* * * 1/2
An imperfect masterwork still qualifies as one, and Christopher Nolan’s transcendent magnum opus Interstellar is perhaps the most thematically and technically ambitious mainstream movie in memory, one so demanding for its 169-minute running time that at times it feels like a final exam, but one that pays off beautifully for the adventurous. No doubt the picture will divide audiences, but this grand love story that crosses time and space is Nolan’s most ambitious and deepest picture to date.
In telling the near-future cautionary parable about a dying Earth and a handful of brave astronauts and scientists searching for an viable alternative homeland galaxies away, Interstellar mixes quantum physics, black holes, time and space that fold forward and backward and a lot of heady scientific theory to get to a most special declaration—that the only constant in this universe or the next (other than gravity, of course) is the love between human beings. It’s brainy, at-times difficult and overreaching, but it all but knocks you flat with visuals you’ve never seen before and simple human emotions that pack an equal wallop.
It’s been said that Nolan has intended Interstellar as a latter day 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the comparison is a largely apt one—both films are concerned with notions of the infinite as the key to humankind. Whereas Kubrick’s classic explored the dawn of man and man’s place in the universe, as well as what it meant to be human, Nolan and brother Jonathan (who co-wrote the screenplay) train themselves on the infinite nature of the universe and of the bonds between human beings, and the ability of feelings to travel light years and overcome herculean obstacles intact.
Interstellar opens somewhere in the Midwest farm belt of the near future, a world where Earth has suffered a crippling blight due to an atmospheric change, now a foggy dustbowl where all crops save corn have been destroyed, explained in survivor interviews looking back on the period where the human race is on the verge of extinction from starvation or worse. The political overtures are clear—we’re destroying the planet, one that “we’re not meant to save,” but rather to leave.
Nolan depicts this milieu as a dying, small-town Americana of cornfields, little league games and pick-up trucks, a place where an adolescent boy can dream of nothing but becoming a farmer, something all but preordained.
Enter widowed former NASA pilot turned farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), father to eldest Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and young Murphy, or “Murph” (Mackenzie Foy), cut from her father’s cloth, scientifically inquisitive and wise beyond her ten years. Also in the family is Cooper’s father-in-law, played with weary gravitas by John Lithgow.
While it takes some time during the picture’s trying first hour or so, eventually Cooper (“Coop”) stumbles upon a secret, underground bunker of scientists led by dogged Dr. Band (Nolan’s go-to muse, Michael Caine) and a team of coverts. Their plan? Over the course of several years they have launched manned probes into the galaxy and through wormholes to others, hunting for an inhabitable new planet. Yet none have returned. Where exactly are the former scientists who made the trips?
Dr. Band’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), is set to lead a new expedition with a pair of other scientists (American Beauty’s Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) and a HAL-esque robot (though much more limber and active) named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin).
After a bit of persuading, Coop agrees to be the crew pilot, teasing out one of Nolan’s central themes and perhaps the picture’s real point, beyond its science and sci-fi vernacular, and that is one of the sacrifices parents make for children. And it’s a big one, because there’s no telling what time and space inequities might develop in terms of years passing from one galaxy to another. The movie plays this paradox like emotional plutonium in its second half, including a powerful scene where an hour in another galaxy equals 23 years on Earth, and Coop returns to the ship to view years of Skype-esque video messages from his now grown children. It’s quite a moment, and McConaughey’s unabashed reactions to the aging of his children, and their loneliness, is one of the year’s best-acted scenes.
The complex second half features two distinct and eerily beautiful planets, trips through wormholes, queries into the existence of a perhaps benevolent other life form, an examinations of the meaning, and survival of love between two people across the infinite and spectacular set-pieces, one involving a pod craft attempting to dangerously “lock-in” to a spinning space station and another where two characters in different times attempt to communicate via a cosmic library of sorts, and a great mystery is revealed.
For all its high-concept dazzle and awe-inspiring technique, Nolan is keenly focused on the relationship between Coop and Murph, as an adult played with intelligence and sad, sullen precision by a haunted Jessica Chastain, giving the movie’s best performance after entering at the almost 90-minute mark.
While McConaghey’s emotionality in Interstellar is spot-on, his now patented speech cadence—a drawling, vowel-extending, good-old-boy affectation—wears a bit thin. A younger actor with such a speech pattern would be counseled to get vocal training, and it can be a bit distracting, good as he is.
The picture is being simultaneously released in 35mm, IMAX and 70mm IMAX, and should be seen in the latter format, which is near astonishing in scope, particularly in a later stretch on an icy planet where the format’s large-scale provides a truly enveloping experience. Ditto Hans Zimmer’s prominent, powerful score, which to my ear obscured the dialogue during one key moment, a deathbed confessional that should have been remixed.
Interstellar isn’t perfect—it’s dense and sometimes confusing, obviously lengthy and, for its first half, requires the viewer to go to it with an open mind ready to absorb as much theory as perhaps a Hollywood movie has ever required, and frankly, that’s a bit exhausting. But once the second half arrives and the science takes a backseat to the human story, and those glorious visuals arrive, it’s impossible not to admire Nolan’s major achievement, perhaps the most distinct and best-directed movie this year.
There can be no doubt that Interstellar is a wildly inventive movie and a risk-reward proposition—patiently give it three hours and you’ll walk away provoked, and I’m betting moved as well.