Christopher Nolan’s new film, “Interstellar,” is an ambitious, awesome, loud, masterful and at times sappy space epic. Like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” and Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars,” the roots and inspiration for “Interstellar” can be traced to the stories and novels of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and the films “Destination Moon,” “Rocketship X-M,” Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Douglas Trumbull’s “Silent Running,” all of them science-fiction narratives based on fact and the eternal question, “what if?”. But while De Palma was too busy ripping off Kubrick’s masterpiece, Nolan uses “2001: A Space Odyssey” and even Trumbull’s film as templates for his own musings on science, humanity and family.
Even though the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” are never uttered in “Interstellar,” there is no doubt, as the film opens, that our planet is in its final days, suffering from the ravages committed by humanity in the name of progress. The atmosphere is now 80% nitrogen, and one dust storm after another is killing what little crops —mostly corn— can now be grown. The government would much rather train farmers to keep the scant food supply going than engineers. This is a world where books are still a tangible thing, where other than laptops and TV sets, technology is a thing of the past, and where schools teach kids that the Apollo missions to the moon where a hoax perpetrated by the government to drive the Soviet Union to bankruptcy.
It’s a world where Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA pilot turned farmer, doesn’t feel too much at home with. His older son Tom faces an uncertain predetermined future as a farmer while his younger daughter Murph dreams of the stars, much like her father. When her book-filled room becomes the unlikely center of a gravitational anomaly, father and daughter pull all their resources together to find out what’s provoking it and stumble upon NASA’s underground base.
From that base and under the leadership of Professor Brand (Michael Caine), NASA sent a secret manned expedition to a wormhole near Saturn, placed there by some extraterrestrial benefactor. The 12 astronauts sent on the mission were each tasked with finding a planet on the other side of the wormhole that could be habitable by Earth standards. NASA is now preparing a second manned mission to verify the data received from three of the planets. Brand hopes to transport what’s left of humanity to their new home as long as he can solve a particularly pesky equation involving gravity. Cooper accepts to pilot the mission even though it means leaving his family behind for more than 30 years. His daughter doesn’t take too well to the decision and will spend the rest of the movie resenting her father even when his decision drives her to become a scientist for NASA years later.
Once the spaceship Endurance takes off with its crew of four humans and two robots, TARS and CASE (who in their lo-fi design resemble a mix of the robots from “Silent Running” and the ones from the much maligned “The Black Hole”), take off, “Interstellar” becomes equal parts space- and earthbound. One-way video messages are the crew’s only contact with Earth, and in one of the film’s most poignant scenes, after discovering that he only spent the equivalent of three Earth days on a waterlogged planet he and his crewmates barely escaped from, Cooper catches up to over 20 years of video messages, his children’s life passing right in front of his eyes. Time is, indeed, relative; those caught up in its wild streams pay a heavy price.
“Interstellar” almost runs off the rails in the third act, as Cooper and his crew land on an ice-covered planet to find a survivor of the first expedition (played by an unbilled movie star). I don’t want to give much away: let me just say that Nolan quickly recovers control of his film after tempting fate with the plot contrivances that follow this character’s introduction, delivering a tight time-tripping finale that leads into another dimension-twisting “2001” homage.
“Interstellar” is loaded with scientific and mathematical concepts thrown at the audience at the speed of light and drowned by Hans Zimmer’s bombastic and somber organ-driven Philip Glass-influenced-score. Ideas that are sometimes undermined by the Hollywood-friendly, new-agey notion that love conquers all, even the laws of gravity. I missed, at times, that overwhelming sense of wonder that is the Raison d’être of most science-fiction narratives.
“Interstellar” is so wrapped up with the mechanics of space and time travel and the toll they take on its characters that it comes perilously close to losing track of what drove these men and women —in real life and in fiction— to leave their families and planet behind. Yet, Nolan always takes a step back, conscious of the narrative tightrope he is walking, and lets his audience gaze in wonder at such jaw-dropping sights as a tiny dot —the Endurance— gliding across the surface of Saturn or at the majesty of a black hole.
By foregrounding the father-daughter drama between Cooper and Murph (and to a certain extent between Brand and his daughter, astronaut Amelia, played by Anne Hathaway), Nolan gives a personal dimension to all these scientific notions, even if that means pulling at your heartstrings and tear ducts in the most obvious of ways. But he never loses sight of the big picture: to reach out for the stars. “Interstellar” is a gentle rebuke to our partial abandonment of these dreams.