Interstellar is momentous.
The world is blighted. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer, née NASA test pilot, harvesting one of the only remaining growable foods: corn. Depression does not reign, but hope is in low supply, ambition even lower, and history has been rewritten to teach children we didn’t actually land on the moon.
Why didn’t we land on the moon? Early in the film, Cooper’s father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) alludes that humans acting like real humans is what got us into this mess in the first place: “6 billion people, every one of them trying to have it all”. We landed on the moon to beat the Russians, the epitome of wastefulness. We brought blight on ourselves.
And now at just the right moment a mysterious force has placed a wormhole in our solar system, linking to another galaxy with 12 potentially habitable planets. Leave everything behind, it says. Rage against the dying of the light. Curious.
So then: humans with destructive goals lead to destruction. Humans with constructive goals lead to creation. All humans love. Love is worth saving. Send the constructive humans to space to find us a new home. Love will ensure they succeed. This is Interstellar. We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible.
Prometheus was an ambitious film. Ebert considered Prometheus magnificent sci-fi for its endless supply of questions never answered. Prometheus looks back at where we came from. Interstellar looks up at where we’re going. One question has an answer, one does not. One is curious, one is frightening.
And so it makes sense every main character in Interstellar is a scientist, engineer, or mathematician. Level-headed folk with big brains and well-reasoned opinions. Two are female, both daughters: Murph (Jessica Chastain) is Cooper’s daughter and Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) is Professor Brand’s daughter. This is story of true explorers, not action heroes. It turns out true exploration is not always easy to watch.
Ebert once said of The Prince of Egypt:
One of the reasons I was so enthusiastic, earlier in 1998, about “Dark City,” “What Dreams May Come” and “Babe: Pig In The City” is that they showed me sights I had never imagined before, while most movies were showing me actors talking to one another.
Nolan is known for exposition. Interstellar is packed with it. Gravity equations this, slingshots around black holes that. Yet so much of the dialogue is decorative. Ornamentation to let us know we are watching real humans so we don’t go as crazy as real humans likely would have in these scenarios, but ultimately that their words are not the focus. Interstellar, more than any other Christopher Nolan film, shows us things no humans have experienced before. That is an understatement. Interstellar shows us the impossible. Again and again, the impossible. (This is a film made to be seen in IMAX, the only format which could do it justice.)
And yet, the very core of Interstellar is that nothing is impossible. Space travel, worm holes, black holes, time travel. Life, always finding a way. Anything is possible.
And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that.
Multiple times throughout Interstellar we hear Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, recited by the illustrious NASA professor Brand (Michael Caine). (Michael Caine, by the way, never out of work as long as Christopher Nolan continues making movies. We are lucky for this.)
“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In every form factor this hypothesis is tested. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) continually fights the impossible. Man vs. Nature on a planet of mountainous waves, followed by Man vs. (Dr.) Mann on an ice planet even Hoth would not be friends with. Mann is the “remarkable leader” of the original crew sent out to investigate the new galaxy, we’re told by Professor Brand (played by a curiously unbilled cast member).
Cooper, as is required by such a script, always overcomes. But not in ways we might expect from directors other than Nolan, given Cooper’s fundamental drive: protecting his children. Interstellar is more Spielbergian than even J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 in this sense. And certainly not with the same repercussions; we are excruciatingly introduced to the implications of relativistic space travel almost immediately. Decades pass on earth while mere hours pass for the astronauts. Children out-age their parents. Most people will cry watching this film. Most people in this film cry. 10-year old Murph’s (Mackenzie Foy) tears most justified of anyone’s. Losing a parent is tough; losing a parent not to death but to the unknown, impossible.
In the third act of the film, packed with more than most other entire films, Nolan asks the inevitable: to what lengths are we willing to go to achieve survival as a species? Do we deserve a new home at all? Multiple characters in Interstellaranswer this question in the absolute. “As far as is necessary” they respond. And yet they do not act the same. We see the diversity of humanity in the diversity of how they aim to achieve this goal. There is nastiness.
This is what makes Interstellar so difficult to watch, not its length: it is unrelenting. King Kong (1933) was an epic at 1.5 hours, as was Peter Jackson’s 2005 3-hour re-telling. They may feel long; Interstellar does not. Interstellar is 169 minutes of constantly leaning forward. There is no time for the characters to pause and think, therefore we are not afforded the same luxury.
As with the very time loop paradox Nolan and film advisor/theoretical physicist Kip Thorne constructed at Interstellar’s core, Interstellar is a mirror to our unrelenting selves. Interstellar is brutal because we are brutal. It is hopeful because we are hopeful. It may lack the non-verbal subtleties of Kubrick’s 2001, but in replacing alien life forms with ourselves as the benevolent-yet-impossible-to-comprehend higher life form, Interstellar is just as reflective on humanity and its bigs and smalls, if not more so. Nolan even subtly manages a Creation of Adam between Cooper and Brand.
Interstellar is hopeful to its core. In one of the film’s few monologues, Brand firmly believes love is the one thing that persists across the universe, which obviously doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny, but that isn’t the point. What else are we doing all this for, if not for love? One gets the sense Nolan poured himself into this film as much as a parent pours herself into her child. I would not be surprised to learn Nolan had collapsed from exhaustion after editing. This may be true enough, after the alleged six months in mixing alone. Interstellar is a massive achievement on every level of storytelling and filmmaking. It undoubtedly will be the study of film classes and inspire philosophical conversations for years to come
On July 20, 1969, we landed two human beings on the Moon. Most people back then thought we’d be on Mars within 10 years. This made sense. We had momentum. But we haven’t walked on Mars, and we likely won’t even in the next 10 years. We only just last week landed a robot on a comet. Why did we stall? Neil Tyson suggests it’s because we’re no longer at war. This is depressing but makes a certain logical sense.
Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.