It’s pretty much a given that Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar will be compared with Stanley Kubick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 46 years ago. It’s about the only film that comes close to Interstellar’s vision and scale. Nolan himself gives the earlier film a nod when he has a robot on the spaceship use its humor setting to make a wisecrack about how the astronaut can get back in through the pod door after being ejected into space. But the movie actually harkens back to Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus must make his long trip home to save his family and his kingdom.
Nolan sets Interstellar in an all-too-possible future. Overpopulation has caused countries to focus almost solely on growing food. They tell themselves they’re a caretaker generation, to get through the crisis, and then things will be better. At the same time the climate has turned toxic. Blight has destroyed wheat as a crop, and sorghum is dying off. Corn remains resilient, but drought threatens it. Dust storms even worse than the 1930s are now common enough that communities have installed warning sirens for when the clouds approach. To keep the people focused on farming, the government has re-written history and science textbooks to negate accomplishments – they now say that the Apollo landings were faked – while NASA is officially disbanded. They can’t afford to dream big dreams anymore.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was a test-pilot engineer at the end for NASA, but now he too is a farmer, living with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) and his two children, Tom (Timothy Chalamet) and Murph (MacKenzie Foy). Tom looks forward to being a farmer, but Murph is already showing she may eclipse her father’s brilliance at science. But it seems Murph is going through a phase because she claims there are ghosts in her room push books off her shelves. Rather than being scared, she analyzes the dropped books to find a pattern, believing the ghosts are trying to communicate with her.
Then in the aftermath of a dust storm, Cooper and Murph find an anomaly that sends them on a journey. They discover the remnants of NASA hidden in an old NORAD bunker. It’s now under the direction of Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway), who just goes by Brand. The professor gives Cooper a doomsday scenario for the planet that will happen within Murph’s generation. The only chance humanity has is to leave the Earth behind, and Cooper is the best pilot for the mission to find humanity a new home.
In 2001, the science is fairly bland and not really spelled out – just a cool light show at the end. Interstellar, on the other hand, is an illustrated primer on quantum physics, relativity, and holes of the worm or black variety. For instance, in the course of the mission Cooper hardly ages for a couple of reasons while back on earth Murph grows older than her father was when he left (the adult Murph is played by Jessica Chastain).
Also different than 2001, the humans in Interstellar are just that – human, with all our foibles and pettiness, even as we dream great dreams. It is one of the more emotionally resonant science fiction films. There are lies and weakness and cowardice – the stuff that drama is made of – rather than the antiseptic world of the earlier film. It’s not just science fiction; it’s science friction, as all the elements collide.
The special effects look top-notch, though it’s interesting that Nolan kept much of the movie old school. He used actual film rather than digital cameras, and for the robot TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) many of its scenes are done with puppetry. Nolan collaborated with his brother Jonathan on the script, as he has in the past for Momento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. They were assisted by Kip Thorne (who has Executive Producer credit on the film) who is a famed astrophysicist who teaches at Cal Tech and is currently the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics. Thorne collaborated with the special effects crew on visualizing a worm hole.
The score by Hans Zimmer is effective, especially since Nolan told him he’d have to strip down the orchestration. He also didn’t provide Zimmer with the script, just a page of notes. However, Zimmer’s score underlines the emotional element of the scenes and increases the impact of the film.
The focus of the movie is Cooper and Murph, and the father-daughter relationship between McConaughey and Foy, then Chastain, has an emotional resonance and validity. Caine has done excellent work with Nolan through, and with their fifth film together that excellence continues. The rest of the cast – Hathaway, Lithgow, William Devane, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, and another major actor in a surprise appearance – inhabit their roles beautifully.
This is a major movie dealing with complex issues (it’s also 9 minutes longer than the original cut of 2001) but it is also a movie with heart and soul. 2001: A Space Odyssey played in some theaters for almost three years, supported by repeat visitors, some of whom enjoyed watching the special effects with the help of some chemical augmentation. Movie distribution has changed radically since those days, but this is a movie that deserves to be seen more than once, and then reflected upon.
It may only be science fiction for a few years.