Todd McCarthy on 'Interstellar' and the Evolution of Space Epics (for Better or Worse)

Courtesy of Everett Collection; Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures; Courtesy of Paramount

Christopher Nolan's long-awaited, wildly ambitious film is a new kind of galaxy movie — but is that a good thing? THR's chief film critic weighs in

This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In 1929, Fritz Lang, The visionary director of Metropolis, faced the challenge of how to stage a rocket ship launch for his silent science-fiction film Woman in the Moon. His solution was to create a "countdown," in which the blastoff would be preceded by a reverse ticking of seconds — "Ten, nine, eight ..." — until the rockets were fired. The filmmaker also accurately conceived of the multistage rocket, conjured a realistic sense of weightlessness and conveyed the experience of a figure-eight flight pattern around the moon, achievements that won Lang recognition as "father of rocket science" at a U.S. government-sanctioned event a year before the Apollo moon landing in 1969.

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In a way that cannot be approached by literature or theater, the movies are uniquely disposed to depict space travel. Whether they're utterly fanciful (Georges Melies' 1902 A Trip to the Moon), ostensibly realistic (Marooned, The Right Stuff), highbrow (Tarkovsky's Solaris), lowbrow (Armageddon) or simply visually breathtaking (Gravity), films portraying manned voyages to the celestial frontier always have excited viewers' imaginations and likely will continue to do so, at least until the migration intimated in the latest sci-fi epic — humanity's wholesale move from Earth to another planet — is upon us.

The new opus in question, of course, is Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, one of the most ambitious, elaborate and multilayered films ever made in its genre. Nolan has acknowledged that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is the film that made the greatest impression on him growing up. Indeed, there is no question that Interstellar represents a certain kind of personal response to the 1968 landmark in that it concerns an exploration of what might await us in the great beyond of uncharted territory, which we can only reach via physical space travel.

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2001 was boundary-busting in many ways. The lone problem with the film is that it was too optimistic about the pace of development of space travel. Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke imagined that a mere 33 years after the film came out, passenger travel into space would be a reality (on Pan Am, no less). Such was the confidence fostered by JFK's call to put a man on the moon a mere eight years after the first American went into space.

But once that achievement panned out and the nation reached a point at which it started relying on Russians to send new astronauts up to the space station, the momentum for further conquests stalled; all one hears about now are rich guys' private space vehicles, the Chinese ambition to settle the moon and one-way tickets to Mars.

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It's this sense of diminishment that Interstellar responds to, positing that life on Earth is becoming unsustainable and that an alternative should be sought (even if NASA — in the film a secret underground operation — still must take the lead in getting there).

One of Interstellar's other ambitions is to fuse its sci-fi elements with thick personal and emotional drama. Other than Gravity, in which Sandra Bullock's character has a heart-tugging backstory (a recently deceased child), most space epics simply haven't gone there, for any number of reasons: the excitement of the spectacle is presumed to be enough; it's a genre film, or intended mostly for teenagers and kids; if people want love stories, family strife, moral dilemmas or other down-to-earth stuff, they can get it elsewhere. Nolan, however, seems to have taken it as a personal challenge to prove otherwise, to show that you can inject a space-exploration drama with honest human feeling.

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In theory, there's no reason why this can't or shouldn't be done, and the angst of the characters played by Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain has been given legitimate emotional grounding: a father's guilt over leaving his daughter behind and her undying resentment over being abandoned. A second viewing might be required to figure out why this aspect of the story doesn't engage as powerfully as it should. Partly, however, it's because the daughter's bitterness virtually is the only thing we ever see her expressing. It's also because, after a certain point, we'd rather spend our time looking at the more unusual happenings on the other side of the wormhole. Mundane negative emotions, no matter how potent, rank low on the list of what we want to be thinking about when we're also being offered glimpses of an alternate world never before seen.

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Emotional credibility aside, Nolan has gone to great lengths to make the extraterrestrial events of Interstellar seem plausible, whether they are or not. Carping about the astronauts' ability to communicate from beyond the wormhole already has surfaced in the scientific community.

But space-travel films undeniably have become more scientifically conscientious over the decades. The first American feature made after World War II to depict a voyage to the moon and beyond, Kurt Neumann's $94,000 independent venture Rocketship X-M (1950), showed the crew conducting a press conference — and not even on board their spacecraft — five minutes before blastoff. Once they saunter on and the rocket engines fire, the four men and one woman are merely strapped onto cots and wear no spacesuits or helmets.

It goes without saying — or at least it did back then — that when they reach Mars, having overshot the moon, they're all standing up for the landing.

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