Like the great space epics of the past, Christopher Nolan?s Interstellar distills terrestrial anxieties and aspirations into a potent pop parable, a mirror of the mood down here on Earth. Stanley Kubrick?s 2001: A Space Odyssey blended the technological awe of the Apollo era with the trippy hopes and terrors of the Age of Aquarius. George Lucas? first Star Wars trilogy, set not in the speculative future but in the imaginary past, answered the malaise of the '70s with swashbuckling nostalgia. Interstellar, full of visual dazzle, thematic ambition, geek bait and corn (including the literal kind), is a sweeping, futuristic adventure driven by grief, dread and regret.
Trying to jot down notes by the light of the Imax screen, where lustrous images (shot by Hoyte van Hoytema and projected from real 70 mm film) flickered, I lost count of how many times the phrase ?I?m sorry? was uttered - by parents to children, children to parents, sisters to brothers, scientists to astronauts and astronauts to one another. The whole movie can be seen as a plea for forgiveness on behalf of our foolish, dreamy species. We messed everything up, and we feel really bad about it. Can you please give us another chance?
The possibility that such a ?you? might be out there, in a position to grant clemency, is one of the movie?s tantalizing puzzles. Some kind of message seems to be coming across the emptiness of space and along the kinks in the fabric of time, offering a twinkle of hope amid humanity?s rapidly darkening prospects. For most of ?Interstellar,? the working hypothesis is that a benevolent alien race, dwelling somewhere on the far side of a wormhole near one of the moons of Saturn, is sending data across the universe, encrypted advice that just may save us if we can decode it fast enough.
What our planet and species need saving from is a slow-motion environmental catastrophe. Rather than explain how this bleak future arrived through the usual montages of mayhem, Nolan (who wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan) drops us quietly into what looks like a fairly ordinary reality. We are in a rural stretch of North America, a land of battered pickup trucks, dusty bluejeans and wind-burned farmers scanning the horizon for signs of a storm. Talking-head testimony from old-timers chronicles what sounds like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, until we spot a laptop on the table being set for family dinner.
The head of the family in question is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a widower who lives with his two children and his father-in-law (John Lithgow). Once a NASA pilot, Cooper now grows corn, the only thing that will grow after a blight has wiped out most of the planet?s other crops. The human population has shrunk to a desperate remnant, but the survivors cling to the habits and rituals of normal life. For now, there is plenty of candy and soda and beer (thanks to all that corn); there are parent-teacher conferences after school; and Cooper?s farmhouse is full of books and toys. But the blight is spreading, the dust storms are growing worse, and the sense of an ending is palpable.
The Nolans cleverly conflate scientific denialism with technophobia, imagining a fatalistic society that has traded large ambition for small-scale problem solving and ultimate resignation. But Christopher Nolan, even in his earlier, more modestly budgeted films, has never been content with the small scale. His imagination is large; his eye seeks out wide, sweeping vistas; and if he believes in anything, it is ambition. As it celebrates the resistance to extinction - taking as its touchstone Dylan Thomas? famous villanelle Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, with its repeated invocation of ?rage against the dying of the light? - Interstellar becomes an allegory of its own aspirations, an argument for grandeur, scale and risk, on screen and off.
Dick Cavett, a son of Nebraska, used to ask (quoting Abe Burrows), ?How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they?ve seen the farm?? Cooper and ?Interstellar? are clearly marked for something other than agrarian pursuits, but the first section of the movie is the richest and most haunting, establishing a delicately emotional tone and clear moral and dramatic stakes for the planet-hopping to follow.
Cooper is devoted to his children, in particular his daughter, Murph, played as a young girl by the preternaturally alert and skeptical Mackenzie Foy and as an adult by Jessica Chastain. When her father is recruited for a secret NASA mission to search for a habitable new planet, Murph is devastated by his departure. Her subsequent scientific career is both a tribute to his memory and a way of getting even.
The Nolans are fond of doubled characters and mirrored plots, and so ?Interstellar? is built around twinned father-daughter stories. Among Cooper?s colleagues on board the spaceship is Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), whose father, also called Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), has developed the theories behind their quest. He and Murph remain on the ground, crunching the numbers and growing older in the usual earthly way, while Cooper and the younger Brand, thanks to relativity, stay pretty much the same age. (Cooper?s son, Tom, played by Timothee Chalamet as a boy, matures into Casey Affleck). The two pairs of daughters and dads perform variations on the theme of paternal and filial love, finding delicate and moving passages of loyalty, rebellion, disillusionment and acceptance.
A lot of other stuff happens, too, as it tends to out in space. A cynical critic might suppose that the last two hours of ?Interstellar? were composed in a fit of spoiler hysteria. Nondisclosure pleas from the studio have been unusually specific. Forget about telling you what happens: I?m not even supposed to tell you who?s in the thing, aside from the people you?ve seen on magazine covers. I guess I can disclose that Cooper and Brand are accompanied by two other astronauts, played by a witty, scene-stealing David Gyasi and a deadpan Wes Bentley, and also by a wry robot who speaks in the voice of Bill Irwin.
The touches of humor those characters supply are welcome, if also somewhat stingily rationed. Nobody goes to a Christopher Nolan movie for laughs. But it is hard to imagine that his fans - who represent a fairly large segment of the world?s population - will be disappointed by ?Interstellar.? I haven?t always been one of them, but I?ve always thought that his skill and ingenuity were undeniable. He does not so much transcend genre conventions as fulfill them with the zeal of a true believer.
It may be enough to say that Interstellar is a terrifically entertaining science-fiction movie, giving fresh life to scenes and situations we?ve seen a hundred times before, and occasionally stumbling over pompous dialogue or overly portentous music. (In general, the score, by Hans Zimmer, is exactly as portentous as it needs to be.)
Of course, the film is more than that. It is in the nature of science fiction to aspire to more, to ascend fearlessly toward the sublime. You could think of Interstellar, which has a lot to say about gravity, as the anti-Gravity. That movie, which would fit inside this one twice, stripped away the usual sci-fi metaphysics, presenting space travel as an occasion for quiet wonder and noisy crisis management. Nolan takes the universe and eternity itself as his subject and his canvas, brilliantly exploiting cinema?s ability to shift backward and sideways in time (through flashbacks and crosscuts), even as it moves relentlessly forward.
But Gravity and Interstellar are both ultimately about the longing for home, about voyages into the unknown that become odysseys of return. And Interstellar may take its place in the pantheon of space movies because it answers an acute earthly need, a desire not only for adventure and novelty but also, in the end, for comfort.