No one does head trips quite like Christopher Nolan. The British director has successfully bridged the philosophical and the popular with hits like Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy. His latest film, the sci-fi epic Interstellar, is his passion project. Executive produced by theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, the film attempts to channel 2001: A Space Odyssey in its exploration of lofty scientific concepts such as black holes, event horizons and fifth-dimensions. And, while the film does get bogged down by its excessive plotting and self-seriousness, Nolan provides enough visual grandeur and emotion to make the plot’s mental gymnastics worth the effort.
Matthew McConaughey gives an incredibly grounded performance as Cooper, a former pilot turned farmer who is caring for his teenage son Tom and 10-year-old daughter Murphy after his wife’s death, with the help of his aging father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow). They live in a near-future version of earth that is decimated by a global dust bowl, a blight that has destroyed most major crops and caused a massive food shortage. Most major technological enterprises, including space travel, have been abandoned in favor of concerted efforts to increase the world’s food supply.
Through some rather convoluted plot machinations, Cooper is recruited by an underground NASA organization to pilot a ship that will hopefully find a habitable replacement planet for humanity to travel through via a mysterious worm hole that has opened up near Saturn. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) have come up with an incomplete equation that, when finished, will allow a mass-transit of humanity to the new planet. A much less desirable “plan B” involves a “population bomb,” which would use fertilized egg embryos to re-populate the new planet, saving humanity but sacrificing the remainder of earth’s population. All along, Cooper must cope with the fact that, in his mission to save humanity, he may never see his family again.
The early scenes on the farm are incredibly effective, as Cooper juggles his responsibility to his family with the dangers of his grim mission. McConaughey, fresh off of his Oscar win, give a marvelous performance here. His down-to-earth presence help keep the film’s lofty ideas grounded in the realm of human experience. His relationship with his daughter (and, to a lesser extent, his son, whose arc feels kind of brushed over) is affecting, and the early dialogue shows Nolan’s knack for setting up grand ideas without pulling us away from the plot’s emotional center: the relationship between a father and his children.
McConaughey is backed by fine supporting performances (particularly Hathaway and a surprise guest actor I won’t spoil), but what really sends the film into the stratosphere is its technical wonders. Much like Inception, Interstellar would be a much lesser film without its mind-blowing visuals and sound design. The vast scale of space is given the grand scope it demands, creating a sense of awe and wonder at the cosmos that few sci-fi films have ever conveyed quite so forcefully. The sound design is out of this world, bolstered by a Hans Zimmer-penned score that’s one of the best I’ve ever heard. Nolan reportedly asked Zimmer to score the film off of a few lines of dialogue, providing no major plot details or even a genre. The result, a mix of electronics and pulsing organs, is beyond remarkable. Even better, the score knows when to stop; there are several thrilling silent sequences that help convey the scope of outer space better than any music (or sound effects) ever could.
Where Interstellar falters is in maintaining its momentum over its lengthy running time. After a while, Nolan’s storytelling flaws start to surface. His insistence on grand, speechifying dialogue grows tiring (Dr. Brand’s repeated recitation of a Dylan Thomas poem is particularly eye-rolling). And the plot’s far-reaching intellectual theories, while intriguing, exceed its grasp. Inception contained similar heady concepts, but ultimately did a much better job of giving the audience the tools it needs to fully grasp the messages and meanings it was trying to convey. This film contains no such handholding, for good or ill.
And yet, all of the reasons why I love Christopher Nolan are here to. His emphasis on the power of love and an optimistic faith that humanity will always find a way to work toward its own good is refreshing in a world of cynical auteurs. His work produces a genuine awe at the complexity of life and existence that are tough to find elsewhere. And, of course, his technical chops are through the roof; there are sequences here that are beyond jaw-dropping, both in their technical complexity and their artistic composition.
Interstellar is not for everyone. And I don’t mean that in a condescending, “this movie is only for smart people” way. I think Nolan reached a point where he let his grand ideas run a bit amok. This nearly three-hour marathon is so dense that there are stretches where it’s a bit tough to sit through. It’s the kind of movie that practically requires internet research afterwards in order to make some sense of it all. And, for those who think movies should give us all of the tools we need to figure out things on our own, that may be a fatal flaw. I wouldn’t disagree.
But I can also say that I can’t wait to see Interstellar again. With the exception of Nolan’s more populist Dark Knight trilogy, the director’s best films, like Inception and The Prestige, require multiple viewings to unravel not just the dense plots, but the complex and sometimes overwhelming emotions they convey. But, the moment where I finally “get” a Nolan film have been some of the most rewarding I’ve ever had watching movies. I look forward to the moment when Interstellar fully clicks for me. Or, maybe it’s just a load of bunk. But, with its grand spectacle, epic scale and heartfelt emotion, Interstellar strikes me as simply stellar.