Interstellar combines A New Hope’s heart, Close Encounters’ faith and 2001’s vision

Back when science fiction and real-life space travel coexisted, those stories served a social purpose. Before genre was a marketing concept, before Star Wars defined the modern blockbuster, even the pulpiest science fiction reached into the future to warn us about our present. Space amplifies our wildest dreams and fears, because there’s literally nothing else there. Interstellar is Christopher Nolan’s tribute to cinematic and scientific visionaries alike – and hopefully, not a premature wake for their deaths. That anyone can still get $165m original films made is its own miracle, let alone Nolan’s three-hour space-prog cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. At the very least, it’s the opposite of Marvel’s spoonfed approach to blockbuster entertainment. Guardians of the Galaxy? Please. 

Interstellar’s been described as Nolan’s most personal film. In other words, it has just as much exposition as Inception – but here, instead of setting up action set pieces, it fuels emotional payoffs and a grand, religious existentialism. At least initially, Interstellar suggests there might be no easy answers. Nolan and his band of astronauts are men of science searching for a promised land; pilgrims desperate to explain and reaffirm their faith. The question isn’t whether or not they’ll find a new Earth – it’s if man, having sinned, still deserves a place in the universe at all. 

Nolan is Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, once an astronaut, now a corn farmer, the last living dreamer on an Earth dry of wealth, resources and inspiration. When Cooper is called to lead the expedition to find a new Earth, it means leaving Murph, his precocious ten-year-old daughter behind, subject to the laws of relativity. Interstellar’s nearly three-hour running time works in part because, like Boyhood, it’s about the human mind’s inability to comprehend the relentless passage of time. For Coop, his journey means years spent in stasis, mere days spent conscious; for Murph, it’s several lonely, mundane decades on Earth. From our point of view, the cherubic Mackenzie Foy hardens into Jessica Chastain within minutes. If Coop is Abraham, the first of his line, his binding of Isaac is the chance he’ll never see Murph again. Greatness requires faith, and faith requires sacrifice. The most nakedly emotional scene in Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre – and perhaps in any film this year – simply involves McConaughey’s wordless reaction to his absence. He mourns his daughter’s lost innocence, because his childlike sense of wonder is all that keeps him going.

This is Christopher Nolan’s greatest fear: that if you zoom out far enough, all human interaction eventually degrades into entropy, specks of dust in a giant, apathetic universe. Interstellar contains no evil, only the small-minded – prisoners of pessimism, their actions justified by mathematically probable odds. But because Interstellar’s still a blockbuster, Nolan has to make these philosophical conflicts literal. The film’s lone moment of violence is meant to symbolise the warring ideologies that brought humanity down, but onscreen, it just looks petty and childish. Maybe that’s the point.

Ironically, Interstellar’s biggest flaw stems from human nature: Christopher Nolan’s just too goddamn left-brained for his own good. Like his characters, blinded by obsession, he’s still too concerned with the minutiae of plot, when it’s literally everything else that determines whether or not Interstellar stands the test of time. He wants to reconcile A New Hope’s heart, Close Encounters’ faith, and 2001’s vision, but directs like he’s trying to fix Stanley Kubrick’s “mistakes”. Kubrick didn’t need to hold hands; on some level, you understood 2001’s message, whether you liked it or not.

But here, exposition and “logic” intrude upon emotional and surrealist climaxes alike. Characters babble to themselves about fifth-dimension quantum mechanics as if they didn’t just transcend the mortal plane entirely. In the film’s most ridiculous scene, a beatific Anne Hathaway rationalises love as the defining human trait, a universal force. Her tone’s so devotional it takes a full minute to realise the words are pure Nolan mansplaining. It’s like hearing Shakespeare delivered in Esperanto. Or alternately, Nolan takes true poetry, Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”, and has Michael Caine spout it a half-dozen times, as if motifs are mathematics and more is always better.

Nolan’s past films are all closed systems. Memento, The Prestige and Inception are puzzle boxes; The Dark Knight and its sequel don’t really offer social commentary,so much as pull from real-world politics to enrich their own universe. But Interstellar, flaws be damned, genuinely reaches upwards and outwards. The film’s spirit is never less than admirable, never far from folly. Like a wormhole connecting two distant points, everything seems so close, yet so far: hope and desperation, science and religion, fiction and reality, art and mere entertainment. Interstellar’s characters face either wild success or catastrophic failure. You may or may not come away enlightened, but you can never fault the film for trying.

Interstellar’s central metaphor happens outside the film. Depending on the crowd and the format you see it in, you may not experience it at all. An hour in, when we finally leave Earth’s atmosphere, Hans Zimmer’s score and other mortal concerns fade away. This is the sound of true awe: a roomful of silence, broken only by the humming of a projector. It’s so comforting you feel it must be intentional. Interstellar strives for cinema, but it’s really the most expensive bedtime story ever filmed. It’s what you tell your daughter at night to reassure her that the stars aren’t cold, though you’ll never really know for sure. Maybe all fiction, all religion, is just a comforting lie, passed down from all fathers to all daughters at once. Whether it’s true or false is beside the point. It’s that we choose to believe it.

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