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Preoccupied with nothing less than the notion that humankind will one day need to migrate from Earth to some other planet we can call home, Interstellar so bulges with ideas, ambitions, theories, melodrama, technical wizardry, wondrous imagery and core emotions that it was almost inevitable that some of it would stick while other stuff would fall to the floor. Feeling very much like Christopher Nolan’s personal response to his favorite film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, this grandly conceived and executed epic tries to give equal weight to intimate human emotions and speculation about the cosmos, with mixed results, but is never less than engrossing, and sometimes more than that.
Critical and public reaction will range across the horizon, from the mesmeric to outright rejection for arguably hokey contrivances. But it is certainly some kind of event, one that Paramount, domestically, and Warner Bros., overseas, will massively promote as a hoped-for must-see for audiences everywhere.
While it technically occupies the realm of science fiction, this gargantuan enterprise brushes up against science fact—or at least intelligent speculation—as much as it can in an effort to make the idea of leaving and returning to our solar system as dramatically plausible as possible. But audiences tend to be accepting of even far-fetched premises as long as the rules of the game are clear. Where Nolan takes his big leap is in trying to invest his wannabe magnum opus with an elemental human emotion, that between parent and child; it’s a genre graft that has intriguing wrinkles but remains imperfect.
Citizens of the world convinced that our planet and civilization are now in a possibly irreversible decline will readily embrace the postulation of the script, by the Nolan brothers Jonathan and Christopher, that life here will shortly be unsustainable. Shrewdly, the writers don’t reflexively blame the deterioration on the catch-all “global warming” or “climate change,” but rather upon severe “blight” resembling the Dust Bowl of the 1930s; wheat and other produce are done for, while corn growers, such as Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), may have a bit of time left.
Cooper belongs to a lost generation; a former engineer and test pilot, he expected to become an astronaut, but dire economic conditions forced the closure of NASA and the abandonment of the space program. His precocious 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) shares her father’s long-ago enthusiasm and one of the wittier scenes has an elementary school official reprimanding Murph for believing that the Apollo moon missions actually took place; history has been rewritten to insist that they were just propaganda designed to speed the bankrupting of the Soviet Union in its effort to compete (Nolan restrains himself from adding the canard that Stanley Kubrick filmed the fake moon landing).
There are echoes as well of The Wizard of Oz emanating from Cooper’s remote farmhouse, which he shares with his 15-year-old son Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and Donald (John Lithgow), his late wife’s father. All the same, any fantasies of escape to a better place cannot be indulged — as Cooper laments, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars, now we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt.”
But, lo and behold, NASA exists after all; it’s just gone underground. Under the auspices of wise old Professor Brand (Michael Caine), the agency is secretly resurrecting its efforts to find a new home for Earthlings, with the suitably named Lazarus mission. The path to it, Brand explains, is through a wormhole visible near Saturn, and plenty of technical dialogue and physical demonstrations are devoted to detailing how the astronauts will slip through this envelope in space and emerge in a different galaxy near another planet that might support life as we know it (eminent theoretical physicist Kip Thorne receives executive producer credit for his contributions to this and other astronomical aspects of the story).
Cooper cannot resist the invitation to pilot this secret mission, but the angst of having to leave his family behind, specifically Murph, gives him the emotional bends. ”I’m coming back,” he gravely intones, echoing The Terminator, but even if he does return, it seems that, on the other side, he and his crew will age at just a fraction of the rate that Earthlings do at home. Murph is inconsolable and single-mindedly remains so for years.
Nolan employs a nifty little homage to 2001 at the 43-minute mark with an abrupt time-jumping cut from Cooper’s pickup truck speeding away from his house to the fiery blast-off of his rocket. Other editing ploys emphasize the complete silence of outer space, which provide a sharp contrast to a soundtrack otherwise filled with lots of talk and Hans Zimmer’s often soaring, sometimes domineering and unconventionally orchestrated wall-of-sound score.
The small crew also consists of Brand’s oddly guarded scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), thoughtful astrophysicist Romilly (David Gyasi, in an intriguingly underplayed performance that makes you wish he had more to do), insufficiently written scientist and co-pilot Doyle (Wes Bentley) and, last but not least, the mobile computerized robot TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), an occasionally humorous cross between Hal and R2D2. What goes on among the astronauts is not especially interesting and Amelia, in particular, remains an annoyingly vague and unpersuasive character in contrast to McConaughey’s exuberant, if regret-laden, mission leader, a role the actor invests with vigor and palpable feeling.
It’s a two-year trip out to Saturn, during which the crew hibernates in what’s cleverly called “the long nap” (a perfect title for a short story version of The Big Sleep) prior to the rough ride through the hole. Perhaps the most implausible detail in the entire film is that, even from another galaxy, a degree of communication with home is possible. But 23 Earth years have passed, meaning that Murph is now in her 30s and is played by Jessica Chastain. She’s just as resentful of her father having abandoned her as she ever was—it’s a refrain that’s seriously overplayed—while Amelia is gratified to learn that her dad, who looked 80ish when they left, is still alive.
What happens once they arrive on a barren, snowy but not entirely inhospitable rock is best left undisclosed, even if the identity of a surprise presence there of a previous voyager won’t remain a secret for long. But aside from 2001, which is obliquely referenced again in a late-on cutaway to an ancient Cooper lying in bed in a sterile room, the landmark sci-fi film that Interstellar intriguingly echoes is the 1956 Forbidden Planet; both involve a follow-up journey to a planet in a different galaxy where humans have previously landed and intensely dwell upon a father-daughter relationship.
But while the double use of this parent-child bond suggests the great importance of this theme to Nolan and represents a legitimate and rare attempt to emotionalize sci-fi, the issue is over-stressed in a narrow manner. Murph’s persistent anger at her father is essentially her only character trait and becomes tiresome; she’s a closed-off character. Her brother, played as an adult by Casey Affleck, remains too thinly developed to offer a substantial contrast to her attitude.
For all its adventurous and far-seeing aspects, Interstellar remains rather too rooted in Earthly emotions and scientific reality to truly soar and venture into the unknown, the truly dangerous. Startling at times, it never confronts the terror of the infinite and nothingness, no matter how often the dialogue cites the spectre of a “ghost” or how many times we hear Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and its famous “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Interstellar optimistically and humanistically proposes that, even if the light is slowly dying in one place, a reasonable facsimile might be found as a substitute. But there’s no rage here, just a healthy belief in mid-20th century-style Yankee gumption and a can-do attitude. Whether that’s enough anymore is another question.
Production: Syncopy, Linda Obst Productions
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Mackenzie Foy, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Timothee Chalamet, William Devane, Matt Damon
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Producers: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan, Lynda Obst
Executive producers: Jordan Goldberg, Jake Myers, Kip Thorne, Thomas Tull
Director of photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Production designer: Nathan Crowley
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Lee Smith
Music: Hans Zimmer
Visual effects supervisor: Paul Franklin
Casting: John Papsidera
PG-13, 169 minutes
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