Cinema can explore the most intimate of topics or the grandest, and sometimes the stories can be connected in surprising ways. How much difference is there between our relationship to each other and our relationship with the universe after all? It’s the intersection between these two core stories that makes Interstellar one of the most powerful films of 2014 and one of the best science fiction films of a very long time.
The film is set in a dismal near future where horrendous dust storms decimate food and humankind is dying for something to eat. Wheat has died from blight, then the last okra crop is destroyed. The one remaining grain left to feed man is corn, and civilization has become focused on care-taking, not innovation, while technology is feared and discredited.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) runs a dusty, ramshackle ranch, along with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), his teen son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and his bright and adoring daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Before the bad times, Cooper had been a test pilot with NASA and when Murph suspects that there’s a ghost in her bedroom, she and “Coop” eventually realize the ghostly message is map coordinates that lead them to a secret research facility. The base is the last remnant of an earlier technological age, where Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) work with a team of scientists to figure out how to leave Earth and spread to the stars.
The story is audacious in scope and director Christopher Nolan doesn’t shy away from controversial contemporary topics along the way, including politically-motivated historical revisionism: In one chilling scene, Cooper is told by Murph’s teacher that the Apollo mission was just propaganda, we never made it to the moon, it was all a scheme to bankrupt the Russians into trying to reach the moon first. Ex-NASA astronaut Cooper is not impressed, needless to say.
There are no other habitable planets in our solar system, but there’s a wormhole, a “fold” in the time-space continuum that lets the brave astronauts instantaneously travel to galaxies hundreds of light-years away. In one of many, many nods to the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, the wormhole is orbiting Saturn.
To travel to the depths of space, Cooper must leave his family and Earth behind. The deep love between him and his daughter is a central theme in the film, however, and his departure from the family homestead and particularly from Murph is very touching. She, however, is furious at her father for departing and leaving her behind and refuses to communicate with him for years.
Once through the wormhole, astronauts Cooper, Brand, Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) find themselves dangerously close to a massive black hole, but there are a dozen astronauts who have already gone through the wormhole, each landing on a different Earth-like planet. Things aren’t necessarily what they appear, however, and when they meet Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), we are reminded that mankind’s worst enemy is often man himself.
It wouldn’t be a Nolan film without twists and tangents, amazing visual effects and an ending that changes how you understand what happened before, and time is a major player in the story too, both the time remaining on Earth for humanity and the difference in Earth and space time due to relativity, especially near the black hole.
There’s more going on in the film and at almost three hours, Interstellar is an epic. It’s brilliant in many ways, a sweeping saga of what it means to be human and what it means for us to survive into the future. The performances are almost universally splendid, the story is intriguing and sensitive (a facet often lacking in the genre), and the visual effects are Oscar-worthy, definitely best experienced on a big screen.
From the monolith-like shape of the robot TARS (voice of Bill Irwin) to the wormhole being in orbit around Saturn to specific visual effects used near the end of the film, there’s no question that Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey was a strong inspiration for the production team. Which made this reviewer appreciate the film even more.
How much did I like Interstellar? Let’s just say that I’m looking forward to seeing it again on an IMAX screen in just a few days. It’s that good.