Interstellar – 2014

Director Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine, Josh Stewart, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi
Written Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan

There are lots of interesting ideas presented with Interstellar. Of all things, the film starts with a future that echoes our perilous past. Crops are set afire, the air filled with swirling dust, and the atmosphere and the dirt can no longer cultivate them into a practical food source. What we get are mostly images, but they are powerful still: turning over cups and plates on the table and nobody looks up anymore. It’s a most effective setting to start the story, because it’s specific in describing how it affects people but vague in describing how it came about.

Cooper (McConaughey) has dreams of the time when he was an astronaut.  Even though it happened before she was born, his daughter Murphy shares his dreams. Their eyes point up to the sky, while his dutiful son Tom and his Father In Law, Donald somberly look at what needs to be done to survive in this futuristic dust-bowl.

Early on we hear hints of a ghost that Murph insists is trying to contact her. She even says she thinks it is her daughter. We understand this not so subtle note will come back to us later, even if Cooper dismisses that notion. This ghost sends messages that both Cooper and Murph discover is in Morse code. Initial readings turn out to be coördinates that they follow to a place that turns out to be a big key towards the rest of the film. It’s a NASA holdover from the old world, and they’ve been working on manned missions through wormhole near a rotating black hole (the rotating part matters) that offers multiple chances for humanity’s survival through two options. Against his daughter’s wishes, Cooper takes the opportunity to pilot the last venture to follow up on the 3 previous missions most likely to have survived.

Along with Cooper we have a biologist, physicist and geographer, played by Hathaway, Gyasi and Bentley, respectively. Hathaway’s character, Amelia, is the daughter of Cooper’s old professor Brand (Caine). She believes in the mission, but it may not be for reasons completely dedicated to science.  More on that later.

Two other incredibly interesting characters are robots.  TARS (Irwin) and CASE (Stewart). Their role is a pivotal one in science fiction lore, for once we have a set of helpful, near sentient beings with no real ulterior motive. Many of the best portions of the story involve their “percentages” and ability to succeed when needed. The gradual unveiling of these robot’s abilities is taken for granted by the characters, even if they are doing something incredible to us.

The journey takes its time getting underway, but once it does, we are moved rapidly, even if it takes the characters years. Cooper’s journey is a decade or so. Back on Earth, time moves faster, so that Murph and her brother age significantly. Cooper’s team examines 2 planets and have varying degrees of success or failure depending on perspective then they run into a crossroad. Amelia declares her reasoning behind taking this journey and it has an effect on Cooper.

The film takes a turn here, moving something away from science and towards the intangible effect of love. It’s a tricky conversion. Murph has lived for many years with a chip on her brilliant shoulders. She ends up working with Professor Brand, discovering a secret he’s harbored for many years. What she does with this secret ties to the ghost she saw many years later. There is some question about the possibility of this cycle, but there is no question that the director’s motivations tie to his heart.

Whether it works is up for each viewer to decide. This could either be a great movie or a near miss. For me it’s aspirations are a bit too much like Daedalus to achieve the heights it aspires to. Contact took many of the same challenges but succeeds by not reaching too far into subjectivity.

When one makes a film approaching 3 hours, the key is to not have the viewer start thinking of what they could have lived without seeing. The cameo on the 2nd planet is nice until it drags into obvious territory. The connections between Murph and Cooper are so worn out by the end of the film, it feels like work to go through scenes pieced together in the first 10 minutes. On the scale of Hemingway to Faulkner, Nolan provides the bulk of the latter, but the fear of the former that the viewer cannot connect the dots without a road map. The effect is long and kind of insulting.

This is a good film, though, and worth the journey. The cinematography and story far outdistance the dazzlingly dumb Gravity. Not sure I will ever want to watch it again, even if I feel like I should.

(**** out of *****)

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