Part-Time Review: Interstellar (2014)


The last two hundred years of scientific advancement in the field of astrophysics has revealed how unlikely and unique our planet is as well as how enormous, complicated, and mysterious the universe it resides in is. Unfortunately, those truths are often difficult to convey (most people are bored by space exploration now) and it seems most science fiction films have given up on that aspect, preferring to use space for fantasy action instead. In 2014, Christopher Nolan stepped into that void with a large production budget (thanks to continuing successes like 2012's Dark Knight Rises) and a screenplay written alongside his brother Jonathan and drawing upon ideas spearheaded by physicist Kip Thorne. The result is an incredibly ambitious and messy science fiction film stuffed to the brim with fascinating science, heady themes, and giant dramatic swings. I think the story is captivating, the cinematic craft overwhelming, and the drama hit and miss. 

The year is 2067 and planet earth is dying of a dust blight that is wiping out crops worldwide. The people of earth are grappling with their inevitable end if they cannot figure out a way to stop the blight or get off the planet into a new home. Luckily, there is a program headed up by NASA and leading physicist Dr. Brand, played by Nolan regular Michael Caine, to do just that. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an ex-NASA pilot turned farmer, and thanks to some "gravitational anomalies" on his farm, he and his daughter Murph (named after Murphy's Law) discover the secret program launch site. Cooper learns of a mission to enter a wormhole near the planet Saturn and seek out possible new planets that could sustain human life. He makes the difficult decision to leave his family behind (to save all humanity including his kids) and join three other scientists (played by Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, and David Gyasi) on the quest. The journey takes Cooper and the team on a road trip through many of the wonders of space: gas planets, wormholes, and black holes. 

Once the main journey takes off and the key emotional stakes between all the characters are made clear, I was hooked. What is a wormhole and black hole like? What would the new planets be like? How much time would it take? Will humanity survive? I won't spoil any more of the plot here as not knowing what direction the story will take makes up a large part of the experience. Into this story the brothers Nolan have weaved two major thematic poles: hope vs. despair and love vs science/logic. These two themes dominant the emotional space of the film and wind up determining a large part of the final act as well. The story also manages to weave in themes of humanity’s selfishness as part of our evolution, questions about our responsibility to the next generation, relativity, and many others. Like I said, ambitious and stuffed.

This film feels like a giant swing for Christopher Nolan not just in a more sweeping narrative than usual (his films are normally more buttoned up and well engineered) but in also going for large emotional payoffs. Some of it works well, like when the team spends much longer on a planet than they anticipated and due to relativity end up losing decades of time. When the team returns to their station, McConaughey's Cooper watches years of messages from his family - seeing his children literally grow into adults in a matter of minutes. It's not surprising when his kids grow bitter and start to despair at his absence, but it is emotionally devastating to watch Cooper hit with it all at once. Nolan wisely stays focused on Cooper's reaction to the messages giving us an extended sequence of his weeping. It's a really moving scene that eventually became a cultural meme. In other moments, Nolan's swing for emotional impact doesn't work for me at all.

Without revealing too much of the third act of the film, let's just say that Nolan takes a big story and thematic leap - he really doesn't play it safe. I can understand if some people took the leap with Nolan, but I was left behind. Nolan leans heavy into that "love" theme and while the story direction does make scientific sense within the context of the film, the "love" stuff underneath it all came off as ham-fisted and shallow to me. As much as the film leans into themes about human evolution, the continuation of our species, the fabric of our universe, and love - it's surprising that the film is never that interested in faith or religion...not even a little bit. In the end, Nolan's heavy lean into his "love" theme in the final act felt like baseless humanism to me. For a film so devoted to scientific principles and so familiar with the evil of man and the barrenness of our universe - what's with the kind of religious/sacred treatment of love here? It's hard to articulate my frustration without sharing spoiler details so I'll just leave it at that - it was a big swing that didn't work for me. I think the film also has some pacing issues leaving it feeling uneven. It feels to me like the "back on earth" stuff is stretched far too thin as there's just not much for them to do despite a decent amount of screen time given to them. Whenever the story goes back to earth it always feels less interesting and compelling. I feel like a good twenty minutes or so could have been trimmed here.

While I think that the thematic success of the film is mixed, there's no doubting the success of the cinematic production. Not since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey has a major Hollywood film presented interstellar travel in such grounded, scientific, and yet still cinematic ways. From the blighted farm lands of an Earth under crisis, to spinning space stations, black holes, foreign worlds, and the wildly interesting robot helpers (TARS and CASE) - the production design in this film creates a uniquely believable and detailed vision of the future. The film’s soundscape adds even further to that vision. Hans Zimmer has provided many great musical scores for Christopher Nolan films and this just might be his greatest. The iconic motif of the score feels like a musical beacon with an enchanting repeating sequence being played on an organ over and over again. It's a perfect fit given the film's central theme of the exploration of the fabric of the universe. When the film wants to emphasize the natural beauty and uniqueness of space the score turns into something like a classical piece of music you might here at a ballet - with soft piano and strings. The whole thing feels like an ode to wonder/time that is being played in the great cathedral of nature. That the score makes me want to wax poetical is an example of just how strong its impact is.

All of the elements come together in what I think is the film's strongest overall sequence - when Cooper attempts to dock onto a spinning space station (as a result of *spoiler sorry*). Let me repeat, the film's best and most exciting sequence is a docking sequence! First off, the visual effects and art direction make this look almost like a documentary. A space station is spinning above an ice planet and Cooper approaches it looking to match the spin and dock. The interiors of Cooper's ship are a perfect mixture of future tech and grounded science - the robotic help of TARS and CASE are central in this mixture as well. The commitment to realism means that the only sound effects we get is when the camera shows us inside Cooper's ship - whenever an image is shown outside of the ship, the actual sound effects are silent since empty space cannot carry sound. No problem because this is where Zimmer's score turns it up a notch and as the intensity and suspense of whether or not the ship can match the spin of the station ramps up so does the Zimmer's score. The entire thing combines for a sequence that is unlike anything I've ever seen in a science fiction space film. It's worth the price of admission alone.

I love Interstellar for many of the reasons that I love most of Christopher Nolan films - the willingness to take philosophical and scientific concepts very seriously and then the ability to translate them into cinematic stories with a professional polish for mature audiences. That I find myself a little let down by pacing issues and what I consider to be a third act that's written around schmaltzy humanism is a bummer, but I don't think it is anything close to a fatal blow here. For someone like me, with my interests, there's just too much undeniably good stuff here to not acknowledge and celebrate. Interstellar is one of the best produced science fiction films of all-time wrapped around a fascinating story that I think could have spent a bit more time in rewrites.