.
As dry as that may sound, it is during these challenges and plot devices that Interstellar is at its most engrossing. The fact that relativity means that while Coop’s voyage take a few years of his time while a couple of decades pass on earth creates a very real and very unusual ticking clock quandary for him and his crew; time becomes a resource for them to manage as much as their oxygen and food supplies, and the prospect that his children could be his age or older when he returns haunts him as much as it propels his actions. It’s material not often covered by a film genre often more concerned with allegory, blowing shit up, or both.
Despite the narrative possibilities posed by this, the Nolans’ story often feels clunky and stilted as it cuts between its terrestrial and cosmic story lines. The human drama comes across as a little hokey at times, the dialogue is often expository, and with the exceptions of McConaughey and Matt Damon (whose role will remain unmentioned and spoiler-free here) the actors are saddled with under-cooked roles. The final act veers into an ethereal tone that feels rather silly in execution and appears to abandon the hard-science it relied on up to that point in favor of a deus ex machina conclusion.
On a technical level, Nolan delivers just as much as he always has and then some. His love affair with the 70mm IMAX format continues passionately, and he and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Spike Jonze’s Her) deliver some truly breathtaking starscapes. The prerequisite action beats are top-notch. More importantly, despite its flaws, Interstellar succeeds in prying us out of our sci-fi comfort zone.
And while the ride is a bumpy one and the destination is a bit of a letdown, getting there is a trip.