There is no question director Christopher Nolan is a gifted storyteller and that this fact has a lot to do with his deserved success. What really sets the director apart, though, is his love for humanity. Unlike so many of his counterparts, Nolan doesn’t see mankind as a disease or doomed by an inevitable apocalypse brought on by man’s greed and ignorance. Nolan thinks we’re pretty special, and in his achingly ambitious “Interstellar” this belief once again manifests itself in more than just theme.
Nolan believes so much in us he doesn’t patronize or pander with only the “feel-good.” Although he creates hugely expensive tentpole blockbusters, his canon isn’t watered down for mass appeal. As we saw in the last two chapters of his “Dark Knight” trilogy and 2010’s “Inception,” Nolan gambles big on this faith with hugely complicated (in a good way) stories that that have Big Things to say about the human condition, our place in the universe, and our unlimited potential for decency and to make better or save humanity.
The survival of humanity, and a father keeping a promise to his 10 year-old daughter, are the stakes in “Interstellar,” a nearly three-hour sci-fi epic I’m going to have to see more than once to announce a final verdict on.
Set in the near-future, a blight that resembles the Dust Bowl has hit the entire planet. Dust is a way of life, and what it’s taking out of the air makes it impossible to grow anything but corn. Like his neighbor’s last shot at okra, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is dying in this world. Not literally, spiritually. Coop’s old enough to remember a time when mankind aspired to be more than just “caretakers.” He’s also haunted by the memories of what life promised him and the world before the dust.
Thanks to his spirited and highly-intelligent daughter Murph (a wonderful Mackenzie Foy), Coop discovers more destiny than he bargained for in a secret NASA outpost that’s hiding from taxpayers who no longer believe in aspirational things. It’s here he learns that our planet is dying and the only way to save the species is to travel through a mysterious wormhole in space and solve an incredibly complicated math problem involving gravity here on Earth.
I’ve read that Nolan’s favorite film is Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and there’s no question the influence is everywhere, especially in breathtaking shots of man and his machines against the vastness of space backed by either Hans Zimmer’s ambitious score or (more effectively) dead silence. Where “2001” famously ended with the choice to not explain its central question, Nolan takes us all the way.
“Interstellar” is in many ways the anti-“2001,” but not a repudiation. The journey is similar but Kubrick’s artistic choice of human banality and as little dialogue as possible is replaced with huge beating heart and scenes filled with exposition meant to keep the audience abreast of the theories that make “Interstellar’s” many plot twists and adversities possible. Even the robots remind that faith, science, and humanity are not contradictions.
Time itself is both friend and foe, and its effects after a visit to a water-covered planet beset by tidal waves will stay with you long after you leave the theater.
“Interstellar” wants to make you FEEL and THINK, and believe that mankind is more than just a biological anomaly or, yes, a blight on Gaia. We matter, and as imperfect as we are, in the end we’re either going to save humanity and keep our promise to our daughters, or we’re going to die trying.
I felt every minute of “Interstellar’s” runtime and still didn’t want it to end. More than once I got lost; not in the plot but in the why and how of it all. Right now , I’m not so much in love with “Interstellar” as intrigued. The story itself is a bit of a wormhole that takes us to infinite places and asks us to feel everything along the way.
Nolan’s ambition has undoubtedly created a film worth seeing. I’m just not sure it worked well enough to be considered another classic or a bit of stumble (which it felt like in the third act). I am sure I want find out by jumping in that wormhole again, and probably again.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC