Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is an ambitious and at times unwieldy piece of work, a ragged but moving affair that puts a beating heart onscreen where Nolan’s previous films have often felt cold and overly determined. Nolan and his brother and co-writer Jonathan have a great deal on their minds here, from the environment and single parenting to the ways that humans are connected across time. Though at 2 hours and 49 minutes Interstellar can feel baggy in spots, the unity of Nolan’s vision ultimately marks it as a step forward for a director who can still do anything he wants for a while longer yet.
Sometime in the near future human society has all but fallen apart. The first image we seen in Interstellar is of a woman played by Ellen Burstyn who is part of a group older people talking about the present of the film we’re watching. Blights have put the food supply in peril and geopolitical conflicts have turned the world back towards an agrarian society. The American government is strong enough to determine which children will go to college and which (most) will become farmers, but this America seems to have no plan to help families fleeing a second Dust Bowl. There is an early scene, the film’s strangest, in which a pilot-turned-farmer named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) attends a conference at his daughter’s school and we learn that the idea of a fake moon landing as a stunt to bankrupt the Soviets is now a part of our history. This early world-building contains some shaky exposition, and I didn’t understand why when Cooper stumbles upon NASA headquarters it appears to consist of eight people hiding out in a bunker. Cooper is asked to pilot a spaceship through a wormhole in an effort to find a new habitable world, and he agrees over the tearful objections of his young daugher Murph. (MacKenzie Foy).
Interstellar is exquisitely shot (by Hoyte Van Hoytema) and designed. Though the emotional tenor of the film bears no resemblance to that of 2001 the shots of spaceships framed against huge planets and docking sequences owe something to Kubrick. Nolan’s best and most refreshing joke is the creation of helpful robots that look like walking monoliths, the most prominent a dryly funny unit called TARS voiced by Bill Irwin. Cooper and his team (including Anne Hathaway and David Gyasi) have three planets to visit and these scenes are among the film’s strongest, especially on a water planet on which the astronauts suffer their first casualty and realize the difficulty of their mission. It’s on the water planet that the idea of “time slippage” comes into play. You’ll have to have a good ear to catch the details, but for every hour that Cooper spends on the planet Murph (who grows up to be a scientist played by Jessica Chastain) will age seven years back on Earth. Nolan keeps cutting back to a deteriorating Earth to find Murph working for the professor (Michael Caine) who organized the initial mission. The motives of Caine’s character are rushed through in order to motivate the film’s climax, which involves an encounter with a survivor of a previous mission.
Your tolerance for the ending of Interstellar - which actually feels like it ends a few times - will depend on how you feel about Nolan’s belief in the limits of human possibility and in our collective ability to pull ourselves together as a species. Of all the themes in play it might be said that the greatest of these is love, as a speech by Hathaway’s character earlier in the film is referred to when Cooper is confronted with his chance to save the world. Our sense of the film working to resolve itself is at its strongest here, but though things could get sentimental they’re redeemed by the wit of McConaughey (who plays Cooper like a Right Stuff character alive at the wrong time) and some splendid visual effects. Interstellar is the kind of film one leaves with questions about plot holes and logic, but it also feels like a sort of personal notebook of concerns over how to be a good father, a good citizen, a good man. If Christopher Nolan can keep working at a pitch that combines the grand and the intimate like this, then he has something truly epic in his future.