Review: ‘Interstellar’ and The Meaning of Life, The Universe, And Everything

Review: ‘Interstellar’ and The Meaning of Life, The Universe, And Everything November 7, 2014

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This review first ran at The Federalist.

If humanistic pop science is a religion, then Christopher Nolan is its high priest and Interstellar its rapture story.

This ambitious film with magnificent scope and epic images is less an adventure story and more an exposition of a frothy, inch-deep, godless faith that science alone can save and yet that love conquers all, even science.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA test pilot, is a man of the enlightenment trapped in the neo-medieval world of the near future. Science, we are told, has failed. Mass starvation thinned out the earth’s population. MRI machines, cell phones, and television are things of the past. Men pour their sweat into the soil as their distant ancestors did. Women age before their time. No one has energy to look to the stars.

That’s because the earth is slowly dying, creating a worldwide dust bowl, throwing off the shackles of humanity. The images Nolan uses to create this pessimistic world are familiar: Farmhouses from the 1930s, corn fields suffocating in dust, women in simple denim with leathery faces devoid of hope. It’s America’s Dust Bowl era returned, but this time on a global scale and with no hope of reprieve.

That Nolan should create this dismal, pessimistic view of the near future feels odd in the light of reality. In our lifetimes, for the first time in history, mass starvation has been eradicated on earth. Starvation occurs in areas suffering from wars and political injustice, but it’s not from lack of food. The earth supports its seven billion people in unheard of abundance, the blessing of modern efficiency in food production and the capitalist system applying the principles of actual science.

But never mind that. In Interstellar, humanity has overreached and been punished with shortage of food. Progress halts, destitute humanity rejects technology. It doesn’t need to make sense. It just is.

Cooper never stopped believing, though, that mankind could use science to solve its problems and that the universe was full of magical things waiting to be discovered. He shares this confidence with his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). When strange messages start appearing in her bedroom, it leads Cooper to what remains of NASA and a mission that will take him from her.

Humanity’s last chance, he is told, is to explore through a wormhole, to seek a planet that will become a new home. For his children’s sake, Cooper leaves to pilot the mission. His most dire fear is relativity, the time warp that means an hour delay costs a decade of his children’s life on earth. With Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and a few other pioneers, he sets into the unknown.

The film’s greatest strength is the emotional core it builds between Cooper and Murph. His departure is the great tragedy of her life. Her love is the great core of his. Every second that goes by means much, much more to him because it might be a week to her. Fantastic performances from McConaughey and Jessica Chastain as adult Murph plant the soaring film firmly in earthly feelings.

The film also captures, in true sci-fi fashion, the grandeur of the universe. Breathtaking images convey the emptiness of space and the awe of cosmos. A beautiful score by Hans Zimmer knows when to rumble, when to thrill, and when to let silence speak. It’s one to see on the big screen. The bigger, the better.

There are weaknesses, however. Although the film sometimes amazes, it also sometimes shocks, and not in a good way. A few scenes are so melodramatic and maudlin that they take the viewer right out of the story. A storyline involving Matt Damon feels contrived and unnecessary, as does a crisis with Murph’s brother Tom (Casey Affleck). When a character is revealed to have been behaving badly, neither his motivation nor his actions make much sense.

To top it all off, the grandfatherly professor inspiring the expedition (Michael Cane) insists on repeating Dylan Thomas’s most famous poem at regular intervals. “Do not go gentle into that good night…” The first time it’s inspiring. But by the third mention, it’s turned into a Metaphor with a capital M, for humanity, for science, for the earth, for Cooper. Let’s all go ungently into the good night. Huzzah!

In the final summation, this film is a vehicle for science-y, humanistic, pop philosophy. The universe is empty. Humanity fills it. Science is our hope but love is the ultimate scientific fact. Someone is out there, reaching out to save. That someone turns out to be us.

It’s like Oprah and Steven Hawking had a child in movie form

There are plenty of profound-sounding pronouncements and deep philosophical conversations you’d hear late at night in an undergrad dorm, but they all add up to less than the sum of their parts. Nevertheless, the film gets huge credit for its ambition. Like its subjects, it aspires to explore the outer reaches of the known universe. If it doesn’t quite get there, it at least raises our collective gaze from the dusty earth to the heavens above.


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