Interstellar is a magnificent science-fiction film, asking broad and impenetrable questions that it answers only in theory, or not at all. It travels into the space between human understanding and human feeling and wriggles itself into a position that a lesser movie would find impossible to escape from. But Interstellar is cradled in the embrace of director Christopher Nolan, who has spent the better part of a decade needling the very notion of our existence and our relationship with time and reality. He’s become a bit of a theoretical expert. Here, he paints an undeniably ambitious picture, rich in intergalactic detail, as visually astounding and philosophical as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), as adventurous as Star Wars (1977) and as deeply desperate as any movie about the apocalypse. But what is most amazing is that through all this thrill there stands before us a very human story. This is Nolan’s best film about humanity, told through the ghostly eyes of space.
Yes, it’s long. Heaven forbid today’s audience having to sit through a movie that runs over the two-hour mark. 2001 was long. Okay, it was not well received in 1968; its running time might have contributed to that. But observe it now. It is a landmark in many fields: Visual and special effects; narrative structure; characterisation; exploring the unknown; seamless blending of orchestral music and minimalistic mise-en-scene to evoke the silence of space. It gave us a match cut to humble all match cuts. Its 141 minute runtime is no longer an issue. Interstellar clocks in at 169 minutes; it has more to cover.
Consider some of its imagery, created in computers, as real as your outstretched hand. There is a wormhole in space, which I learn was designed accurately as a sphere reflecting stars. It floats like a mirrorball; the stars rotate around it. I was somehow reminded of the shot in Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) where a ship appeared to float alone on a sea of stars. At some point our heroes will pilot their spacecraft through the wormhole to the other side.
There is also a black hole called Gargantua; it looks like a solar eclipse with its own horizon of matter. The closer we get to it, the more detail we see; the more ominous it looks. And then there’s a planet that exists as a cylinder. It contains life, and the land lines its inside, as if someone plastered grass and soil to the inner walls of a bottle. All these sights are animated with strict attention, which only serves to better the drama — when the spacecraft inches its way to the surface of the wormhole, the atmosphere is tense; we don’t know what awaits.
And then consider some of the visuals created for other planets. One has water, which is a big deal. But that’s all it has: Water. Lots of it. It’s shallow, and it runs to the horizon in every direction. It also hides a monstrous secret that would no doubt drive surfers insane with glee. They might want to bring a parachute along. Another planet is formed from ice clouds, and they are exactly what they are: Clouds that look like clouds, made out of ice. Nolan is a true visionary, influenced by his masters; I have not seen worlds so original since Star Wars.
Our heroes, composed of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), are tasked with exploring these systems to find a sustainable surrogate planet for humans. Earth is on her last legs. The crops have failed. The only one left is corn, and even that is diminishing at an alarming rate. The humans have to leave and relocate, trusting Earth to repair herself in their absence. In charge of the mission is Amelia’s father, Professor Brand (Michael Caine, the ubiquitous wise man). He calls the mission Plan A. There is a Plan B, but I shan’t divulge its information.
Cooper is a former NASA pilot, now a farmer with dreams of returning to space and solving the Earth Crisis (his tractors run themselves). His son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) is destined to become a farmer like his old man, but his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), is equipped with a brain hardcoded for science and the supernatural. This relationship, between Cooper and Murph, forms the bedrock of Interstellar. It is a familial bond deep and strong, rarely seen in Hollywood movies, no, not even in Frequency (2000). And yet parallels can be drawn with Frequency. In that movie, the father, played by Dennis Quaid, and the son, played by Jim Caviezel, spoke to each other through a radio, across dimensions. One was in the past, another in the present. Because history rewrote itself, at one point they were even the same age. It happens here too — Cooper lands on a planet where time stands still. By the time he leaves, his children have all grown up. There is a heart-wrenching scene in which Cooper reviews video messages sent by his kids, charting their progress through time. McConaughey (and the actress playing his daughter; I will not say who, just to be safe) delivers a performance that cuts right to the very centre of our hearts. It is quite sublime.
There are many intricacies to this relationship, all of which I shall leave to you to enjoy for yourselves. It is wise by Nolan, and his brother Jonathan (who co-wrote the screenplay), to anchor their visual effects with emotional people. We become blissfully aware that Cooper, Murph, Amelia, and even Doyle are fully functional human beings. They are not betrayed by their actions, nor are they predictable in their choices. They are rational, logical, practical, driven by instinct and feeling. Too often in American movies we get characters driven by their plots, shortchanging their personalities. Not here.
Nolan is not content with simple stories told by simple characters. We know this from his Batman movies. Dig deeper still, and we see his ambition in Inception (2010), The Prestige (2006), and his second feature, Memento (2000), which can easily be regarded as a warm-up for the goliaths of Inception and Interstellar. Both Inception and Interstellar deal with subjects that drift in realities far away from our own. They see things in different dimensions, in different forms. Whether we are meant to understand them is besides the point. The Nolans write stories that push our powers of comprehension to their limits. Christopher creates movies that make us think long after we’ve left the cineplex, and a while more after that. Interstellar is such a movie, but it is also visualised into perfection. Even if you get lost in this movie’s labyrinth, you will marvel at its images. And its people.
Best Moment | Too many to name. The scene aboard the ship, with the video messages, has to be up there.
Worst Moment | A few contrivances involving a newly discovered character down on the planet of ice. In some ways he/she clicked perfectly. In others, not so much.