Welcome back to the Church of Nolan. Please open your hymnals, and prepare to feel feelings.
When you become a parent, one thing becomes really clear. And that’s that you want to make sure your children feel safe.
I write this in the cold light of day, hours after walking out of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, instead of jumping on the laptop immediately as is my custom. The reason, simply, is that I needed time to process what is undeniably the cinematic experience of the year; an unflaggingly ambitious, confident, often moving piece of work, but I simply had one question: in the aftermath, do the film’s flaws take deeper root, or get brushed aside by the powerful emotions and visual splendor? Does the film work best only as you watch it the first time, before you start to really deconstruct what you’ve seen? In short, does it hold up?
Well, yes…and no. But mostly, emphatically, yes.
Some time in the future, humanity is in trouble. Climate change (which, mercifully, goes unexplained) has turned much of the world into a Dust Bowl, and resources are dwindling fast. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a corn farmer, but remembers his days as a crack pilot, back when mankind was interested in the world above them and not just the ground beneath their feet. But with a worldwide food shortage (blight essentially makes a different crop extinct every year), no one wants to spend any money on space exploration, even if it’s the only way to be saved. Or so he thinks.
Cooper’s daughter Murph (played as a young girl by Mackenzie Foy, and later by Jessica Chastain) believes there’s a ghost in their house. Something or someone, she thinks, is leaving them messages in the way books fall off her shelf, or in the patterns of the dust on the floor. It’s nonsense to Cooper, until the two of them (there’s also a son, but he has little and less to do) make a discovery that leads them to what remains of a hidden-from-the-public NASA, and an impossible mission.
There’s much that connects the story from A to B in the opening reels, but in short: a wormhole has appeared outside of Saturn, and there may be habitable planets on the other side. Cooper is asked to lead a four-person team into whatever there is there, reconnect with the solo astronauts who have gone before (if possible) and let the rest of us know where we’ll be moving to. Joining him will be Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of the old physicist who put this all together (Michael Caine, Nolan’s good luck charm), two other scientists, and a wisecracking robot named TARS (Bill Irwin, and it works much better than you’d expect).
But Cooper’s new gig as an interplanetary real estate agent isn’t without its problems, as the theory of relativity creates the open question of just how much time will pass on Earth — an insidiously elastic concept that limits the time they’d prefer to spend on these planets. This lends to their mission a dramatic urgency: when attempting to comfort Murph before he departs, he tells her that when he comes back, they “might even be the same age.” This, understandably, is not something Murph wants to hear, and it makes my head and my heart hurt in equal measure.
After McConaughey’s honeyed drawl and Hathaway’s enormous, frequently dewy eyes, the third-biggest “character” in the film is Christopher Nolan himself. I’ve made no secret of my enthusiasm for his work; three of his films are within my personal top dozen of the last decade (though even I can admit the truth about The Dark Knight Rises). And it’s impossible to talk about Interstellar without discussing its place within Nolan’s filmography. He’s often been accused of being a clinical, emotionless filmmaker, more interested in narrative loop-de-loops than real human storytelling.
This a charge I disagree with (particularly with Inception), but I see where his detractors are coming from — and it’s clear that Nolan does too, as Interstellar is by lightyears the most human, emotionally-driven film of his career. He still has his trademark temporal intricacies, of course, and many a jaw-dropping image. (The man does love playing with time, and stark environments; a trip to one particularly perilous planet may as well be into Limbo.) But Interstellar is, at its heart, a love story. A story about a father and his daughter. If you are not someone who buys “LOVE” as an explanation for anything, you have been warned.
Much has been made of Nolan taking inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, and some of the story’s visual cues and left turns in the final hour will no doubt remind you of that. (Though if he really wanted to be like Kubrick, he’d have held his shots longer.) I’m not going anywhere near those revelations in this review, but there will be a very obvious moment, the curviest of narrative curveballs, that will force you to make a choice: do I buy this? If you do, like I did, it will likely be because you have been successfully invested in the characters’ relationships, not its science-fiction plot.
From reading reviews, where Chris Nolan and his co-writer/brother Jonah Nolan take the film in its third act is the most polarizing decision he’s made as a filmmaker. It’ll either work for you, or it won’t — but it’s undeniable to even the crankiest cynic that Interstellar is fully committed to the thing that it is doing. Is the film perfect? Absolutely not. But hang on.
I love space. I always have. As a kid I fanatically studied the early days of the space race, up through the Apollo program; I could probably still recite for you the transmissions from the Eagle‘s landing on the moon. Even the stories about our failures, like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, I find fascinating, because they still describe a time when we as a country, as people, were reaching beyond our grasp. We don’t do much of that anymore. We send robots and probes; we make budget cuts; we privatize sub-orbital flights so celebrities and the wealthy can pop into zero-gravity for fun. We don’t really do anything.
So I was as horrified as Cooper to learn that Murph’s textbooks describe the moon landings as a hoax, propaganda used to bankrupt the Soviet Union, the better to keep impressionable children from wondering what’s out there. Would we really be so callous, so willfully blind to curiosity and discovery? I suppose it’s possible. The majesty of outer space, the heavens opening before you, is something that can only truly be understood by those who have been there. Fortunately with today’s technology, filmmakers may be beginning to come close.
Last year, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity came very close, provided you were watching it on the biggest screen possible. It enveloped you and took your breath away, but was a terrifying, white-knuckle experience. The vacuum of space was something to be conquered. Not so in Interstellar; the wormholes and the black holes and the distant planets grab you by the eyeballs until, like our intrepid explorers, there’s nothing to say but “here goes nothing” and dive into the unknown. Nolan collaborated with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne on the science and the visuals, and the result is astonishing — we’ve simply never seen these concepts on a screen before. A wormhole is not a funnel, but a sphere? Seems rather obvious in hindsight.
“Some of the greatest yachtsmen in the world,” says Cooper at one interval, “don’t even know how to swim. If they go over, that’s it. That’s us.” They boldly go not just because they must — the survival of the human race depends on it — but also, damn it, because it’s there. They wouldn’t miss it for anything. They are the devout. Even Cooper, who must agonizingly say goodbye to his family with no clue if or in what time stream he might see them again, is inexorably drawn to the cosmos.
And Hans Zimmer’s glorious organ-driven score (which he began writing before Nolan even had a script, creating another memorable chapter in their long partnership) rumbles over you like a Catholic hymn, which is right, as these days a new film from Christopher Nolan is the closest a movie theater gets to a religious experience. Which is why I feel like I’m doing a bad job of describing it.
Interstellar is a towering achievement of craft; the sets are lovingly detailed, with Nolan’s known affinity for practical effects (including using projection outside the windows of the spacecraft, not greenscreen) continuing to pay subtle dividends. The planetary landscapes are frightening, but beautiful. The robots — once you realize that, unlike 2001, they will not be turning evil — have more fun personality than most humans in the cast, even landing a couple of heroic moments that would make R2-D2 proud. And McConaughey, who just won an Oscar and very nearly an Emmy, gives perhaps an even better performance here as a loving father displaced in space and time. Chastain, as Murph herself works to save her species back on Earth, has a trickier role as things unfold, but just about nails it.
But Nolan, who throws himself headlong into every one of his projects, has never been known for his air-tight logic. Here the emotional core is so strong it almost doesn’t matter, but you’re left with a few holes big enough to fly a spaceship through. Some of them are just nitpicky: “If blight has taken wheat, where do they get the beer?” “Why is Casey Affleck so wasted in this role?” Others threaten to derail the experience if you stop to think about them: “But where’s the money coming from?” “Why does (SURPRISE A-LIST ACTOR) do this when they could just do this?” “Can someone please explain (REDACTED), seriously?”
There are some unusual directorial choices that distract you along the way, like the use of “documentary” talking heads in the opening scenes, the over-use of Dylan Thomas’s poetry, and some George Lucas cross-cutting in the middle of the film that saps all the tension from what should be anxious moments. But weirdly, by the end Nolan kind of justifies these choices, even if I remain less sure there wasn’t a better path. I’m being very vague, but if you’re reading this after you’ve seen the film, you’ll know.
If I’m being entirely honest with myself, and with you, Interstellar is frequently messy and occasionally unfocused; entire subplots and characters could be excised without damaging the film’s integrity. The film is almost certainly too long. But it works because it reaches for the stars, figuratively and literally, and you are moved. Sure, it doesn’t all make sense. But as big-budget studio tentpole extravaganzas go, it’s high pop art.
Christopher Nolan, it is abundantly clear, is this generation’s Spielberg: everything he does is and will be hotly anticipated by acolytes and detractors. (Interestingly, The Beard was originally attached to direct.) Sooner or later, he will successfully wed the head and the heart, and it will be transcendent. This isn’t it, but he’s closer than ever. At the very least, it’s the first film of his that made me tear up.
I walked out of the theater floating on clouds, attempting to wrap my mind around what I’d experienced; I wrestled with its weighty themes; my inner geek was working overdrive to explain away the film’s perceived problems. Earlier my wife and I left our kids with her parents while we went to see this film, and when we came back to get them our three-year-old daughter was still awake. I immediately rushed to her and wrapped her in a big hug. “You’re still the same age!” I said. And the moment the words left my mouth, I knew: Interstellar had worked its magic.