This is Christopher Nolan's most ambitious film in scope and depth. And it soars to great heights like few movies can.
But Nolan's ambition exceeds his grasp. (more on this later)
The story centers around Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) a former pilot who is trying to survive in the not-too-distant future where something called "the Blight" has slowly destroyed most of the world's food supply and turned Earth into a dustbowl. He has turned in his flightsuit for farmer's clothes and he raises corn with his teenage son Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), along with the father of his dead wife (Jon Lithgow).
Through a series of events, Cooper finds a secret NASA project that is looking to save humanity by finding a habitable planet. A wormhole has appeared near Saturn that opens to a solar system in another galaxy. A dozen astronauts went before to explore possible habitable worlds orbiting a black hole called Gargantua. Only 3 sent signals for possible habitable planets. Cooper is asked to lead a group of scientists including Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) and a robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) to find a habitable world. But because of relativity, time will pass more slowly for him, so he may never return or might not return in time to see his children again.
I don't want to speak more about the plot, which is wonderfully complex and has several twists and turns. But as in most great movies, things never go as planned.
The stakes are high and Nolan wisely keeps raising them as the movie progresses. And unlike a lot of movies with a forgone conclusion, you never lose your sense of impending calamity.
This Nolan's most emotional movie. That isn't to say that his other movies are cold, but there is a strong level of restraint to his character's feelings in films like Memento or Inception. But this is new territory for him. And McConaughey more than delivers on the part. He conveys not only strong and believable intelligence, but his heart is on his sleeve, especially when it comes to his children. You can feel the tearing of his heart as he is put into an impossible situation and must deal with the pain of leaving. Cooper, like Cobb in Inception, only wants to get home to his children. But Interstellar surpasses that catharsis because of the raw power of the father's love and his desperation to return home that we see because of Nolan and McConaughey. These deeply emotional scenes are still sticking with me a week after seeing Interstellar. He touched on something primal in the heart.
The other actors are also fantastic. Hathaway brings great resolve and strength to the role without falling into the trap of being masculine. Irwin's delivery as TARS is one of the most delightful parts of the script. Michael Caine as Brand's father, a scientist who must solve the problem of gravity to save humanity, brings resolve, depth, and sorrow to every scene he's in. Wes Bently and David Gyasi also add some important humanity to the mission. There is a surprisingly famous actor who comes around late in the movie, but I think that it was one of the best performances from them in recent years.
The script is wonderful in its exploration of deep themes. This isn't just a visual spectacle. Make no mistake, the look of the film is spectacular and I was drawn in completely by the world that Nolan makes. But he uses that as a backdrop to discuss and explore things like exploration itself, the nature of love, human capacities of good and evil. As a Catholic, I saw reflected what we believe about us: little less than gods but broken by original sin. Nolan deals with these ideas with a grown up sensibility and treats the material with great maturity. And the ideas are not flights of philosophical flourish. They are integral to the story. The ideas matter. That is one of the things that I love most about Nolan's movies: ideas matter.
But the design of the film does not suffer because of the intellectual pursuit. The ships, the planets, the technology... it all is stunning. I am particularly crazy about the design of the robots. Too often the robots in movies are humanoid. Nolan's design is brilliant in the opposite direction. Here, the robots are obelisk-like rectangles with moving parts to help them walk and do labor. One of the most interesting and refreshing parts of this is that Nolan allows you to feel a connection to the robots and he gives them personality, but he never lets you forget that they are not living creatures on the same level as humans. They are like Wilson from Castaway: less a reflection of humanity but of humanity's ability to empathize.
And this points to one of the movie's great strengths: originality. Not only do his robots feel fresh, but his post-apocalypse is like nothing I've ever seen. It amazed me how normal everything seemed. Even with massive calamities and food problems and dust storms, people still had parent/teacher conferences and go to ball games. (As a side note, I love Nolan's little dig at modern teaching textbooks regarding the moon landing). His future feels tangible in a way that few others do. It feels just around the corner. I haven't encountered that in a good long while.
Now, the film's main deficit lies in its final act and resolution. I will attempt to be as vague as possible, but it is nearly impossible to express my reservations without getting into the 3rd act.
Nolan's favorite film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie that I detest. And the DNA of that movie is layered throughout Interstellar, no more so than the final act. Here, I believe is where the movie will either stand or fall with viewers. Like Dave in 2001, Cooper goes on a mystical, metaphysical trip. Unlike 2001, Interstellar attempts to explain to the audience what is happening. I think Nolan was afraid people wouldn't understand what was happening with Cooper's cosmic odyssey, so he spends too much time here. The causes the movie, which was moving along at a brisk pace even with a 3-hour running time, to screech to a halt. The emotional truth of the scene is strong, but here was the one time I felt pulled out of the film and I couldn't help but roll my eyes a little. I understand that Nolan was saying something profound about love and gravity (which actually as a Catholic reader of Dr. Peter Kreeft was amazingly deep), but I don't think the execution was quite what it should have been. I wanted it to work, but I think he reached just a little too high and he just missed the mark.
After this, the resolution is a bit too drawn out. Also in the end, Nolan tries to shift the central emotional relationship to something else. This would be acceptable, but the relationship that he ends on did not have enough emotional set up in the first 2 acts. The end is an inverse of the formula for the rest of the movie: the finale makes intellectual sense but does not have the same emotional punch.
Interstellar is not a perfect movie. It has its flaws and it fails to fully cash the thematic check it writes in the first 2 acts. But it is still one of the best movies I've seen this year. It reminds me of a quote.
"Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."
4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars