Christopher Nolan’s latest popcorn puzzle box Interstellar contains a metonymy: the prismatic robots that help out the human characters. Their casings look like polished onyx, they perform complex quantum equations quickly, and they even crack jokes about Asimov’s three laws of robotics. Like the movie they inhabit, they’re chunky and lumbering, and their moves aren’t always graceful, but they’re effective to a fault, right down to how honest and funny you program them to be. Interstellar, like these robots, is a beautiful, alternately clunky and mesmerizing extension of science fiction’s more humanist branch, calibrated for maximum awe and pathos.
One note, though: the movie does absolutely nothing to alienate the faithful or quell the haters. Chances are you already know if you’re going to like this film or not: Nolan’s brand of dorky-cool genre maximalism is still very much here. What places Interstellar in the upper tier of the man’s work is that he turns some of his worst habits (over-reliance on narrative gimmickry, over-explanation of plot points, workmanlike image-making) into assets, or outright improves upon them. The final product is a winning combination of old-school sci-fi trappings and larger-than-life melodrama.
In a famine-ravaged near-future, ex-pilot and engineer Coop (Matthew McConaughey) now farms corn, with the bounty of each successive year’s harvest dwindling. His whip-smart daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) discovers a gravitational anomaly in her bedroom. Father and daughter decode the anomaly, leading them to the long-abandoned NORAD base where the last dregs of NASA have been plugging away at a solution to move humanity to another planet. Coop gets roped into exploring the most promising options (which would involve travelling through a wormhole to a time-dilated part of the universe), but in order to do so, he must leave his loved ones behind. It’s not subtle, and little in the film is, but it’s an appropriately outsized dilemma for a movie that thrives on being outsized.
Everything about Interstellar is massive. Not just in its commendable ambitions or constituent parts (Hans Zimmer’s cathedralesque score, the giant “miniatures” used for effects shots, a 70mm wide release), but its unwieldiness and running time. The film is the latest in a long line of blockbuster films that could have used more ruthlessness in the editing room. There is comparatively little exposition here (what caused the Blight and the deeper geopolitics of the world are left unexplored), but it still often feels hand-holdy and extraneous; an aerospace engineer would definitely know how a black hole or relativity works, as would, I would imagine, most of the audience seated for a piece of hard sci-fi-flavoured cinema such as this. Nolan has never met a theme or idea that he couldn’t explain to death, but Interstellar, like all his best films, has enough conceptual/formal wiggle room to leave smaller elements either abstracted through jargon or undiscussed altogether. His fondness for narrative trickery is streamlined through integration: plot holes, time jumps, and eleventh-hour twisting fell right at home when wormholes, time dilation, and quantum space are all present. But in this film, much of the over-explaining and literalizing comes from a place of enthusiasm; it’s akin to someone nerding out over a particularly cool science fair project.
And in its defense, the movie has cool sequences to burn. Interstellar contains some of the best image-making of Nolan’s career, aided in no small part by the exceptional deep-space special effects and ace DP Hoyt van Hoytema. Black holes with rings of lights bent by gravity, spaceships gliding across celestial bodies, fuselage-mounted shots as if the spaceship was a hot rod burning rubber. There’s a scene late in the film (saying much more would be a major spoiler) that owes a clear debt to Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. The scene in question marks the point where the film’s hard-science bent takes a back seat to soft-SF metaphysical gooeyness. In a different film, it could would have felt like a saccharine cop-out, but while it is still saccharine, it feels of a piece with the humanism of the Golden Age sci-fi it emulates. To paraphrase the film, the meld of heady Clarke-isms and weepy humanism isn’t exactly elegant, but it is very efficient.
Interstellar is basically Nolan’s Steven Spielberg film in the same way A.I. was Spielberg’s Stanley Kubrick film; it’s clearly the director’s film, but it still has the old hand’s fingerprints all over it. There is a feeling of Spielbergian wonder permeating the whole film, and not just because of the FX set pieces set in the vast infinity of space. Interstellar is in awe of the transcendence of human connection, how relationships can be maintained through wormholes and across dimensions with the power of love. It’s a fable gussied up in genre movie duds, a melodrama in the same way Inception was a heist film: textural, fractal, amplified.
Interstellar is playing in theaters everywhere.
Directed by Christopher Nolan; written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, and Mackenzie Foy; 169 minutes.