Review of Interstellar, Directed by Christopher Nolan
In true Christopher Nolan fashion, Interstellar delivers a story unlike anything we have ever heard. It follows certain cinematic tropes, of course, finding a comfortable place in the sci-fi genre, but even after last year’s outer-space hit Gravity, and even given the cultural prevalence of Star Wars and Star Trek, Interstellar charts its own course. It is the closest thing our generation will have to a 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film achieves its originality by turning the mysterious far reaches of the universe into both a philosophical playground and the canvas for a deeply personal story of love, loss, deceit, betrayal, and hope. The drama swings between the personal struggle of four astronauts who have left earth behind – possibly for life – to the epic quest to find a new world and save the human race.
Out of Nolan’s film portfolio, it’s easiest to compare Interstellar to Inception, with its dreamlike worlds, mind-bending physics, and vast imagination. It takes us through universe-jumping black holes, down wormholes, and onto the surface of new worlds full of giant waves and frozen clouds. The dreams of Inception, though whimsical, had a scientific component in that they could be engineered. Interstellar, in equally stymieing fashion, taps the decidedly scientific world of astrophysics and new dimensions to weave its fathomless web. It leaves the audience confused at first viewing, but nonetheless satisfied by the story as a whole.
Even though significant parts of the film don’t make sense, I walked away from the film pleased because Nolan is a master of masking plot holes and points of confusion with carefully crafted character and intellectual dialogue.
“Man was born here,” says Cooper, the film’s protagonist (played masterfully by Matthew McConaughey), “we weren’t meant to die here.” Even as the film contemplates the impending extinction of the human race, it captures the sense of destiny in our existence. In further affirmation of this, Dylan Thomas’ famous poem is quoted several times as a mantra, almost to the point of excess: “Do not go gentle into that dark night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” This is used in reference both to the individual and the human race as a whole, which faces an earth increasingly incapable of sustaining it.Interstellar’s dual engagement of the mind and heart compensates for the film’s peculiar premise. Like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar is mostly set in our world – but not quite. It looks like ours in almost every way, but Nolan, in an almost offhanded fashion, throws in strange new attributes that could only be possible decades in the future. The world is experiencing a global dust bowl, but the film’s setting in rural America hearkens back to the Great Depression. Cash crops have progressively failed until only corn is left, and soon that will fall to blight as well. At first blush, Cooper appears to be simply a salt-of-the-earth Oklahoma farmer, but we soon see that he is also an expert engineer who catches stray Air Force drones for fun and uses their parts to maintain a fleet of self-driving combines and tractors. Bits of dialogue here and there reveal that the rest of humanity has achieved some sort of cooperative utopia, with militaries disbanded, the world economy focused on food production, and schools teaching that the lunar landings were propaganda (much to Cooper’s chagrin).
Here we find a deliberate tie-in connecting today’s world to the setting of Interstellar. Space travel and the spirit of adventure are out of vogue, which Nolan has said himself is a response to the same disinterest we see today. There was a time, at the height of the space race, when a child’s highest aspiration was to become an astronaut. Today, with our GPS navigation and big data, we still live in an era of mind-boggling innovation, but our zeal for adventure has dimmed. What happened to that drive to explore that final frontier? Have we become content with this world?
Interstellar rekindles that imagination. It taps the hope for new life – the incessant quest to become like gods – that animates our stories and strivings. It carries weighty, dark reminders that our sin nature goes with us to the farthest reaches of the universe. Yet it also proclaims the great transcendence of love, which runs deeper in our hearts than any survival instinct, survives through an eternity of time, and spans the farthest reaches of the universe.