In Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, there's a scene where an airlock snaps open, and two space explorers, played by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, reunite with Dr. Romilly (David Gyasi), one of their crewmates. Cooper (McConaughey) and Amelia (Hathaway) have just returned from a mysterious planet orbiting a black hole, where every hour they spend on the surface equals seven years of Earth time. To Cooper and Amelia, Romilly is suddenly decades older, and all at once, we’re confronted with the real villain of the film: time itself.
Interstellar has plenty of moments of relatable, human villainy, but none of it can match how horrific it would be to experience such slippages of time – to remain young while your children and grandchildren grow old and die. That’s the outcome that spurs Cooper forward in Interstellar; as if his mission to save the people of Earth from starvation wasn’t difficult enough, the prospect of his daughter dying of old age before he succeeds would be enough to drive most people insane.
Christopher Nolan, working with a screenplay he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, approach this concept by drawing on real, theoretical physics, informed by the work of Caltech professor Kip Thorne. That description has been repeated endlessly during the development of Interstellar, but it’s only a rough guide to understanding the movie. Despite some buzz to the contrary, a physics lesson Interstellar is not, and that’s its greatest strength.
This is where the obvious “film buff comparison to 2001” begins. As Christopher Nolan’s new film rolls out around the world over the next few days, you’ll probably hear a lot of people comparing it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and maybe even going so far as to call it the “next” 2001. Similar things were said last year about Alfonso Cuarón’s triumphant Gravity. And when it comes to sci-fi movies, there are few loftier goals than trying to expand on Kubrick’s masterpiece and to approach its level of cultural influence.
Just like Interstellar, 2001 is often lauded for its attention to scientific detail, at least when it comes to things like spacecraft design. But neither movie can claim to be factually sound; 2001 hinges on strange black monoliths magically advancing human evolution, and Interstellar plays fast and loose with the black hole that figures so prominently in its story.
Crucially, it’s never the accuracy of 2001 that compels us to watch it again and again. It’s how the science acts as a framework for a series of fanciful events, that in turn reveals truths about us. We watch Bowman (Keir Dullea) travel through the star gate and transform into the Star Child, and it causes us to wonder about what will really happen to humanity in the far-flung future.
For its part, Interstellar asks what we’re willing to sacrifice to continue the human race. Can these few explorers bear the loneliness of space, and of outliving their own descendants? Would they be willing to let everyone on Earth die, if it means establishing a colony elsewhere? The implications are so vast, I doubt whether any filmmaker could tackle them without a few hokey lines and creaky plot devices.
And yes, the script of Interstellar can be messy at times. It’s heavily emotional (maybe more so than many of Nolan’s previous films) in a way that the cerebral 2001 can’t be. The story has its share of convenient moments and illogical decisions by characters. But I found it all oddly charming, and entirely engrossing. Take the scene where the astronauts find out their ship is slipping towards the black hole; science says they’re deader than dead in that situation, but I kept rooting for another result. That’s the power of movies on display, and I believe Christopher Nolan knows it.
If you’re familiar with Nolan’s work, you know about the production values he achieves; the same is true here. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography seems to adapt as the film unfolds; it’s warm and earthy in the terrestrial scenes, and stark and sweeping in outer space. It almost goes without saying that Interstellar must be seen on the biggest screen you can find.
Nolan also doesn’t let the performances get lost in his epic. McConaughey continues his onscreen domination as Cooper, and I particularly liked how Nolan holds the camera on him slightly longer when Cooper receives a batch of video messages from Earth (which felt like a brief homage to Doctor Zhivago, of all things). McConaughey is backed by an impressive lineup of supporting players, some of whom would normally be in starring roles, leading to lots of little surprise casting choices that only enrich the experience.
I’d be remiss not to mention one other pleasant surprise, absent from the film’s intense marketing campaign: the blocky, yet unexpectedly powerful robots that populate the film. It’s possible that no sci-fi is complete without a memorable robot, and the exchanges between Cooper and a robot called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) are some of the funniest moments in the movie.
Interstellar comes to us with a slight disadvantage. It’s been made in a time when there are millions of Internet commenters (and armchair science experts) ready to spend countless hours poking holes in its individual components, but only giving a cursory look at how well it works as a complete film.
In doing so, they ignore one of the main messages of the film. The crisis on Earth is the result of humans being messy, selfish creatures. The characters must find a new planet – not to fix the situation on Earth, but to allow it to continue. In a similar way, Interstellar can’t be “fixed” by pointing out its flaws and imagining if they weren’t there. Nolan’s film is a means of moving forward with the beautiful, jumbled business of cinema, especially its ability to transport us through time and space – no wormholes required.
Interstellar gets three and half stars out of four.
What did you think about Interstellar? Was it as mind-expanding as you were led to believe? Or does it collapse under its own weight, like a black hole? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!