Interstellar is a film that reaches deep into your psyche and holds you in its grip for nearly three hours. Here is a movie that is — in turns and sometimes simultaneously — haunting, spellbinding, exhilarating, audacious, introspective, heartbreaking, horrifying, and life-affirming. It is that rare moviegoing experience that feels like it's actually happening as you watch it, despite its insane turns of events.
There were times during this film — as it unflinchingly depicts desperate uncertainty and loneliness — that I felt like I almost emotionally couldn't endure it, but perhaps I can chalk that up to being willfully vulnerable to its intentions. It's a mental probe that burrows itself deep into the mind, taps into hopes and fears, and seriously ponders big questions. It is both intellectual and emotional, smart and sentimental, intimate and immense. It is about all of us when faced with the very possible idea of collective oblivion, and what that means to us as individuals.
If you value true science fiction, Interstellar may be the definitive epic of a generation. It is the rare big-budget mainstream adventure that is as much "sci" as "fi." Granted, that's a rare breed to find at all these days, but that doesn't diminish the achievement. (For years, 1997's Contact has been my benchmark for this type of major-studio sci-fi release, but it may have finally been displaced.)
Perhaps the less you know about the plot going into it, the better. (I knew very little.) I won't go too much into the details. Suffice it to say that Earth in the near future is experiencing rapid changes in the atmosphere, a catastrophic decline in viable agriculture, mass starvation, and the very real possibility that human extinction is on the very near horizon. This is a reality not widely known to the populace, but the writing is probably on the wall. The story sells this foreboding with large-scale dust storms that come out of nowhere, sweep through the film's setting in a small farm town, and cover everything under layers of dirt. Small farm towns represent the most important sector of a society that can ill-afford to care about much else; maintaining the food supply is paramount. In a telling detail, the United States propaganda machine, trying to set priorities to more pressing Earth-bound matters, rewrites school textbooks to explain NASA's Apollo missions were faked hoaxes used to trick the Soviets into wasting money and resources on their space program.
But, ironically, the fate of humanity may very well rest on an audacious plan venturing into the great unknowns of space. It leads to the recruitment of a father and former NASA pilot (Matthew McConaughey) into a daring deep-space mission. His recruitment leads to an impossible choice that is heartbreaking in its binary nature: Either face the reality that humanity will end in his children's lifetime, or leave his children behind so that he may go on this mission to try to save them. (That he can make the choice at all is astonishing, and perhaps even wrong, but one of the messages of the movie is that only a few individuals will be able to save the rest of us.)
And that's about all I'll discuss about the plot, except to say that from there it becomes a tale of space exploration that highly values extrapolating from actual science when it comes to its dialogue and details, and it shows plausible versions of futuristic technology and space travel. The movie is haunting in its depiction of an extended space mission with a small crew facing utter isolation and no guarantee of return. When a character says that the thing that really gets to him is the idea that on the other side of the thin metal wall of the spacecraft is nothing but millions and millions of miles of nothing — well, that cuts to the heart of the psychological dread of oblivion. There are potential fates here worse than death; consider the possibility of an eternity of isolation, the idea that you are cut off from your species, possibly forever, even while their very survival depends on what you do next. This, after you've willingly left behind your children in an attempt to save them.
Meanwhile, Interstellar considers the implacable nature of time, and how there is both not enough of it and too much of it. Not enough time on Earth; too much in the vast emptiness of space. And the fact that time is relative is putting things mildly. It's safe to say that time is the biggest enemy in the story. A sequence where McConaughey's character reviews a series of messages from Earth after a major mission setback is devastating in its chilling realization.
Also, the idea of the human survival instinct becomes a case study when you consider it collectively as represented by the very idea of this daring mission on the one hand — or, on the other, the disastrous example of an individual exercising that same will to live at the expense of the greater good. Some of us will do the things we feel we must in order not to die, no matter the cost.
But Interstellar isn't all intellectualism and philosophy. It also has a rousing spirit of exploration, thrilling examples of space flight, and heart-stopping sequences of peril. And it has a final act that is mind-bending in its audacity. I would guess that these revelations may not please everyone, but I found them to be a logical conclusion of the film's humanistic intentions. This is a story built upon a foundation of sentiment as much as science.
For writer/director Christopher Nolan, Interstellar represents a masterwork. He moves beyond the comfortable action-movie trappings shown in his more recent successes like The Dark Knight trilogy or Inception and creates something that is both epic in its ambitions and personal in its feelings (and, I'd predict, not likely to be nearly as commercially successful). The depiction of all the sci-fi trappings are top-notch and imaginatively envisioned. The visuals are at times astonishing, yet limited in their scope so they never venture too far afield the primary points of view. Hans Zimmer's score is awesome and evocative. There are individual shots that are definitely paying homage to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The performances (including those from Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, and John Lithgow, among others) are on target, all starting with McConaughey, who grounds the movie in straightforward humanity. His character's love for his daughter affected me deeply, perhaps because it forced me to think of my own daughter in the terms of such a calamitous situation and dire choices. This is a movie that deals in universal feelings and empathy, and explores the human condition like all great sci-fi should. After seeing Interstellar, I couldn't stop thinking about it.
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