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It’s rare to see a big screen movie that dives deeply into theoretical physics and the qualities that make us inheritably human. It’s even rarer to see such topics explored in a big budget blockbuster film, but Christopher Nolan and co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan successfully pull it off with Interstellar, a stunning sci-fi epic. It’s an awe-inspiring movie about wormholes and black holes, the metaphysics of time, all while not losing sight of the emotional love story between a father and daughter.
Earth is in the midst of a food shortage thanks to giant clouds of dust ravaging the planet. Ominously referred to as “the blight,” it’s a crisis similar to the American dust bowl of the 1930s, except this global famine is spreading like a virus and ruining more and more crops. If the dwindling food supply problem wasn’t bad enough, Earth is also running out of oxygen, and causing humanity to slowly develop new respiratory problems.
After a short pseudo-documentary segment—which sort of advertises humanity made it through the blight—Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) enters the scene as a widowed, ex-NASA pilot who now tends to a farm and his two children. Caught in a world in decline, Cooper is not grounded by choice but the dissolution of NASA.
“We used to look up into the sky and wonder about our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt” —Cooper
The world is in stark contrast to our technology-fueled world where creating enough food becomes civilization’s first and only concern. Cooper’s aging father-in-law (John Lithgow) chimes in with a heavy handed but humbling commentary on our current society where there was a new gadget coming out every day while much preferring the simpler current climate. Cooper later meets with school teachers that lament “the excesses of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” Even history is being “corrected” in the movie with rewritten textbooks describing the moon landings as a hoax in an effort to teach future generations the value of moderation.
Interstellar’s plot begins to move along when Cooper’s daughter Murphy starts observing mysterious events caused by “a ghost.” Through these mysterious occurrences Cooper stumbles upon a secret NASA base where he is reunited with his old colleague, Professor Brand (Michael Caine). It so happens that this same facility is also the staging grounds for a grand—but again secret—mission to find a new home beyond our galaxy. Conveniently a wormhole has opened up right next to Saturn giving humanity a shortcut to a far-off galaxy. Struggling to weigh the responsibilities to his children and the survival of the entire human race, Cooper reluctantly chooses to join the mission. Unfortunately it’s a not an easy goodbye with everyone involved and Cooper’s departure leaves his relationship with Murphy to be strained for decades.
The mission takes off without a hitch and the team moves forward to their first planet orbiting dangerously close to a black hole. Unfortunately, Interstellar quickly falls into the same survivalist space story trope where one crewmember after another is slowly picked off.
Upon landing on the first planet, a heavy gravity water world, Amelia Brand stubbornly trots off to find a data module that will tell whether or not the planet is habitable. However, even from the ground it clear that they’re surrounded by nothing but water and a quick aerial survey of the planet would have revealed there was no land at all. Despite Cooper’s protests and a giant approaching tidal wave, Amelia strays even farther away from the ship, still determined to get the data when the planet is clearly not safe for habitation.
In the end, Amelia is saved but at the cost of another scientist who stand idly by outside the ship for no reason until it’s too late. Worse yet, the wave catches the ship and floods its engines, leaving Cooper and Amelia stranded on a water planet where one passing hour is equivalent to seven years back on earth.
The real consequences of this one stupid mistake are not truly realized until the pair come back to the ship and a significantly aged colleague informs them, “By now it must be 23 years, four months, eight days.” It’s a powerful moment that weighs heavily on Amelia and Cooper.
The gravity of the situation becomes even more apparent when Cooper reviews the messages he has missed over the years. A galaxy away and separated by decades, Cooper sees his son grow older, get married, have a child, and ultimately give up on seeing him ever again though a screen. The heart tearing moment is punctuated with one final message from Murphy, in which she leads off damning her father and then begs him to come back.
Tragedy in sci-fi movies tend to be depicted in a grand scale from the Death Star blowing up Alderaan in Star Wars to the complete collapse of a galactic civilization in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Interstellar, however, gives us a human face to show just how valuable time can be. In the messages we can see Cooper’s son mature and lose hope over the years. It’s absolutely heart breaking for him to see his two children grow up without him and become so distant physically, emotionally, and temporally.
Interstellar is also permeated with awe-inspiring imagery while Hans Zimmer's score rises and rises throughout the movie to a (purposely) speaker distorting crescendo. We’re taken on a ride to an exotic planet with frozen clouds, a wormhole that takes on the shape of a drop of oil filed with star clusters, and a stunning representation of a black hole eating a star. But more than a trek to the stars, Interstellar is an exploration of the human condition.
With the end of the world on the line and a do-or-die space mission, you expect the crew to be only made of the best and bravest Earth has to offer. They’re not. These are not the idealized space explorers of Star Trek. Instead every character is ultimately driven by their desires. Cooper agreed to join the mission out of love for his family, Amelia is driven by a desire to see her lover still alive, and then there’s Dr. Mann’s perverse sense of self-preservation. The latter presents the ugliest and most selfish side of humanity. Without completely spoiling the scene, Matt Damon’s portrayal of a mentally disturbed Dr. Mann leads to a very dark place.
“Everybody good? Plenty of slaves for my robot colony?”—TARS
Luckily, the seriousness of the situation is broken with bits of humor rationed throughout the movie. Ironically TARS, a surplus military robot, delivers most of the production’s comedic lines. If it weren’t for TARS’s monolithic metal body, which is clearly an homage to the 2001: Space Odyssey, you would think Bill Irwin, who voiced the robotic companion, was right there on the same spaceship. In a way, TARS is an imperfect human analog because he does not have an agenda. Yet he’s still capable of humor and lying—two qualities of TARS’s personality that Cooper tweaks throughout the movie.
In these ways, Interstellar is a complex yet still very human story about going beyond the limits of our galaxy and scientific understanding. When we go into the wide expanse of space, it will not be an easy journey. We will stumble and even the tiniest of mistakes will have dire consequences as Interstellar shows.
Interstellar isn’t a home run production. There are plenty of problems including massive plot holes and time travel science that warps into itself at the very end. The dialogue can also become exposition-heavy especially in one scene where Cooper meets with his children’s teachers and Nolan uses this as an opportunity to explain the state of a world that didn’t run out of television screens or planes but food. All the while characters go off spouting unrealistic lines such as Cooper telling his children, “These things need to learn to adapt like the rest of us,” while he pulls apart a flying drone.
However, even with these flagrant issues Interstellar is an approachable sci-fi movie that explains the complex science of wormholes and black holes in simple terms without lingering on metaphysics for too long. But underneath all the theoretical science there’s a father-daughter love story that tugs heavily at your heart. This small but crucial element of the story adds an emotional quotient to what would otherwise be an impersonal intergalactic drama about survival of the human race.
Kevin Lee a writer, editor, and photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. He has a penchant for classic science fiction and space operas. You can also find Kevin regularly writing about technology at TechRadar and posting photos on Twitter.
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