The movie opens with a series of elderly commentators recollecting their youth in a rural America smothered by dust: dust covering bookshelves, dust choking crops, dust accumulating so insistently that you had to put the plates facedown when setting the table. Steinbeck’s Dustbowl? No, a stray laptop soon alerts us that this is a Dustbowl yet to come. The exact cause of the environmental catastrophe is never clarified, though it is clearly something we brought upon ourselves. The threat, moreover, is existential: The Earth is slowly suffocating itself. The last wheat harvests are long gone, and the last okra harvest is around the corner—though, according to taste, one might consider this a feature rather than a bug. Corn remains, but how long can it sprout from land so doomed?
Among the farmers tilling this egregious soil is a former NASA pilot named Cooper (McConaughey), single father to a down-to-Earth son and a head-in-the-clouds daughter. The latter, Murph (named after Murphy’s Law, and played in her youth by Mackenzie Foy), believes that a poltergeist is haunting the overstuffed bookshelf in her bedroom and, in her mystico-scientific way, sets out to prove it. She also gets in trouble for bringing an old textbook to school, one that has not been “corrected” to explain that the 20th-century Apollo missions were merely a hoax to bankrupt the Soviets. Burned once by science, the nation as a whole has turned inward, backward.
But not so Cooper. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” he lectures his father-in-law (played with curmudgeonly nonchalance by John Lithgow). “Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” Fortunately for Cooper, he is not alone in this view. The NASA for which he once flew, long believed shuttered, has in fact gone underground as exactly the kind of covert government outfit that Fox Mulder was always looking for. Moreover, it just happens to be in need of a top-notch pilot to complete its ongoing secret mission of extraterrestrial exploration and colonization.
As luck would have it, the fellow running the show turns out to be an old teacher of Cooper’s, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who explains that decades earlier an intergalactic wormhole was created near Saturn by mysterious five-dimensional beings who evidently wanted to help humankind find a new home. Initial manned probes were sent to several planets on the far side, and the plan is for Cooper to fly a larger ship called the Endurance—a ring-shaped vessel reminiscent of the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey—through the wormhole to determine which of those worlds might prove fittest for human habitation.
Accompanying him will be three other human crewmembers, one of whom is Professor Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway) and two of whom are not (David Gyasi and Wes Bentley). Also along for the ride will be two robots that seem to have wandered in from another movie altogether: wisecracking aluminum boxes that amble like Gumby and gleam like high-end kitchenware. Cooper of course accepts the mission—“This world was never enough for you, Coop,” his father-in-law grouses—even though it pains him cruelly to leave his kids, especially the heartbroken Murph, who refuses to see him off.