We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars and now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.
My friends, we are truly living in a golden age of dystopia. If you’re partial to grim fantasies about the end of all things good, then this is a truly wonderful time to be alive. Books, films, television and video games all offer us endless flavors of that now familiar scenario: the Earth is dying, it’s our fault, the end is nigh. Plagues, zombies, out of control machines… we love it all! In fact, there’s such a glut of disaster porn that it sometimes feels like we’re all just pleasuring ourselves to one long snuff film, where the human species stands in for the terrified runaway who gets dispatched in the end (Take that to your therapist this week. You’re welcome!). And though Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is unquestionably a part of this trend, it seeks to be something more. And, in some ways, it achieves it. Mostly. Sort of.
The Set Up: Matthew McConaughey plays Coop, an ex-NASA test pilot who is now a dirt farmer eeking out a living in a near-future dust bowl. The Earth is plagued by giant dust storms and a “blight” which is killing off crops one by one (we’re told, “last year it was okra” Okra? Really?). The Earth is rapidly running out of food and it is a hopeless place, where humanity has turned inward as they try stoically to delay the inevitable. Coop lives with his two children and his father in-law, played by John Lithgow in a sweater, and spends a lot of his time on the front porch musing about going back to the stars; something that, like smiles and good times, is a sad relic of the past. This is because NASA has been (quite sensibly I think) disbanded because no one could justify space exploration while the world is dying. But then, in slightly queer scenario that is only slightly mitigated by later revelations, Coop and his precocious daughter discover that NASA is still ticking away in an underground base. And they’ve got some good news. A wormhole has been discovered near Saturn and it leads to a solar system in another galaxy where some potentially habitable planets lay waiting for humanity to populate (and one presumes, start the ticking clock to DOOM all over again). They recruit Coop to fly a mission through the wormhole, kicking off a story about time, space and consciousness. And, oh yeah, love. Yep, it goes there… but it’s not as bad as you think.
And that’s about all I can tell you about the plot. Unfortunately, this is one of those films where revealing too much of what happens would straight up ruin the movie. Suffice it to say that Coop and his crew of fellow astronauts do make it to the new galaxy where they discover things that challenge, not only their physical existence, but their notion of what constitutes that existence in the first place. Is that vague enough for you? I’m sorry. But you’ll thank me.
What’s safer to discuss is the fact that Interstellar is BIG science fiction. It is, of course, an effects laden epic with plenty of action. But that’s not really the BIG I’m talking about. I’m talking about ideas here people. This is the kind of sci-fi we don’t see much of anymore. It’s the kind that owes more to Arthur C. Clarke and Issac Asimov than it does to George Lucas and Gene Rodenberry. In other words, it’s the kind where the science inspires the fiction and not the other way around.
This has traditionally been a problem for films like this, especially when they are marketed to a general audience. Case in point, 1997’s excellent Contact, which was a joy for the DEEP NERDS and a yawn fest for most everyone else. I distinctly remember watching a group of teenage boys in the theatre devolve into a terrified pack of apes during the long silent sequence at the beginning of that film. But this is Christopher Nolan we’re talking about here, a director with the uncanny knack of taking complicated, in-the-weeds plots and making them accessible to everyone. Think of the fragmented plot of Memento or the ever-deepening dream levels of Inception. The fact that Inception was a bona-fide, tent-pole style, money making hit is still one of the great miracles of modern cinema. So if anyone can take the big themes of time, space and consciousness in Interstellar and make them entertaining to that douchebag with ear gauges who’s vaping during the movie, it’s gonna be Mr. Nolan. He does this by refusing to leave any viewer behind. Yes the material is complex, but like the best teachers, Nolan finds ways to engage the slower students in the class without boring the gifted kids. It’s a wonderful super power but, in Interstellar, I think those powers may have finally turned against him.
Look, the real science of interstellar travel is hard. Like, really hard. Like, MIT hard. And when you do away with warp drives and hyperspace and start getting into the nitty gritty of singularities, gravity, time dilation and multiple dimensions you’re gonna lose a few folks at the edges. Stanley Kubrik knew that with 2001: A Space Oddysey and he was fine with it. It allowed him to take Dave (and us) into some pretty crazy, confusing and mind-expanding places. Nolan refuses to do the same. Even in Interstellar’s super weird conclusion, you can feel his restraint. His desire to make sure everyone “gets it”. And as a consequence, what could have been a transcendent and surprising meditation about our place in the universe becomes something less; neither brainy enough for the real devotees of science fiction, nor accessible enough for the dilettantes. And it is this problem that makes Interstellar a good movie, but maybe not a great one.
Should you see Interstellar? Yes, of course you should. The performances of supporting players like John Lithgow, Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck are excellent. And though we are all suffering from a little McConaughey exhaustion and his oft-parodied delivery does kind of make you giggle, he is probably the only A-list, box office dude who could have pulled this movie off. And, of course, the film is visually arresting with beautifully realized cosmic wonders and alien worlds that seem disquietingly like our own, save for their menacing dangers. If you have an IMAX theatre near you, I’d recommend dropping the extra cheddar to see this one on the BIG big screen. That’s exactly what I’ll be doing when I see Interstellar again. And I will definitely be seeing it again. Why? Because, as flawed as I think this film might be, there is a part of me that believes that there might be more beyond the event horizon of Interstellar than a single viewing can reveal.
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