On the surface, Christopher Nolan’s film, “Interstellar,” is a love story. While there are different kinds of love we feel, the types of love Nolan weaves into this film are that of family and exploration. The premise of the movie is fairly simple, but the underlying themes of the film are more complex.
Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut who is now a corn farmer. He lives with his son (Tom), daughter (Murph), and father in-law (Donald) on a weather-beaten house in the middle of cornfields. It’s a fairly bucolic setting that evokes a kind of heartland morality that more than suggests Cooper is a pretty decent guy. The earth is dying and being taken over by something called “Blight” that is barfing up more nitrogen into the atmosphere and killing off plant life that can sustain human life. We know that the end is nigh because Nolan introduces us to huge dust storms that have become all-too-common for earthlings. Through a series of events that I won’t go into detail about, Cooper is recruited to lead a space mission through a recently discovered wormhole near Saturn to search for habitable worlds in another galaxy. Cooper is not going without a map, however. He’s following breadcrumbs left by others to three planets that may be able to sustain human life. So, off goes Cooper with a small crew of scientists – one of whom is played by Anne Hathaway – in a spaceship to find humans a new home.
If this were just a standard space exploration film, Cooper would, against all odds, find a planet and save the day before humanity dies off. But this is Christopher Nolan we’re talking about. He’s a filmmaker who has demonstrated over and over that when he tackles a subject, he wants his audience to really think about what’s happening on the screen in a deeper way. And what Nolan wants his audience to think about is the relativity of time, the dimensions of space, and human morality. Now, those first two themes are not easy to adapt to a space exploration film, but Nolan does his best to help us understand what physicists call the “Twin Paradox” in The Theory of Relativity that Albert Einstein postulated – and scientific experiments have confirmed. You take, for example, twin girls. You put Twin A in a space ship that can travel at, say, 99.99% of the speed of light and send her on her way for five years. Twin B stays on earth. Now, the faster one travels through space, time actually slows relative to time on earth. So if you were Twin A who traveled for five years in a space ship near the speed of light and returned to earth to see how Twin B was doing, Twin A would be in for a surprise. For Twin A, only five years have passed. For Twin B, however, Twin A has been gone for something like 124 years (Thank you Neil deGrasse Tyson for explaining that).
Nolan shows the relativity of time throughout “Interstellar” and it ain’t pleasant. While Cooper’s mission is gone for only a few years, he knows that time is passing more quickly on Earth. And each decision the crew makes about which planet to explore means potentially pissing away decades – leaving Cooper’s family on Earth closer to extinction. So there’s a race against the clock to get back to loved ones, there are limited resources in the spacecraft, and there’s the randomness of space where one wrong move means you’re dead. That’s the conflict that Nolan sets up. Will they find a suitable planet? Will they get back to Earth in enough time to save everyone? Are there other intelligent beings out there (there’s a suggestion there are)? But mostly, will Cooper see his family again? What does is all mean?
In a way, Nolan bit off more than he could chew in the setup and middle act. It’s not that Act I and Act II were not well executed or compelling. Rather it’s Act III where the movie falters. Trying to resolve the conflicts he set up in the first two acts becomes muddled and buried in a haze of maybes. Cooper is a guy who craves the certainty that comes with scientific discovery, yet he’s thrown into an environment where his speculations start to spill over into a kind of stream of consciousness monologue. Granted, this is a guy who has been through a lot, but his babbling alternates between mansplaining and incoherence – which is not a good way of resolving a movie [See “The Matrix Revolutions”].
After watching “Interstellar,” I texted my friend and Popdose colleague Jeff Johnson that I may have had inflated expectations for this movie. To put it more succinctly, while I thought “Interstellar” was good, it wasn’t the greatness I was hoping for. Add to that some of the technical choices made during the film (i.e., blaring music during certain sequences, dialogue that was muddled by a swelling score, and some way-too-obvious foreshadowing that made me shrug when a plot point was revealed later in the film), detracted from fully enjoying the movie. Would I recommend this film? Yes. But go into the theatre with lowered expectations.