In his florid sci-fi opera Interstellar, Christopher Nolan aims for the stars, and the upshot is an infinite hoot — its dumbness o’erleaps dimensional space. It’s hugely entertaining, though. Matthew McConaughey is the pilot turned farmer turned hero-astronaut named (wait for it) Coop, whose bond with his nervy redheaded daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy as a girl, Jessica Chastain all growed up), is tighter than the insides of an atom, perhaps even the key to transcending the law of relativity. It must be transcended because Earth (in an unspecified near future) is parched, dust-smothered, dying (no reason given — but why ask why these days?), and mankind needs to find another hospitable planet, stat. The mix of wonky physics, mysticism, and genetically modified corn is so clunky it’s … fabulous.
Nolan (who wrote the script with his brother, Jonathan) clearly wants Interstellar to be a great American epic — The Grapes of Wrath II: The New Vintage. His dust-covered cars and farmhouses evoke the dust bowl of the ’30s, but the odd personal computer reminds us that people have the technology to do more than huddle like Steinbeck’s Okies. The problem is that mankind has lost faith in science, to the point where Murph’s schoolbooks say the Apollo missions of the 20th century were hoaxes to force the Soviets into a bankrupting space race. Coop chafes at the contraction of mankind’s horizons (“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt!”), but his view of science is limited by what’s measurable, quantifiable. It’s young Murph who’s convinced there are forces that can’t yet be explained — among them a “ghost” in her book-lined bedroom she’s sure is sending coded messages.
I doubt Stephen Hawking could make sense of all the loop-de-loops to come, but at least Interstellar has a clear emotional through-line. Eventually, a professor played by Michael Caine enlists Coop to pilot a spaceship to another galaxy through a wormhole next to Saturn that was put there (he thinks) by benevolent five-dimensional beings. (“This world was never enough for you, Coop.”) But the prospect of humanity perishing seems abstract beside the reality of leaving the distraught Murph for decades — or forever. How can he shake her faith in the one thing she knows to be real — a father’s love? But how can he not go? “Mankind was born on Earth,” Caine intones, as Hans Zimmer’s music rises. “It was never meant to die here.”
Interstellar is packed with Go For It lines like that. There are about 37 recitations (I lost count) of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night … Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” As Coop’s fellow astronaut, Anne Hathaway delivers a wet-eyed speech (while the camera slowly dollies in) on the interstellar power of love. Can it be that the heart knows more than the scientific mind? That’s certainly how the film is shaped. Dramatically speaking, every decision Coop makes about mankind’s future home is dwarfed by his — and our — fear of letting Murph down. What gives the movie its urgency is that she’s aging more rapidly than he is, especially when he lands on a planet where every passing hour equals seven years on Earth.
By the end of the three-hour Interstellar, you might wonder if 21 years has passed in the outside world too. But the first half at least goes by quickly. Nolan’s frames are unusually clean (even with all the dust), and the special effects are as convincing as in any NASA documentary. In space, the ringed mother ship — a great, segmented wheel — spins so lyrically that you don’t even need the “Blue Danube” waltz. Though the wisecracking robot, TARS, seems a throwback to kiddie sci-fi shows, the design is elegant, like two mini 2001 monoliths attached in the middle and striding around like Gumby. McConaughey is a good sci-fi hero, his stoner-cowboy drawl making even his overexplanatory lines sound flaky, and though Hathaway still has the look of a drama-camp kid eager to prove herself, there’s something dear about her. She has gumption. Foy and Chastain are an excellent tag-team Murph (though Chastain basically recycles her Zero Dark Thirty performance), and Matt Damon pops up on an ice planet to look shifty and bite his lip to keep from breaking into his peerless McConaughey impression.
The second half is where the sputtering begins, the Nolans being firmly wedded to spatial flips, temporal permutations, and intricacy for intricacy’s sake. There’s a flurry of crosscutting between Coop in space and Murph on Earth that’s first bewildering and then riotously inane. My hunch is that, given their clout, no one is permitted to examine the Nolans’ scripts for what a scientist might term “massive narrative anomalies.” But the incoherence might be — paradoxically — a key to their prized status in certain quadrants of the internet galaxy, where billions of words will be devoted to filling in the gaps and figuring out, say, how to reconcile the characters’ rates of aging. I wonder if the Nolanoids will even care that what should be the triumphant climactic scientific achievement happens offscreen, and that the ending is so goopy it makes you grateful that back in the day Stanley Kubrick opted for arty obscurity. But the movie is still gobs of fun if you’re in the right frame of mind. The Nolans, ever ambitious, even throw in baseball as a symbol for mankind’s hopeful past. Interstellar is the new woo-woo touchstone: Starfield of Dreams.
*This article appears in the November 3, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.
Postscript: Christopher Nolan’s movies are defended so angrily (and with such high levels of abusive) on the internet that I find myself grateful for divergent viewpoints, such as this outrageous Esquire U.K. putdown of some of our most beloved cinematic works. I must say that I disagree about the first Matrix movie — I think it comes closer to the spirit of Philip K. Dick than many Dick adaptations. But it’s always fun to throw a bit of snark the Nolanoids’ way.