I usually leave a theater with some kind of preliminary conclusion about a film, but as often as not my initial impressions age and morph and solidify with the passage of a little time. Not always, but certainly with ambitious or complex films. If Christopher Nolan’s latest effort, Interstellar, doesn’t qualify as ambitious or complex (or at least multi-stranded) then I don’t know what would. Certainly I feel well-justified for being unsettled; a couple days later I’m still chewing on what feels like several different films wrapped into one.
The Earth is dying. Set in the very near future, our ecosystem has passed a tipping point such that we are no longer able to grow the food we need to survive. Civilization crumbles as life itself wanes. Our path forward is apparently to find another place to live. Through a kind of convoluted pathway, we find ourselves a fly on the wall aboard one of the missions in search of a new home.
There are about a hundred gebrillion tales that might spring from such a setup. Humankind’s escape from Earth may be one of the easiest wellsprings for a good story, but there’s a lot in that story that seems waaay beyond us. I can’t tell if director Nolan has navigated the thicket wisely or not, but he certainly gets high marks for ambition. (I see from the Wikipedia article that Nolan consulted with physicist Kip Thorne about physical matters, so perhaps he deserves higher marks yet.) That aforementioned convoluted pathway that puts us on a spaceship is one of the several films-in-one; the mission itself and its science is another; what happens on the mission and afterward is another film or two, though these tie the others together. More or less.
Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a hotshot pilot from the now-defunct NASA space program who presently works the family farm with his late wife’s father (played by John Lithgow) and his two teen-aged children. Their dustbowl lives are consumed by trying to keep the farm alive as the very dirt turns against them, and trying to lead normal lives as normal life is becoming impossible. Cooper has a special bond with his daughter Murphy, a precocious and imaginative child with an interest in science—she is very like her father. When Cooper is called to pilot the Mission To Save Humanity, he leaves not knowing (as great space pioneer Lincoln said) when, or whether ever, he may return. His son is old enough, and far enough along his path of becoming a farmer, to accept this turn of events; but his daughter, who is coming into her own at just this moment and reliant on the guiding hand and love of her father—an extraordinary man who has a crucial role to play in the extraordinary woman who will emerge—cannot make peace with his decision.
That’s a great kickoff, I’d say. But the seeds planted here continue to sprout for the next three hours. A father having to leave his children behind is one of many elements to the story, but this thread has to serve as the emotional sinew between the disparate elements. At the time I wasn’t sure if it was enough, but I find after a night of stewing that there's maybe more sinew there than I thought.
As the trailers confirm, the film is unquestionably beautiful to look at. And it’s just such a huge story that you’re hardly given an idle moment in nearly three hours. So the film succeeds as an entertainment beyond question. But many of these plot elements and developments raise the hackles of my skepticism. There are several bald-faced dei ex machina pushing the story along—each with a freight train’s worth of questions in tow—but we scarcely have time to think on these things before we're carried off by the Next Thing. At times I fear we’re kind of baffled with the bullshit and self-important terminology of pseudo-science gobbledygook, but the flood carries us onward so quickly that we just have to let it go. A little voice in my head reminds me that it’s science-fiction and not an educational film. Enough of the story is essentially plausible for us to accept basic premises; the rest--including the solving of mysteries with bigger mysteries--must be accepted.
It took me about 12 hours to make peace with that precondition, though even the immediate aftertaste was more sweet than sour. And once I made my peace I found the film looming as a magnificent, epic event. It’s a near-future Star Trek movie with a quasi-realistic underpinning. The core cast—McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Mackenzie Foy / Jessica Chastain / Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon—are all fabulous. McConaughey especially is great (which is fortunate, as there’s scarcely a scene without him). And because we have the smaller human interactions that give scale to the larger issue of the end of human life on our planet, there’s something for nearly anybody to relate to.
One other note. Throughout Interstellar, I felt the constant presence of Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. We sense it in the interactions between the human astronauts and their humanized computers (think HAL, but without the undertone of menace), and in some of the docking sequences and in the look and feel of the spacecraft. Kubrick kind of blazed the trail for these visual and stylistic things, and we’re still following suit almost 50 years later. But I especially noticed it in Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, which has to have been deliberate. As I understand it, Kubrick specifically wanted a traditional, classical music soundtrack for 2001, and the dummy tracks that were plugged in during production—Johann Strauss and Shostakovich and Richard Strauss—worked so well that he stuck with existing music rather than pieces composed specifically for the film (György Ligeti’s choral works sound perfect, and perfectly futuristic and jarring, for a space opera). Nolan did not copy that exactly, yet much of the music in Interstellar is of a traditional orchestral nature. And there are moments that clearly tip their hat to Kubrick (I’m thinking of a sustained organ chord specifically that is very Also Sprach Zarathustra).
I wonder if I wouldn’t have much more to say after another viewing or two and the passage of a week. But for now I think Christopher Nolan has made up in ambition and scale and sheer beauty for whatever deficits and overreach his story requires. Unless you specifically don’t like science fiction, I urge you to see it.
(A small spoiler alert.) One of the nagging questions—more a curiosity, really—persisted despite my newfound roll-with-it zen. I don’t think I’m giving much away when I point out that one of our species’s survival strategies is to seed a new colony elsewhere. Indeed, this seems one of the less challenging technical aspects of this story. Embryos (or some proto-human form) are frozen and will be thawed and activated in our new home. And the idea of the loneliness inherent in space exploration is an ongoing theme in the film; a number of explorers have shipped off prior to our story’s unfolding, none of whom have reason to think they’ll ever see another human being again. But I find myself hung up on how a colony grown from seed would progress, on what it would look like. It starts very small--one or two people--and must grow slowly. What of children born in this setting, children who will never have known anything else? The technology and the expertise required to undertake the mission would come to the new colony along with the astronauts and the embryos. But that technology would be gone in, at most, a few hundred years. The factories that built the equipment are light years away; the materials to build new ones or repair the old ones are nowhere to be found. How will the new colonists learn higher mathematics? Robotics? Computer science? Medicine? Or would we start over again at the Stone Age? For the survival of the species, whether we retain all of humanity's collected knowledge is perhaps immaterial. But I can't get past the magnitude of the loss, or how it might be prevented. Alas, that's probably another film.