Interstellar: A Preposterous Epic

Christopher Nolan's latest film may be inane at times, but it's refreshing in its scale and ambition.

Warner Bros.

Ah, for simpler times back in the spring, when True Detective was on the air and Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle was explaining to us that time is “a flat circle.” McConaughey has now returned for director Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi opus Interstellar, and over the intervening months, the concept of time has only become more perplexing—one dimension out of at least five that make an appearance in the movie. Indeed, a modicum of perplexity may be the price of admission: Though Interstellar is quick to cite Einstein’s theories of relativity—celebrated theoretical physicist Kip Thorne acted as a consultant and executive producer—it rarely slows down to explain how they apply.

In any case, Interstellar is quite adamant—and here I’m certain the movie is not channeling Einstein—that however many dimensions may exist, love trumps them all. Love, we are instructed variously, is “quantifiable,” “must have a purpose,” and “is the one thing that transcends time and space.”

If this sounds like a hokey premise for a story about Earthly apocalypse and intergalactic exodus, that’s because it is one. But this is hokiness of uncommon scale and grandeur. Interstellar may be a preposterous epic, but it is an epic nonetheless. For years, the project was attached to Steven Spielberg, and these roots are very much in evidence. Envision a movie as Spielberg-y as any you’ve ever seen—all the craftsmanship, all the sentimentality—add in a concluding twist reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan (not the current version, but the circa-Signs, not-yet-tragic version), and you’ll have a pretty good sense of what to expect.

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.

I won’t say much about what unfolds once they’re aloft. But the novel obstacle that Cooper and his fellows must overcome, as I hinted earlier, is time itself. It’s not merely that the clock is running out for life on Earth, it’s that due to a property called gravitational time dilation (predicted by Einstein and since confirmed experimentally), the clock is running far more quickly back home than it is for the astronauts. When the latter land on a planet orbiting a black hole, for instance, a single precious hour on the surface is equal to seven years’ time on Earth. Before leaving his daughter, Cooper had joked that when they met again they might be the same age—and, indeed, soon enough they are, with Jessica Chastain inheriting the role of the grownup Murph.

McConaughey is entirely solid as the conflicted dad-turned-space-jockey, and Caine could pull off the avuncular authority of the elder Dr. Brand in his sleep. Hathaway, however, is an awkward fit as Dr. Brand fille, too loose at times and too tight at others. She’s certainly not helped by plot developments that quickly render her the Girl Who Needs Rescuing and, later, have her argue for making decisions about the survival of the human race based on whom she wants to canoodle with. Yes, the movie itself may ultimately come to the conclusion that love conquers all, but making Hathaway an early advocate for this thesis does not exactly bolster her scientific credentials.

There is much agonized familial melodrama on display throughout: a father (McConaughey) who’s left his daughter behind on Earth; a daughter (Hathaway) who’s done the same with her dad. Difficult choices are made with regularity, and there is much discussion of our obligations to our children, to ourselves, and to humankind as a whole. Lest there be any doubt of how seriously the film treats these questions, they are often accompanied by deafening swells of the Hans Zimmer score and repeated invocations—I counted at least four—of the Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.” (It’s less tedious if you close your eyes and imagine that it’s Rodney Dangerfield doing the reciting.)

This solemnity of tone coexists uncomfortably with a number of plot twists that defy any but the most generous credulity. To cite just one, it turns out that the answers to the riddle that might save humanity (the “solution” to gravity) are to be found both in the childhood bedroom in which Murph once detected a poltergeist and in the core of a black hole galaxies away, two unlikely locales that are in fact—well, I’ll let you see for yourself.

Because despite its shortcomings, Interstellar is a movie worth seeing. Yes, it may be tendentious at times and absurd at others. But the scope and ambition of Nolan’s vision are refreshing in this era of safe bets, of sequels and spinoffs and franchise-hopefuls. The visuals alone are worth it: the violent whirling of a dust-hurricane on Earth; the crash of a mile-high tidal wave on a distant world; the quiet, deep-space beauty of a black hole ringed by a glowing accretion disc. In ways both good and (occasionally) bad, Interstellar is a mind-blowing movie. Enjoy it accordingly.