The self-consciously “epic” epic Interstellar is wildly ambitious, massive in scope, gorgeous to look at, often clumsily sentimental, very serious, and frequently overly expository. In other words, it’s the usual from director Christopher Nolan. The film follows Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a one-time pilot, now farmer, living in a near future amid Earth’s accelerating environmental collapse. Dust storms rage, the population has dwindled, the economy is almost strictly agrarian, technological and social innovation is shunned in favor of short-term practical solutions like tractors to produce more corn (pretty much the only thing that grows anymore). Time for the human race is evidently short. But strange, perhaps supernatural phenomenon lead Cooper to the last remnants of NASA, where astrophysicist Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter, also named Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), recruit him for a secret mission to pilot a spacecraft through a wormhole to search for habitable planets in another galaxy. The catch: He’ll have to leave his family witht knowing if he will ever come back, and many years will pass in the interim.
Another film would at this point discard Earth as well, sticking strictly to a space-based adventure story. But Interstellar, unsurprisingly, has other ambitions. After explaining (often at great length) the time-dilation effects of general relativity (basically: the faster and farther Cooper goes, the more time will pass back home while he remains essentially the same age), the story splits into two. Cooper investigates dangerous new worlds with Brand Jr., a couple of other scientists (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) and a wisecracking robot (voiced by Bill Irwin), while his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) grows into a brilliant physicist in her own right (she’s played as an adult by Jessica Chastain), whose efforts to bring humanity into the stars are fueled not merely by devotion to science but anger over her father’s seeming abandonment.
Nolan’s films are always haunted by this specific strain of regret: a dead lover in Memento and Inception, a lost parent in his Batman films and now in Interstellar. In exploring this particular emotion, Nolan’s dorm-room-philosophical debates pit altruism against individual desire. Does Cooper wish more to return to his family or to save humanity at the cost of his own life? Will Murph solve an important equation and make possible a human diaspora or give up in despair and resentment? These simplistic but nevertheless effective sentiments are treated, as with everything else in Nolan’s universe, with sometimes excessive portent.
In other words, it’s the usual from director Christopher Nolan.
Two powerful key sequences stand out amid the heavy-handedness. In the first sequence, Cooper watches, in anguish, a lifetime of messages from a home that thinks him long gone, collected on his end of space over mere hours. Nolan dramatizes this through a simple shot of shot of McConaughey laid completely bare, sobbing uncontrollably; it may well be the most emotionally devastating moment in Nolan’s filmography, effective because of its primal simplicity. In the second, Cooper struggles to dock with an out-of-control spacecraft, an action sequence of incredible skill and intricate craft (Nolan, as is his analog wont, used some of the largest miniatures on record instead of relying on CGI), a mini-story told entirely with images.
Nolan’s visual mastery is, in fact, evident not just in those sequences but all throughout Interstellar, with the director taking frequent opportunities to dwarf our human characters against vast alien landscapes or infinite space. But his awe is a dignified, reserved, pragmatic one. At no point does a character exhibit an overt sense of wonder at all the otherworldly sights he/she glimpses. Some viewers will undoubtedly miss that sense of child-like amazement.
But truthfully, Interstellar’s biggest missteps occur when it tries to inject extra drama or action into situations that need none, or to tidily wrap up a plot thread that could benefit from some ambiguity. The hazards of space exploration are more than enough for any number of thrilling sequences or sudden plot twists, and so the late reveal of a human villain and a bland fistfight on an alien world seem not merely perfunctory but extraneous, a speed bump on the way to a frankly corny metaphysical conclusion depicted in Nolan’s typically nuts-and-bolts fashion.
Nolan’s expansive, thoughtful, thrilling brand of filmmaking may at times be inelegant, unduly portentous, and not as profound as it thinks it is, but at least his films are recognizably his. Such a distinctive personal stamp is rare in Hollywood blockbusters these days, and wholeheartedly welcome in an age dominated by, say, 25-plus superhero movies mapped out for us by a big studio far in advance. Even if some of those franchise tentpoles end up being halfway decent, most likely they will bear the signs of a personal vision squelched in the interests of box-office commerce. If Interstellar is about one thing, it’s about not giving in, not resigning to fate. Not for nothing do characters constantly quote Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” — as plain, and bold, a statement of artistic purpose as one can get.