As the end of the world approaches, books mysteriously fall off shelves and dust lands in strange patterns on the ground—seemingly undecipherable messages from beyond the stars. So begins “Interstellar,” a new science fiction adventure film from director Christopher Nolan, co-written with long-time collaborator and brother Jonathan Nolan (“The Prestige,” “The Dark Knight”).
Fresh off a slew of awards and nominations for “Dallas Buyers Club” and “True Detective,” Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a single father and former pilot raising two children, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy), on a farm in the Midwest. An unexplained blight compounded by devastating sandstorms has threatened crop production and ultimately the long-term survival of the human race, so the government has taken control of central planning and career assignment. Cooper is a man of science frustrated by the limited educational opportunities for his precocious daughter Murph (aptly named after Murphy’s Law), and this dissatisfaction is only exacerbated by his own unfulfilled career ambitions—astronauts have been deemed unnecessary in a NASA-less era where space exploration has been passed over for crop management.
The plot of “Interstellar” can best be described as operating within a “clockwork universe.” In their Chekhovian script, the Nolans go to painstaking lengths to ensure the seamless interconnectivity of every element in the film. For instance, after a requisite first act of character development on the farm (where McConaughey’s native Texan accent shines), a chance encounter with former acquaintance Professor Brand (Michael Caine, because this is a Nolan film) very plausibly inserts Cooper into the literal pilot’s seat of an interstellar space expedition to potentially habitable exoplanets that are humanity’s last hope. Accompanied by a crew that includes the professor’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and a charmingly sardonic AI robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), Cooper embarks on the greatest journey of his career at the cost of leaving behind a heartbroken 10-year-old Murph and the brooding teenaged Tom.
It’s this painful departure that sets the deeply emotional tone of the film. Although “Interstellar” achieves remarkable emotional resonance at times, it also delves into muddled and trite metaphors about the intangible power of love—a surprising shift for a dark, cerebral filmmaker such as Nolan. Nonetheless, certain scenes hit home very powerfully: Cooper’s awkward goodbye to his daughter is marred by the uncertainty of his return, as he (in a misguided attempt at humor) dryly remarks that the two might be the same age upon his return due to the unpredictable effects of relativity and time dilation. Later in his journey, McConaughey delivers one of his finest performances in a scene that intimately shows his regret about leaving his daughter. Nolan maintains a lengthy close-up on a tearful McConaughey that is set to an understated yet moving score penned by Hans Zimmer. It differs significantly from the booming strings and bass of “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” as the steady organ progression of the film’s central theme accurately reflects its emotional core: the father-daughter relationship between Cooper and Murph.
Behind the character drama, “Interstellar” is also an adventure film meant to simultaneously evoke self-awareness of human cosmological insignificance and inspire wonder. When Cooper’s ship first departs Earth, it is set to a voiceover of Brand reciting Dylan Thomas: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Indeed, interspersed between the hard sci-fi concepts of wormholes, black holes, and time dilation is a primal yearning for exploration and an unshakeable faith and optimism in the face of the unknown. While Cooper explores faraway exoplanets, adult Murph (Jessica Chastain, delivering a remarkably moving performance as the abandoned, fatherless Murph) tackles impossible problems in theoretical physics with Professor Brand and adult Tom (Casey Affleck) attempts to care for his family on a less and less hospitable Earth. A previously marooned astronaut (an unbilled cameo) weeps at the improbability of his finally being rescued from an arctic wasteland. Cooper’s spaceship, appropriately named Endurance, flies past Saturn’s rings to the forbidding silence of space, a mere speck of metal next to the massive gas giant.
These powerful space visuals truly realize the film’s grand ambitions, putting Smithsonian IMAX documentaries and Michael Bay both to shame. During production, Nolan actually recruited theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as a consultant in order to ensure the scientific accuracy of astronomical phenomena in the film. Detailed visualizations of exoplanets, wormholes, and black holes were precisely and rigorously modeled before being rendered by visual effects company Double Negative (“Inception”), with the full film taking up almost a petabyte (one million GB) of data. Planetary vistas are equally impressive: the chaos of massive dust storms, colossal tsunamis, and frozen cloudscapes punctuates more human travel scenes in space. These intimate interior spaceship shots tend to be close-ups focusing on the faces of each astronaut, reflecting Nolan’s emphasis on character.
Yet “Interstellar” falls short of perfection due to its tonally awkward emphasis on love. Moreover, the film’s internal science fiction rules only make sense until they stop—Nolan’s understanding of time is similar to that of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor: “It’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey…stuff.” Yet despite these minor narrative shortcomings, “Interstellar” succeeds on a grand visual and thematic level because the film’s emotional undercurrent propels its discourse on faith and adventure. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” Brand warns. Much in the same way Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” redefined science fiction in 1968, Nolan’s “Interstellar” reimagines the frontier adventure amidst a galactic backdrop of existential obsession.
—Crimson staff writer Alan R. Xie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.