As a general rule, director Christopher Nolan doesn’t make bad movies. While not all have been great, neither have any been bad. In regards to consistency, at least, one could argue he’s the single best director working today and early buzz for his newest film, “Interstellar,” seemed to indicate magnificence. Some reports even stated that it was on a philosophical level of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Having now seen it, I feel like I can definitively say that it’s not quite up to that level. “Interstellar” is a great movie, one that will inevitably end up on many critics’ best of the year lists, but to make such a direct comparison is overenthusiastic hyperbole. It’s Nolan’s most narratively ambitious film to date and it does a good job of exploring complex themes, but its philosophizing doesn’t always land. Still, when most science fiction films these days involve little more than assault-on-the-senses action, one can’t help but appreciate that this one strives to be intellectually more.
And it’s that intellectualism, even when it’s not up to snuff, that gives “Interstellar” its edge. In a real world that seems increasingly anti-intellectualism and anti-science, with societies hell bent on holding onto archaic beliefs and ideologies, it’s a breath of fresh air to see onscreen characters portrayed in a way that highlights scientific curiosity and hope, even in the face of extreme adversity. Matthew McConaughey, in what could very well be his best dramatic performance to date, plays Cooper, a brilliant engineer and scientist who, due to apocalyptic weather patterns diminishing Earth’s resources, is relegated to farming. He’s a naturally curious person and has passed that curiosity down to his children, namely Murph, played by Mackenzie Foy, a young girl who swears there’s a ghost in her room trying to tell her something.
Eventually they learn the strange occurrences in her room are gravitational anomalies that began around 50 years ago. Around the same time, a wormhole in space appeared and has remained stable ever since. Using this wormhole, NASA was able to send its bravest men and women to a new galaxy with potentially habitable worlds. The data they’ve since received indicates a handful of those worlds could work to save the human race, so they enlist Cooper to leave his family behind and embark on a dangerous mission. Knowing that inaction could mean extinction for his species, he begrudgingly agrees.
In many ways, “Interstellar” is the polar opposite of last year’s sci-fi hit, “Gravity.” While that movie was essentially a 90 minute action movie in space with minimal characterization, “Interstellar” nearly doubles that length and is all about character. A few tense action scenes pop up in from time to time, but it’s the effect those scenes have on the characters that makes them so interesting. Before the characters even lift off into space, the stage is set for some wonderful human drama. The relationships are built in a believable way, which allows later scenes to lead to some truly heartbreaking moments. Characters aren’t mentioned in passing like Bullock’s daughter in “Gravity,” but are instead grown and explored through many years and even decades, thanks to a clever narrative mechanic grounded in real life science.
In fact, the lengths “Interstellar” goes to be scientifically accurate are both welcome and impressive. It takes liberties, of course, to form its story, but it dares to show its scientific literacy when other movies would have taken the easy way out. A great example comes in its portrayal of artificial gravity. Nolan could have very easily had the characters flip a switch to turn it on in their spaceship, but he instead has a 10 minute sequence where their ship docks with a circular apparatus that then begins to rotate, creating artificial gravity through centrifugal force. Is this sequence necessary for the characters or the drama? No, but it helps create a real, living world and, though minor in the big scheme of things, it allows viewers to sink fully into the desired immersion.
These details show a genuine love for the subject matter, for space and even for the unknown. The writing from Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, indicate as much. Wonderful scenes that mock Apollo landing conspiracy theorists and early dialogue discussing the merits of scientific study highlight a passion for scientific endeavors as well as the wonders of both the human spirit and the insignificant role we play in the immensity of the cosmos. The visuals similarly show this affection, with truly stunning imagery that looks pulled from NASA’s archives. This is a movie that understands not just the frightening and dangerous nature of our universe, but also its grandiosity and quiet beauty. If you too share such awe, as I do, then you’ll find plenty to love here.
When “Interstellar” stumbles, it’s not due to these things, but rather a narrative that occasionally misses the mark. When the characters start to hypothesize about the meaning of everything, one starts to babble on with silly nonsense about love, about how it could potentially be an extra dimension beyond time and space that we aren’t yet able to perceive. In a movie as grounded as this one, scenes like this are worth little more than an eye roll.
It also loses some narrative momentum in its final moments. Despite a deliberate pacing and a runtime of 169 minutes, its conclusion is rushed beyond plausibility. Although undeniably interesting and unexpected, a specific character comes to a revelation completely out of the blue with little convincing context behind it. However, it must be said that this moment also leads to one of the emotionally impactful moments in the entire film, which makes it easier to forgive such hurriedness.
If nothing else, “Interstellar” goes to show that there are still some great ideas out there that the science fiction genre can lend itself to beyond giant robots crashing into each other. It might not be the intellectual equivalent of “2001: A Space Odyssey” as some have argued, but it’s a wondrous movie in its own right that tackles complex themes, builds believable characters and hits all the right emotional chords while rarely relying on heavy-handed manipulation. Even with its faults, it’s one of the year’s best.
Interstellar receives 4.5/5