Full of awe and wonder wrapped with artistic ambition, “Interstellar” overwhelms us with its massive visual experience which is worthy of extra ticket price for IMAX. Although it stumbles at times on the plot level as reaching for its challenging goals, the movie works as an intriguing science fiction story which boldly pushes its ideas and itself into an uncertain area, and it is also poignant to watch at times as its characters struggle hard with their desperate matter of time and gravity in the story.
The first part of the film establishes a gloomy future world where everything has been hopeless due to some global environment change which caused a massive famine around the world. Securing food has become a far more important matter than any social/political ones, the human society has concentrated their resources on agriculture while giving up many chances for technological/scientific advance. We come to learn that NASA was one of the first things to be discarded and forgotten in the US government, and one of the most amusing details in this changed world is that a new history textbook says the Apollo space mission was nothing more than a hoax to defeat the Soviet Union.
Our hero Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was a pilot/engineer working in NASA, but now he uses his resourcefulness mostly on corn farming while raising his two kids alone in his hometown. He and his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) hope things will get better for Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet), but, though it is not that bad yet, it becomes more apparent to everyone that the situation has been getting worse year by year. Many crops are dying because of the continuing epidemic of some terrible blight, and even corn, which has endured this disaster better than other kinds of crops, also begins to be affected by the disease now.
To make the matters worse, dust storm becomes a usual incident in their daily life, and the movie provides a couple of striking scenes which evoke the Dust Bowl era during the 1930s. Watching one dust storm approaching to the town on the IMAX screen during last Sunday afternoon, I was particularly reminded of that epic dust storm scene in Hal Ashby’s “Bound For Glory” (1976), and the movie even has documentary footage of old people reminiscing about their hard time in front of the camera.
Meanwhile, something strange keeps happening in Murph’s room, and then she and Cooper come to discover a message sent from somewhere. Although they do not know the reason behind this mysterious happening, the message leads them to a hidden government facility, and they eventually meet Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Cooper’s old mentor who has been leading a secret project with other NASA people for the future of humanity. It turns out that the global disaster is far more worse than they thought (besides dying crops and dust storms, the level of oxygen in the atmosphere has been decreasing to an alarming level), and Professor Brand and others have been trying to find any chance to leave the Earth and then settle in a new inhabitable planet.
That surely sounds inconceivable, but there is indeed an opportunity, for they found a wormhole which suddenly appeared near Saturn for no apparent reason (Considering “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), I guess Jupiter has already been occupied). They sent 12 astronauts into this wormhole which transported them to the other part of the universe where they may find a new home for humanity, and it looks like a few of these astronauts found candidate planets as they bravely threw themselves into their mission which promised no return at all from the beginning. While still working on a gravity theory which may make it possible to transport the people on the Earth to the space, Brand wants Cooper to lead a new mission to check whether those candidate planets are really suitable for humanity.
Cooper accepts Brand’s request while being well aware of his personal risk, and we soon see him in a long journey to the wormhole along with the other NASA crew members: Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi), and Amelia (Anne Hathaway), who is Brand’s daughter. As they start their journey, the movie begins to amaze us with its wondrous sights in the space, and then it impresses us more with its painstaking verisimilitude reminiscent of “The Right Stuff” (1983), “Apollo 13” (1995), and, of course, “2001: A Space Odyssey”.
The director/co-screenplay writer Christopher Nolan and his crews did a fantastic job of making the space journey look realistic as much as possible on the big screen. Many of its special effect shots did not depend on CGI, and, thanks to Nolan’s close collaboration with his science consultants including leading theoretical physicist Dr. Kip Thorne (he is also one of the executive producers of the film), the movie firmly sticks to the laws of physics except several moments in which artistic choices come first. While no sound can be heard in the space, its thrilling action sequences are inexorably ruled by Newton’s laws of motion to generate more tension and stakes. The movie also gives us a compelling case of time dilation according to Einstein’s theory of relativity; it is just a few hours for Cooper at one point, but then he is surprised to see how much time has passed on the other side meanwhile, though he and others knew well in advance that how the dimension of time can be affected by gravitational force.
And we see how the other characters struggle on the Earth as waiting for any news from the space. Murph, now played by Jessica Chastain, grows up to be a young scientist working with Brand, and Tom, now played by Casey Affleck, has worked as a farmer while raising his own family at their old family house. The situation becomes worse than before in their world, and Murph begins to lose hope while still wishing for any possibility of breakthrough in her study with Brand – and the reunion with her dear father who may return too late or will never return.
The most poignant film in the film comes from the scene in which Cooper looks at the fleeting passage of time on the Earth through video clips sent from his kids. Matthew McConaughey, who has been riding on one of the most remarkable career renaissances in recent years, gives another commendable performance which works as a precious little beating heart in the middle of the big picture of the film, and he is especially good when Cooper is slowly overwhelmed by various emotions as he feels the gap between him and his kids getting wider and wider in the dimensions of time, space, and gravity. He misses them more than ever, but, as we and he know, there is nothing he can do for now.
The screenplay by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan has visible plot gaps and holes here and there while occasionally feeling overstuffed with explanatory dialogues for the audiences, but it keeps rolling with the sense of urgency while steadily maintaining its pace during its long running time (169 minutes). It sometimes feels too heavy-handed in its unabashed family melodrama, but it is supported by sincere feelings thanks to McConaughey and the other cast members. As young Murph, Mackenzie Foy is touching as a daughter deeply hurt by her father’s sudden departure, and she and Jessica Chastain (and a certain Oscar-winning actress) create another emotional coordinate in the story we can hold onto.
Anne Hathaway and other notable actors in the cast feel relatively underutilized due to their functional roles, but they ably fill the roles with their talents. Michael Caine, who collaborated with Nolan again in this film (this is their sixth collaboration), is engaging to watch as usual, and the special mention must go to Bill Irwin, who provides the voices of TARS and CASE, two artificial intelligent robots functioning not only as the main source of humor but also as the key supporting roles in the story. Observing their plain, black rectangular shape and flat voice, you cannot help but think of HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but I can assure you that these machines are more friendly compared to their murderous senior.
As pushing itself more and more during its climax, the movie dazzles us with more stunning moments which surely guarantee a number of Academy Award nominations in the technical categories in the next year. I do not know how much accurate its spine-tingling presentation of a giant spinning black hole is (I heard from others that it is quite an accurate one), but the black hole in the film looks vivid and amazing on the surface at least, and I watched the grandiose depiction of its certain unknown area with the mix of awe and amusement. I am not going to describe how it looks like, but that moment reminded me of what great director Werner Herzog once said. He said our civilization is starving for new images, and, in my opinion, that moment is something new to enliven our curious mind, along with that giant spinning black hole on the screen. Can we ever perceive something beyond our dimension? And can we possibly advance to the next level for that?
While it is not successful in its every aspect, “Interstellar” remains both intriguing and mesmerizing in many ways, and I think we will probably continue to talk more about this ambitious work along with “Gravity” (2013). Its ultimate message at the end of journey sounds rather corny indeed, but it feels truthful with images and emotions to grip your attention, and you may admire how daringly Nolan pushes his familiar science fiction elements all the way to the far corner of space and time in his ambitious attempt. It may not be a great film, but this is definitely a film with bold, grand gestures to be appreciated for many years.