Let’s say the Earth is in peril. Maybe it’s dying. Where do we go? What do we do? How do we solve this problem?
This is a scenario that should feel familiar to anyone who spends time at the movies, and these are questions that have been answered in sci-fi movies past. Most of them deal with it in the same fashion, more or less: fighting back. Zombie movies suggest that we simply adapt to our new surroundings. If there’s an alien invasion in question, we use blunt military force, or, in the case of Independence Day, a hokey computer virus. And according to Armageddon, we literally nuke the problem out of existence.
There’s another option, though, but it’s the most far-fetched: we leave. Pack our bags, find a new place for humanity to thrive, and just like that, our species moves on from impending disaster. It’s this notion that sets the stage for Interstellar, the latest original idea from Christopher Nolan. It’s a film that takes a lot of risks, many of them on a prospective movie-going audience, but is ultimately all the better because of this.
The big problem presented here takes the form of an unstoppable blight. We have seen the very last okra harvest (who likes that slimy crap anyway?), and corn is going next. Natural resources are quickly depleting, dust is accumulating everywhere, and we’re running out of oxygen.
At the forefront of this epidemic we have Cooper (Matthew Mcconaughey), an engineer-turned-farmer who hates the fact that he has to tend to dying crops, but does so for the sake of his family’s survival. Through forces that appear seemingly convenient, he runs into his old boss Prof. Brand (Michael Caine) and what’s left of NASA, and boy oh boy, do they have a plan–we leave our planet, repopulate a new one, and give humankind another shot at survival somewhere else in the cosmos.
This, naturally, is much easier said than done. Our solar system doesn’t contain any habitable planets, and according to scientists early on in Interstellar, the rest of our galaxy is out of the question. To really give our species a fighting chance, we have to take this journey elsewhere–quite literally into the unknown. And thanks to the appearance of a conveniently placed wormhole, we may very well have a chance at doing that.
What happens next I will not tell–it’s best to experience Interstellar with as little prior knowledge as possible. But I will say this: it will take your breath away. This film is visually marvelous, featuring real-world locales and an abundance of practical effects in lieu of CGI gimmickry. The action sequences kept me on the edge of my seat throughout most of ita 169-minute running time, and several of them literally had me in awe.
With such an amazing palette being displayed here, it’s tempting to lump Interstellar in with space-bound roller coaster rides like Gravity, but there’s so much more to it than aesthetics. Beyond a dying Earth and the apparent dangers of wormhole travel, Cooper is asked to captain the mission alongside fellow scientists played by Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi and Wes Bentley.
On paper, this makes sense: Cooper is a former astronaut, and has actually gone into space. He’s a relic of more prosperous, ambitious times. But he also has two children on Earth, and the relative implications of interstellar travel suggest that he may never see them again.
This brings up the first ethical dilemma presented within Interstellar: the human aging dynamic. If time is relative, then the delicate aging process of humanity suddenly becomes an even more valuable commodity. I’m not giving anything away by telling you that Cooper doesn’t take this decision lightly. And his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), is absolutely against the idea. Watching Cooper leave her behind is incredibly heart wrenching, and it only gets more complicated from there.
I wasn’t expecting much in the way of emotion given Christopher Nolan’s track record. He is a gifted director, there’s no doubting that, but even his most lauded efforts have an icy undertone that emphasize decisions and puzzling plot points over actual feelings. His films punch you in gut and string you along for the ride, even if their characters leave something to be desired. In The Dark Knight movies, I was far more interested in seeing what Christian Bale’s Batman would do next than actually root for the guy. Same with Inception, Memento, and The Prestige: full of interesting characters and labyrinthine twists and turns, but nothing much in the way of actual humanity
This isn’t a knock against his style–everyone can’t emulate the warmth of Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis. Prickly movies have their place in this world, and few do them quite as well as Nolan. But Interstellar isn’t a prickly movie. The trademark Nolan puzzle pieces are still there, though this time there is far more at stake: characters worth giving a damn about.
Here is what’s is truly remarkable about Interstellar: take away the intimate moments, the excellent ensemble cast, and the emotional pull. You’re still left with an incredibly compelling science fiction movie that takes the “science” part seriously enough to warrant a recommendation for die-hard geeks and genre aficionados. It would probably still be a great film. Factor in the humanity and the linear adventure narrative, it suddenly becomes an excellent one. Understand that a film like this has never actually been attempted before, and what we’ve got here is a bona fide masterpiece.
It’s incredibly rare to find a big budgeted science fiction film that dares to play with big ideas, and yet here we are with Interstellar, an astonishing amalgam of space exploration and theoretical physics. It features the type of speculative science that transcends what we’re supposed to expect from Hollywood, wrapping all the cosmic mumbo-jumbo into a package that’s simultaneously streamlined and mind blowing. At the top of my head, I can’t think of another film that takes such a grand approach to storytelling without having to sacrifice the intimate quality of humanity. Big in both scope and scale, Interstellar is a wonder to behold. It’s easily the best science fiction film of 2014. Maybe even the best from this decade, six remaining years be damned.