Say what you will about Christopher Nolan, the man knows how to make resonate blockbusters. He knows movies—plain and simple. There has always been a power in cinema that hits us at an emotionally deep level, a window into our souls through the characters onscreen we have learned to cherish as though extensions of ourselves. Nolan appreciates this truth and has proven to possess an uncanny ability to tap into that universal consciousness despite using inherently obtuse stories rooted in scientific fantasy and actual theoretical physics the layperson won’t understand. His power is in creating vessels that do comprehend and wield these concepts while also being as compassionate and empathetic as they are intelligent. A film like Interstellar therefore isn’t about the science or even the spectacle. It’s about the people fighting for survival within them.
It’d be an interesting exercise to read Jonathan Nolan‘s original screenplay when the film was to be directed by Steven Spielberg. Supposedly much of the first act on Earth was hardly changed, but it’s what happens next that Christopher excels at keeping grounded in humanity above science. Don’t get me wrong, his handle on the physics is great—you only have to read Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s comments to know this is true. When physicist Kip Thorne and Lynda Obst (who produced Contact) are involved, you can be sure the science fiction is as accurate as possible. What Christopher brings to the table are the skills to keep it as backdrop to his characters. How does relativity affect the relationship between a father and daughter? How does gravity tear them apart and bring them back together?
These are the interesting questions we can relate to while the adventure aspect of going into space remains the fantasy driving them. If I were to compare Interstellar to another film it wouldn’t be 2001: A Space Odyssey like so many are trying to force. Danny Boyle‘s underrated gem Sunshine is what I kept thinking about—its plot to save humanity, the emotional tension a one-way mission cultivates, the potential for mutinous hubris, and the aesthetic opportunity to uniquely depict mind-bending ideas. While it didn’t spell the concept out as openly as Nolan, the central through-line concerning love is also present. Because as Anne Hathaway‘s Dr. Brand explains, love is the one concept we have that transcends three-dimensions. We may not know why we love the dead and the soon-to be born, but we do so nonetheless.
This is key to motivating her desire to enter a wormhole placed near Saturn by an unknown force to take her into a far off galaxy with the potential of sustaining human life. And it also motivates Matthew McConaughey‘s Cooper. Here’s an educated engineer born in a world ravaged by agricultural blight to a point where his degree was worthless compared to a farm growing the one staple still flourishing for the moment—corn. He misses the drive towards the unknown childhood dreams provided, but he now has children of his own to look after. With NASA gone and government money siphoned off to combat hunger, he altered the perception of his future. Resigned to his new existence, knowing that his carbon-copy daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) would never even get to taste such excitement causes the most pain.
So it’s with her future in mind that he accepts Brand’s father’s (Michael Caine) challenge to join this mission across space in search of a new planet. If he can find Murph an inhabitable home she can finally get out from under teachers attempting to tell her the moon landing was faked. Just going into that wormhole—simply launching out of orbit even—and finding an answer to bring back would silence everyone raised in a world covered by dust and devoid of hope, proving it not only happened before but was happening again. The Endurance spaceship’s journey is poised to save humanity in body, mind, and soul by reintroducing acts long since forgotten and deemed worthless. We are a species known for adapting, but Earth’s original answer was merely a Band-Aid. Space holds the real solution.
As that love sends Cooper off into the unknown—through holes in space and next to a supermassive black hole altering time so that one hour on a planetary prospect equals seven years back home—and into a fight to save those humans marooned inside the Milky Way rather than leaving them to suffocate while a New Earth is populated by embryos, it also provides him the drive to return. Even the most practical utilitarian of the bunch (Matt Damon‘s Dr. Mann) understands the power of this unquantifiable concept, he just doesn’t have anyone to give it to and in resulting appears more akin to the brilliantly conceived robotic probes voiced by Bill Irwin (TARS) and Josh Stewart (CASE) than man. Nolan is far from subtle and he lays on the love stuff thick for good reason.
Honestly, if you’re aware of the sci-fi genre and tropes inherent to it, there isn’t much in Interstellar that will surprise you. Nolan runs with “love”—our ability to give it, take it away, and pretend as though we can remove it—from the start until he’s almost created a quasi-religion around it. It becomes these characters’ God because humanity and whatever unknown force is helping are doing the necessary legwork to find salvation. Not God, Allah, Yahweh, or Zeus. Those who go and those who stay believe only in mankind, putting their trust in each other to be their own creators. Faith plays a huge role in the film and yet one could say it is almost anti-religion to its core. There’s no time to pray, after all. These characters can only do.
And that’s the message at the heart of Nolan’s nearly three-hour epic. Life isn’t to be taken for granted or believed infinite. At a certain point we must decide what we’re willing to do to sustain it on our terms. This is why Nolan creates the Dust Bowl-esque desert covered in dirt and fire; he’s expressing our demise as unavoidable but not necessarily immediate. This is crucial because of the way time bends and expands in universes far from our own, adding stakes beyond the mission at large by allowing personal attachments to grow further apart emotionally and psychologically than the physical distance space travel inherently implements. Cooper leaves to save Murph and his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet), but the reality becomes clear that they may both be gone by the time he succeeds or fails.
We accept this notion even if he refuses to believe it and it’s a good thing because his attempts to ensure his return allow for some breathtaking imagery made all the more stunning thanks to Nolan embracing models and sets above computer animation. He sends us to a planet covered in water and one covered in ice. He’s created spacecraft with incubation units able to explore the great beyond and even dares to take us into a fifth dimension of physical time. Add the boxy robots with contagious senses of humor and comedic timing and suddenly what seemed a daunting evening at the movies becomes a breezy experience of awe. No matter how gorgeous the landscapes or theoretical physic representations, though, the actors are what make the most indelible impression.
They all—McConaughey, Hathaway, Caine, and Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck in roles my revealing would ruin emotional effect—tug at our heartstrings at one point or another as the entire film’s honesty level seems set at 90%. Truth is often hidden from those onscreen until the monumental task at hand grows even larger in impossible scope. Because McConaughey’s Cooper refuses to give up, though, we follow suit. Anything can happen no matter how silly, time-consuming, or contrived it may need to be and everyone’s ultimately trying to live like we would too in the exact same situation. What makes their decisions so different and their actions span the gamut from generous to despicable becomes what it is they’ve left behind on Earth. While objectivity is a nice thought in theory, it’s a devastating nightmare in practice.