The introductory scenes of “Interstellar” are a series of rich, initially disconnected images that set the framework for an enormous, ever-growing narrative. We see a vast field stretch across a farm land, an aircraft in a tailspin and a pilot named Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, waking from a nightmare and comforted by his daughter, Murphy (played by Mackenzie Foy). There are other things, like dust on a book shelf and a quick appearance from Ellen Burstyn, that writer/director Christopher Nolan explains much, much later.
Through snippets of dialogue, we learn that we’re seeing life on Earth at its worst, as dust storms, dying crops and a withering hold on normal life bear down on humanity. I’ll keep most of what transpires a secret, but will say that Cooper discovers a mission to save life on Earth, which involves entering a spacecraft with three scientists and seeking out a nearby galaxy. Their goal is find planets that have sustainable life and atmospheres that accommodate humans.
During the long voyage Cooper shares with astronauts played by Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley and David Gyasi, the film explores how time and isolation take a cruel psychological toll on space travelers and those they leave behind. There’s also a moving passage in which Cooper suggests to his daughter (and I’m paraphrasing) that parents are present in the lives of their children to create memories and provide them a perspective on who they are.
This doesn’t feel like anything Nolan’s made before (likewise, Hans Zimmer’s strange, church organ score), as it visually resembles a John Steinbeck at first, before it stacks heady concepts even higher than “Inception.” This is fearless filmmaking, as dizzying ideas and awe-inducing visuals service a story that takes radical leaps but remains emotionally grounded. Gigantic, divisive and daring recent films like “Contact,” “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” and “Prometheus” come to mind.
The pacing is swift and the nearly three-hour running time is just right. Rarely a moment feels wasted or without some head spinning concept to tickle the brain. Like it’s brave protagonist, the narrative keeps pushing forward, taking chances and finding great rewards.
Casting famous actors in the supporting roles is sometimes distracting, when unknowns might have immersed us in the characters more easily. There’s also a physical confrontation at the mid-point, a frustrating scene, as Nolan can’t quite make the sight of two men quarreling in space suits exciting (though it comments on the futility of conflict). These are the only two problems I had with the film, which I haven’t stopped thinking about.
The characters have emotional and intellectual challenges placed on the actors, who rise to the occasion of portraying the unusual psychological progression in their roles. McConaughey is so good here, in a turn that displays another side of his considerable layers as an actor. Hathaway is a little mannered but still finds the honest vulnerability of her character, who is arguably as unglamorous as the role that won her an Oscar. Gyasi and Foy have the most heartbreaking moments, while John Lithgow and Jessica Chastain give punch to their pivotal supporting turns.
The film concludes with a series of smart, satisfying and ambiguous moments. There’s a lot of story touches that will infuriate some but Nolan’s best films take the greatest risks and send audiences on their feat debating and arguing over what they just saw. “Interstellar” is undeniably odd but it drew me in immediately and filled me with wonder.
I agree with Nolan’s suggestion that space exploration is essential, for further understanding and the preservation of human life. Having a Dad and a Grandfather who are pilots and having once gone to Space Camp to learn how to be an astronaut, the film struck a chord with me. Some of the most extraordinary visions and potentially life altering discoveries are out there in the cosmos. Nolan clearly has affection for NASA and the visions the universe conjures up.
“Interstellar” left me with questions that can’t be answered, by the film or what we currently understand about the known world. This is the essence of Science Fiction, to ask questions about human understanding and scientific theories and possibilities, and wrap them into a story. The screenplay, written by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, mixes the best of Stephen W. Hawking and Rod Serling, takes giant risks and has a bigger, nuttier imagination than most American movies.