I recently saw Interstellar, the highly-anticipated film from director Christopher Nolan. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s a very ambitious film that deserves a place in the canon of ‘hard sci-fi’ cinema. Its indebtedness to predecessors such as 2001 and Contact is evident throughout, but it manages to make a unique contribution to the genre through its ideas and impressive visual imagery. If I have one criticism of the film, I would say that the third act is too metaphysical (an odd criticism for a student of philosophy to make!). To say more about that, however, would be to spoil the ending of the film and this is a movie that should really be entered spoiler-free. Read on at your own risk if you haven’t yet seen it, although I will try to avoid major spoilers in this review.
The film begins by establishing that earth is running out of food. Humanity has reverted to an agrarian society; everybody has become a farmer, including former test pilot and engineer, Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey. He and his family, including his precocious 10 year old daughter Murph, live on a farm that’s reminiscent of something from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl. Murph begins to experience strange phenomena in her bedroom, such as books flying off the shelves. She concludes that a ghost is responsible. This sets up the first of the film’s ‘big ideas’: the tension between science and skepticism on the one hand and spirituality and sentimentality on the other. Without delving too deeply into spoilers, part of what the film attempts to do is overcome this dichotomy.
Murph’s attempt to interpret these messages from beyond leads her and her father to discover a secret NASA installation overseen by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway). They are planning a risky voyage to find a new home for humanity among the stars. The NASA team has discovered a wormhole that leads to another galaxy. Three astronauts have already gone through the wormhole in search of habitable worlds and have sent back some promising data. Professor Brand recruits Cooper to lead the mission to reach these potentially habitable planets. Cooper makes the decision to leave his family and embark on what’s likely to be a one-way mission into deep space. Because of the time dilation effects of deep space travel, he will experience time at a slower rate than those on earth. He faces the possibility that his family, including his children, will age and die before he ever gets back — if he ever gets back. However, as Professor Brand reminds him, in order to survive, humanity must think as a species, not as individuals.
I won’t say anymore about the plot, because to do so would get into spoiler territory. Instead, I’m going to talk more generally about the themes involved in the film. There are almost too many ideas going on in this film (although that’s preferable to there being too few) and there’s definitely a balancing act going on between the rigor of the science — which by sci-fi standards is quite high — and metaphysical speculation. Throughout the film, the characters speculate that gravity holds the key to understanding the mysteries of the universe. From my layman’s understanding, this speculation is rooted in recent theoretical physics. Stephen Hawking has attributed the creation of the universe itself to gravity and other theoretical physicists have speculated that gravity might be evidence of the existence of extra dimensions and even other universes. In the film, however, this scientific account is juxtaposed with the notion that love — something not easily quantifiable — is in some sense the most fundamental force in the universe. Again, I can’t say too much about the way this theme plays out without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that in a movie ostensibly about the technical aspects of deep space travel, wormholes, black holes, and relativity, the film devotes about a third of its running time to a very metaphysical exploration of the power of love to literally transcend space and time.
Interstellar’s turn into metaphysical, quasi-spiritual territory towards the end of the film has divided audiences. I think you’ll either like it or you won’t. I’m actually quite conflicted about what side of that divide I fall on. I rather liked the dilemma with which the crew is faced at a certain point in the movie — whether to return home or press on and find a home for the human embryos they carry with them. The film’s resolution to this dilemma is to try and have it both ways. It’s a creative solution, I suppose, but it feels a little too much like an M. Night Shyamalan film (albeit one of his better ones). The twist ending, which Nolan has employed in The Prestige, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises, doesn’t really work for me here. To be fair, the film sets up the dichotomy between science and spirituality from the beginning and its eventual resolution — a New Age-y interpretation that sees the counter-intuitive world of arcane physics as making room for spirituality — is not completely out of left field.
That said, the film should be seen for its visuals alone. I found it to be the most visually compelling film I’ve seen this year and the best example to date of Nolan’s ability as a visual director. Unlike Inception, which I felt was marred by clunky exposition, Interstellar places much more confidence in the power of the image to convey the story. There is, of course, some expository dialogue, but nothing like the excesses of some of his earlier work. In Interstellar, Nolan trusts the visuals to carry the narrative to a much greater extent than he has in the past and, in my judgment, this is a promising development.
If you’re a fan of 2001 and Contact, I think you will enjoy Interstellar.