What a beautiful and epic film is “Interstellar,” filled with great performances, tingling our senses with masterful special effects, daring to be openly sentimental, asking gigantic questions about the meaning of life and leaving us drained and grateful for the experience.
Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious work yet — and we’re talking about the architect of the “Dark Knight” trilogy — is clearly influenced by “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and it contains some of the most memorable, most breathtaking outer space scenes since Kubrick’s masterpiece, but there’s as much spirituality as science at play here.
Here is a Hollywood blockbuster about wormholes and the theory of relativity and black holes and extra dimensions, but its theme song could well be “All You Need Is Love.”
Before “Interstellar” soars to the heavens and beyond, we’re introduced to a world in which blight has scorched the earth, the world’s armed forces have disbanded, technology is no longer dominant, engineers are essentially irrelevant, livestock seem to have disappeared and farming corn is the last best hope for survival.
Matthew McConaughey is Cooper, a former NASA test pilot and widower now a farmer in this 21st century Dust Bowl. “We used to look up … and wonder about our place in the stars,” Cooper says ruefully to his father-in-law (John Lithgow, memorable in a small role). “Now we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt.”
Coop has two children: 15-year-old Tom (Timothee Chalamet), who wants nothing more than to be a farmer like his dad, and 10-year-old Murph (Mackenzie Foy), a stubborn free spirit who gets into trouble at school for questioning a system that claims the moon landings were faked.
With a permanent cloud of dust nearly blotting out the sun, crops dying, and food in decreasing supply, it appears as if the citizens of Earth are just waiting to die out, with no hope for future generations. It’s a bleak and fascinating world.
Nolan is such a masterful filmmaker and storyteller (he co-authored the screenplay with his brother Jonathan), the Earth-bound story alone could have made for a great film. But we’re just getting warmed up.
NASA, thought to be extinct, is still in operation in one of those underground bunkers we see in movies that seem to stretch for miles. After Coop and Murph stumble upon the locale, Coop is reunited with his former physics mentor, the legendary Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who is spearheading a last-chance mission to save the species.
Nolan risks scrambling our brains (and losing our attention) with the first of numerous exposition scenes in which scientists discuss and debate the space-time continuum, the theory of relativity, intergalactic anomalies and/or the possible existence of higher forms of intelligence and have I mentioned the wormhole near Saturn serving as a portal to another galaxy, but it all makes just enough sense for us to go with it.
As Professor Brand explains it, a decade earlier, a dozen brave astronauts shot through that wormhole in search of a dozen different planets, in the hopes one of them might have the right conditions to sustain human life and thus become our next home. Now he enlists Coop to lead a mission to the three planets with the most potential.
Murph begs her father not to go. She claims she’s been receiving signals from “ghosts” in her bedroom, and their message is her father should STAY. Although “Interstellar” is painted on the grandest canvas imaginable, some of the most effective scenes are the small, heartbreaking moments involving Coop and his daughter. McConaughey has never been better, and Foy is devastatingly effective as a little girl who’s scary smart but still doesn’t understand why her father has to abandon her.
Coop’s team includes Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), a no-nonsense hardass harboring a secret that could jeopardize the mission; two human researchers (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi), and a robot called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), who’s more R2D2 than Hal.
Once “Interstellar” leaves the Earth’s atmosphere, we’re on a sci-fi adventure of the greatest magnitude. The sets and production design and special effects are Oscar-caliber. (Please do NOT wait to see this film on a device you can hold in your hand.) At one juncture, every hour the crew spends exploring a new planet translates to decades of time on Earth, adding an extra-intense layer of pressure to the mission. The crew can’t communicate in real time with their loved ones back home, but they can access video recordings. Coop is about the same age as when he left Earth, but now Murph (played by the invaluable Jessica Chastain) is a grown woman — the same age as her father.
One potential home planet seems to be completely covered with water, with huge waves threatening to engulf the crew. Another planet is all rocky, unforgiving ice. Another planet … well, there’s another planet. Let’s leave it at that.
The dynamic between McConaughey and Hathaway is not unlike the relationship between George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in “Gravity.” The worse things get, the closer they become. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Coop’s son (Casey Affleck) seems unwilling and unable to cope with the collapse of the planet, while the brilliant scientist Murph continues to try to solve the equation Professor Brand has been puzzling out for decades. Jessica Chastain deserves best supporting actress consideration for her work as Murph, who can’t let go of her resentment for her father — or her belief those “ghosts” from her childhood were real, and they’re still reaching out to her. Chastain’s most powerful moments come when she’s alone, but not really alone, and when you see this film you’ll know what I mean.
This is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen — in terms of its visuals, and its overriding message about the powerful forces of the one thing we all know but can’t measure in scientific terms.
Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures present a film directed by Christopher Nolan and written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Running time: 169 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some intense perilous action and brief strong language). Opens Wednesday at local theaters.