Interstellar movie review: trading worry for wonder
Thrilling intellectually and viscerally, full of stirring notions of what humanity is capable of, and full of hope. A wonderfully refreshing sort of SF.
I’m “biast” (pro):
love Christopher Nolan’s films; big science fiction geek
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
This is big. It’s huge. We don’t make movies like this anymore — we hardly ever did. I’m not talking about big in the sense of budget or even big like epic. We do that plenty: spend the GDP of a small nation to make men in capes fly or monsters stomp or toys sing. I’m talking big when it comes to ideas. Big when it comes to optimism. What passes for science fiction on screens big and small these days is dreary and depressing. Postapocalyptic and apprehensive. We stopped looking out and started looking down, and back, and in. We lost wonder and replaced it with worry.
This is not what I fell in love with science fiction for.
Which is why Interstellar is so thrilling, intellectually and viscerally. It is full of stirring notions of what humanity might be capable of, and follows through with the breathtaking adventure that necessarily follows. Or, well, the adventure that necessarily follows if we chase those possibilities instead of ignoring them. It is full of enormous risk-taking in the quest for something bigger and better for all of us. It is full of hope for humanity. And that is a wonderfully refreshing thing right now.
Interstellar does have looming apocalypse, yes, but that’s merely the impetus for the adventure. In the near future, we are witnessing a slow collapse of nature, a descent into dusty death for all of planet Earth and all her people (and presumably every other living thing, too). And it’s not only nature but human structures and facilities and culture, too, that are stagnating on their way to the end… but even here, a little bit of wonder and excitement can be rustled up by someone with the inclination for it. Our introduction to Cooper (Matthew McConnaughey: The Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyers Club) comes through a chase he leads his kids on to capture a feral surveillance drone — its solar panels and other technological goodies are invaluable salvage — that is free for the taking since any semblance of mission control collapsed a decade back. Coop ain’t happy to have had to give up his dream work as a pilot and engineer to farm dying land to help feed starving millions, but he is thrilled to be able to use his preferred skills where he can… and salvaging that drone is fun.
It’s not just movies that stopped looking up and started looking down, and Interstellar knows this, too. Coop is a lonely would-be adventurer in a world that, like ours, has lost its taste for space exploration. But a few people in a NASA that has been driven underground, literally and figuratively, are maintaining the dream, including mathematician Brand (Michael Caine: Now You See Me, The Dark Knight Rises) and his scientist daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway: Rio 2, Les Misérables). And there’s real urgency to their work, not merely daydreams of space, because they’ve discovered a wormhole out near Saturn that could hold the key to humanity’s salvation: a new planet to call home on the other side. It doesn’t take much for the Brands to convince Coop that a trip through the wormhole to scout for a habitable planet would satisfy both his thirst for adventure and his desire to save his children from the oncoming doom.
That is but the quickest outline of the beginning of a story for which the term epic barely suffices. Director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception) — writing once again with his brother, Jonathan — could easily have expanded this to a ten-hour miniseries, there’s so much that could have been lingered over here. Yet Interstellar, at nearly three hours, certainly isn’t rushed, either; almost the opposite — this could be a slower-told story from Coop’s obviously slower world than ours today. Nolan takes plenty of time for a sort of deep-space grandeur that was surely inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey: the image of the tiny, tiny ship Coop and his small crew leave Earth in passing in front of the immensity of Saturn brought tears to my eyes with its juxtaposition of the might of nature and the audacity of humanity in the face of it. It isn’t at all unfair to see shades of 2001 in Interstellar, not when it concerns itself with both the most intimate of human emotions and desires — love and survival, loneliness and despair — and the biggest of ideas: the boldness of humans as a species, the future to which we might aspire, the daring it will take to make that future happen.
(This is no art film, though: the other movie I would bet money inspired Interstellar, at least partly, is the 1979 Disney space adventure The Black Hole. That movie blew my mind as a kid, and I bet it did Nolan’s, too.)
This is a film as bold and audacious as the ideas and the adventure it embraces as humanity’s destiny, never dumbing down its science and never pretending that the clash between reason and emotion isn’t something that even brilliant scientists battle in themselves. The most humanist thing about what might be the most humanist SF film in ages is this: it knows that our future is in the hands of all us deeply flawed and deeply conflicted humans, but that there’s still plenty of reason to hope anyway. But we do actually have to try.
See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Interstellar for its representation of girls and women.