‘Interstellar’ Review: A Space Odyssey

photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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Since people first gazed up into the night sky, they have attached to the stars—and to the moon and to the universe—a feeling that defies simple understanding: love. After watching the 1969 moon landing, E.B. White famously wrote that “[the moon] still guards the lovers who kiss under no banner but the sky.” More recently, and slightly less poetically, Chris Martin of Coldplay sang in ‘Yellow’, telling his lover to “look at the stars/look at how they shine for you/and everything you do.”

In his latest film, Interstellar, which was released last week nationwide, director Christopher Nolan has come for his portion of the love and the universe. Nolan, whose two prior films were The Dark Knight Rises and Inception, has never been shy about his ambitions, and in Interstellar, he isn’t about to start. With a persistent voice over of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight”, Interstellar is brimming with hope that humanity can be saved by traveling beyond the stars. As a work of art, however, there is no saving Interstellar from being thrown into an unfortunate category: big-budget action movies that fuel Hollywood’s cyclical cash machine.

Before Interstellar blasts off, the story begins on a dying Earth that can no longer support its human population. A retired pilot and engineer, Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Fox), start to encounter weird signals, which Murph thinks are coming from a ghost. “Ain’t no such things as ghosts,” Cooper says. Instead, the signals are actually coming from NASA, which is recruiting Copper for a mission to save the human race. Understandably, Cooper is very confused. “You need to tell me what your plan is to save the world,” he demands. A decade ago, NASA discovered a wormhole that could transport space ships across the galaxy. Now, he needs Cooper and Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), to pilot a ship, called the Endurance, in search of habitable worlds. Reluctantly, Cooper agrees, leaving behind his beloved daughter, Murph, who begs him to stay. “I love you forever, and I’m coming back,” promises Cooper.

This all may sound like a summary of an internet conspiracy theory, but understand that this is par for the course for Nolan. Inception was incomprehensible, at times, as dreams blended into layers of deeper dreams. Similarly, Interstellar grows less and less coherent as the plot thickens in outer space. Last year’s CGI-laden space movie, Gravity, excelled with its beautiful, brutal minimalism. Nolan’s Interstellar has enough action for a sequel, prequel and spin-off.

At least, Nolan’s Interstellar is packed with lots of thought-provoking science. If you are interested in black hole singularity, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and time dilation, then this is the film for you. Nolan hired theoretical physicist Kip Throne as a consultant to produce, among other things, the most realistic (and incredible) black hole in science fiction history. With many Americans still denying the science of climate change and evolution, the respect Nolan has for scientific exploration is sorely needed. The barren, devastated Earth of Interstellar is a warning too that we can not continue our current exploitation of the planet’s resources without catastrophic consequences.

However, Interstellar is not your average PBS documentary or science textbook. Searching Interstellar for smart dialogue and character development, you might find that the film has neither. “She’s pretty upset with him for leaving,” Cooper’s father-in-law says at one point. It is lines like this that make me scratch my head. Could Nolan, and his co-screenwriter, his brother, Jonathan Nolan, really not produce anything better?

For most of Interstellar, the characters have nothing thematically important to do. They spend years of their journey in cryogenic sleep, which is meant to prevent aging. By the time Cooper reaches another planet, his daughter has grown up; 23 years have passed and Murph (now played by Jessica Chastain) is an impressive scientist in her own right. This relationship between Murph and Cooper is meant to be the emotional pulse of Interstellar. Longing for his daughter, Cooper remarks that “love is the one thing that transcends dimensions.” Perhaps, but with so much talent (both McConaughey and Hathaway have an Academy Award and Chastain has two nominations), I left wishing there was more love—and interesting emotion—on board Interstellar.

The best of space films, like Gravity, acknowledge that a life in the endless, soundless wasteland of space is a form of dying. At the very least, these films make us treasure the life that we hold with others on Earth. We might never know what lies behind the event horizon of a black hole, but we can learn about each other, about love and our humanity. This may sound sentimental, but the thematic alternative presented in Interstellar is far more frightening. We might see enormous quantities of the known universe, but, alas, in Interstellar, it’s mostly just empty.

Interstellar is rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language.