Set at the dusk of humanity’s time on Earth, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut pilot, is recruited by his mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to fly a desperate mission to find a new world for humanity. Cooper leaves behind his two young children and his father-in-law (John Lithgow) to care for their corn farm. Joining him on this mission are a small group of scientists, Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bently) and his mentor’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway). Rounding out the crew are two robots, TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart). Traveling through a wormhole to a distant galaxy, they are to investigate the viability of potential human colonies. Meanwhile, their loved ones back home try and find a way to cope with worsening conditions and how to move people off of Earth.
Christopher Nolan is a great technical director, but I have always felt his films are lacking when it comes to telling an emotional story. No Nolan film up to this point truly made me feel an emotional connection to the characters. For example, the emotional core Inception exists, but it is buried in layers of exposition, dream mechanics and is only really leveraged for plot and basic character motivation, never explored. The emotional component comes off as distant, rather than immediate.
Interstellar stands apart from the rest of Nolan’s filmography. The film wears its heart on its sleeve, while still being deeply rooted in science and science fiction. While it would be easy to dismiss they way the film combines these two disparate storytelling modes as obvious or even manipulative, all great science fiction is about humanity. The Nolans (Jonathan Nolan penned the screenplay) find ways to bring the two together in ways that consistently propel the characters and plot forward, giving the film an elegant thematic resonance as the characters get further into the unknown. What makes us what we are? Survival instincts? Love? Our connections to others? And how does that correlate with what we understand about the universe and our place in it? These are questions we all face, but never have to answer in everyday life. Very heady stuff, but the character arcs balance provide balance and a human scale to these questions.
Extinction-level crises, it could be argued, are the highest stakes possible for a film to take on. However, at the same time, it’s hard for any one individual to fully to grasp as anything more than a concept. Impending extinction is not an emotion. By choosing to set a relatively small story against the massive backdrop of extinction and the cosmos itself, it both reinforces the smallness of our species while allowing us to connect to the characters. Ultimately, Interstellar is a love story, but not a romance. Family is the primary relationship the film explores, with Cooper wanting to return to his children while racing against the clock of relativity and the massive distances of space. What do you miss when you sleep for months or years? Interstellar is as interested in exploring that challenge as it is the depths of a black hole.
This isn’t to say that the science here isn’t also front and center. There is enough stark talk of wormholes, relativity, and black holes that it will make you long for the warm and affable Neil deGrasse Tyson to stop the film and explain in more detail. Interstellar has almost as much exposition as Inception, but it goes down easier because the space travel in the film is built on things we are familiar with in real world and other films, not a brand new concept like dream invasions. I’m not a physicist, but the science is accurate/believable enough, especially given that theoretical physicist Kip Thorne is an executive producer.
Beyond the ideas presented in the film, it is truly an immersive viewing experience, especially in IMAX. Space hasn’t looked this good or this expansive since 2001: A Space Odyssey (Interstellar owes a lot to Kubrick and Clarke). Sitting at the border between reality and imagination, Interstellar urges us to think bigger and push outward while realizing that we are just a small part of what is out there. This includes the alien worlds visited in the film, all filmed on Earth of course, they feel wholly new, even among the thousands of planets that have existed in film to date.
Interstellar is an amazing film to behold, and easy the most ambitious blockbuster of the year. Original and new, it the kind of movie that reminds us that great films are a call to imagination. Drawing on equal parts hard science and human emotion, the film never fails to feel engaging even over the course of its long run time. But the most gratifying part might be seeing Nolan the Tin Man finally get his heart.
Interstellar opens in Philly area IMAX theaters today and wide on Friday.