Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin (voice), Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, Mackenzie Foy
If there’s one thing I truly envy my parents’ generation for, it’s that they were the ones who got to witness firsthand the beginnings of manned space exploration. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated by the endless possibilities of what’s “out there.” But, with the US space program largely placed on the shelf, the chances of manned expeditions to Mars or beyond taking place within my own lifetime grow smaller with each passing day. That’s where science fiction steps in. We can go on these odysseys without ever leaving the comforts of our homes or movie theaters. The trouble there is sifting through all of the crap to get that sense of awe and wonder that should always come with stories like this. A lot of the time, it’s just going to be a larger-than-life action movie. Few science fiction films ever make the attempt to challenge our minds, or even inspire a sense of awe and wonder. Quite possibly the last one to truly accomplish this was 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” However, most sci-fi fans will agree, when prompted, that 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is the standard-bearer of this type of motion picture. Count director Christopher Nolan among them.
As we join things in progress at the beginning of “Interstellar,” we find that the Earth is in deep doo-doo. A blight has claimed most of the world’s crops and reduced the human population, and it seems destined to finish the job sometime in the not-too-distant future. Heavy dust storms have become a regular occurrence. Former NASA astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) runs a farm with his father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow), son Tom and 10-year old daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). Cooper would much rather be flying in the skies or the stars than attending PTA meetings with Murphy’s teachers, who insist the Moon landings were propaganda films. They’re lucky that Buzz Aldrin isn’t in the room, or he’d be arrested for murder. Murphy’s a smarter young lady than the idiots who run the school give her credit. She’s currently tracking a “ghost” in her room, one which appears to be sending messages using binary code. I put the word “ghost” in quotations because this is a science-fiction tale, not a supernatural horror movie. Many who watch this movie will have figured out the true nature and identity of this phenomenon as soon as the word “ghost” is even uttered, although the movie won’t reveal that card outright for another two hours. That’s okay.
It turns out that the messages being sent by Murphy’s “ghost” are coordinates. Together, the father/daughter team discover that the coordinates lead to a secret NASA base, headed by Professor Brand (Michael Caine). The Professor tells Cooper of a plan to ensure the survival of humanity, involving relocation on a new planet. NASA has sent “Lazarus missions” to three planets in orbit around a black hole on the other side of a wormhole they’ve discovered near Saturn. The hope is that one of these three worlds will be found to be hospitable enough for humankind to start a new colony there. Along with a crew that includes the Professor’s own daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Cooper is asked to pilot the Endurance, the craft that will fly out to collect the “Lazarus missions” data and find out which of these planets, if any, is our last best hope.
Even with the advantages presented by the wormhole, the disadvantage is that everyone back home will age at a far faster rate than those on board the Endurance. Each hour the crew spends on one of the three distant planets will equal roughly seven years back on Earth. Amelia’s father will die while she’s in another galaxy. Cooper’s children will grow old and have children and grandchildren of their own. As Murphy ages, she will be played by three different actresses: Mackenzie Foy (age 10), Jessica Chastain (young adult), and Ellen Burstyn (senior citizen). It should be obvious from the get-go, but Murphy’s role in the progression of the plot will prove to be just as pivotal as that of her father, if not more so.
The acting in this movie is quite superb. Much of that is thanks to the caliber of the talent, as there are quite a number of previously Academy Award-winning and/or nominated actors present, among them McConaughey, Caine, Hathaway, Chastain, Burstyn and Matt Damon (as a screenwriter). Even the voiceover work from Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart is reminiscent of Douglas Rain’s performance as the HAL 9000 computer from “2001,” as they are meant to be. Irwin and Stewart portray the artificial intelligence crew members TARS and CASE, each of whose solid black rectangular structure makes them resemble the Monoliths from “2001.” But it may be little Mackenzie Foy who gives the best performance of them all.
More than the characters or the plot, what I find is most stunning about “Interstellar” is the visuals (surprise, surprise). Any time the scene shifts back to the dust bowl that Earth has been reduced to, I wait for the return to the stars. Each of the three worlds the Endurance crew visits, having been named for the scientists originally sent there, couldn’t be any more different from one another. The first is a world composed of water for as far as the eye can see. This one will destroy any spacecraft that lands there and lingers for too long, shattering its hull with immense tidal waves. Surf’s up! One of the remaining two had better be suitable for our needs, or we’re screwed. You know the second planet they visit isn’t going to work out, or else “Interstellar” would be about an hour shorter than it is.
There was a moment where I was scared that the movie was going to degenerate into just another “blow shit up” action movie, and it very nearly could have. Much of the plot is familiar territory. You can almost count the moments leading up to the scene where one character reveals their cowardice and betrays the group. This was the only part of the plot I got wrong, as I had misjudged who the person would turn out to be. But given that “Interstellar” is Christopher Nolan’s tribute to all the science-fiction films which have made a lasting impact on him, he has presented us with the kind of science-fiction movie I would hope to make if I were in his position. It’s also the first time since I saw “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” that I’ve felt transported to another world, and saddened once the adventure came to a close. I finally understand what my father has been talking about all these years when he says that “2001: A Space Odyssey” begs to be seen in the theater. “Interstellar” is that same kind of experience, immersing you in all of its beauty and inspiring that sense of awe and wonder that sci-fi fans crave.