Fans of real science fiction – not the “epic fantasy with lasers” fare we usually get in movie theaters – will be delighted by Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.” It’s one of the few major films to follow in the footsteps of “2001: A Space Odyssey” since that movie’s under-appreciated sequel “2010,” which also just happens to have featured John Lithgow. If “Interstellar” does big business, can we finally hope to see some adaptations of Golden and Silver-age sci-fi classics, instead of a dozen more attempts to launch comic-booky “Star Wars” knockoffs? The great masters of science-fiction left Hollywood with a lot of treasure to mine, at very reasonable prices… provided they can get over their morbid fear of audiences fleeing the theater at the first hint of hard science.
Alas, I must report that a few people did flee the theater at my showing of “Interstellar,” audibly grumbling about how long and boring it was. It’s clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, clocking in at nearly three hours in length, about a third of which is spent on an exhausted Earth deliberately meant to evoke the hopelessness of the Great Depression and the cynicism of the pre-moon-shot Vietnam era. (Our hero has a fairly intense dislike of the military, which he accuses of “dropping bombs on starving people” during global food riots that occurred a few years before the story begins; the government has taken to teaching children that the Apollo missions were elaborate forgeries, to make people feel better about giving up on high technology and space exploration, and accept their fate as the hardscrabble farming “caretaker generation” of a dying planet.)
Once we get into space, another third of “Interstellar” consists of long zero-gravity dorm-room philosophy about the power of love, the survival instincts of the human race, the effect of intense gravitational fields on the flow of time, who the mysterious benefactors of humanity that dropped a wormhole to another galaxy in Saturn’s orbit might be, and how to choose between an impossible Plan A and a lousy Plan B without becoming a monster.
Nolan remains as crafty as ever when it comes to cleverly inserting profoundly conservative themes into big-bucks Hollywood product, this time emphasizing the importance of faith, courage, and sacrifice. C.S. Lewis wrote his “Narnia” series with the argument that the story of Christ could be told in an engaging way to less-devout readers by imagining Christ as a lion. “Interstellar” makes him an astronaut, in a cleverly implicit manner – the point of the story is to understand why these brave explorers are willing to sacrifice themselves on a very thin reed of hope, which gets even thinner as the story unfolds.
It’s a tribute to both the quality of the writing, and the performance of lead Matthew McConaughey, that the audiences’ faith in astronaut hero Cooper never wavers. It’s Nolan’s good fortune to be offering a three-hour helping of McConaughey at the peak of a remarkable career renaissance, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else carrying this film the way he does. Some of the themes are delivered with a sledgehammer – I hope you like Dylan Thomas poetry, because you’re going to hear one of his works repeated quite a few times if you buy a ticket to “Interstellar” – and it’s important to have a subtle actor holding the handle of that sledgehammer. Cooper is a man of unparalleled devotion, courage, intelligence, and resourcefulness, a guy with the rightest Right Stuff anyone ever had, and the picture would collapse like the black hole it orbits if the audience couldn’t identify with him. But you do, because he’s also funny, crazy, and clearly scared out of his mind while he’s busy saving the day. There’s a hint of the old-fashioned movie star around McConaughey here, as he provides a hero who is admirable without being arrogant. He’s helped along by the nearly-miraculous presence of some wisecracking robots who are actually funny and engaging, rather than being annoying cliches. I never thought I’d see another smartass robot I didn’t want to melt into scrap by the time the movie was over.
So: three hours with only a few carefully-staged action set pieces, one small splash of violent conflict, a whole lot of beautiful and realistic-looking production design, a top-shelf leading man, and a rush of scientific exposition that tries a bit to hard to make the audience understand what’s going on while the table is set for the climax. Is this going to bring in a mass audience, in these days of pre-sold mass-market tentpole pictures? I doubt anyone but Christopher Nolan, at this exact moment in his career, would have been given the bankroll to try it. (I can imagine a studio executive complaining that it’s too complicated to bring in eight-figure revenue and rising from his chair, only to sit back down when Nolan fixed him with a penetrating gaze and said: “Inception.”) If “Interstellar” bombs, it will be a while before anyone is given a big budget to try it again.
If it works, who knows what else we might get in the years to come? Rumors have swirled about half-cooked projects based on sci-fi masterworks stalled in development hell, from Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama” to Asimov’s “Foundation” series. That’s the kind of story “Interstellar” wants to be, and it mostly succeeds, aside from some rather heavy-handed exposition and a few of those wonderful plot holes Nolan leaves in his films just to keep the fan websites humming. (There’s a part of this movie that comes very close to flying off the same rails that left Danny Boyle’s 80-percent-excellent “Sunshine” a heap of flaming wreckage.) I love this movie despite its flaws, I had no problem remaining firmly fixed in my seat for the entire running time, and I want it to succeed because I want to see what comes next. That’s as good of a mission statement for science fiction as any.
(As mentioned, I saw a few people bail on “Interstellar,” but I also heard a lot of positive buzz and awakened curiosity for this kind of sci-fi story on the way out of the theater, and had a lot of fun being the designated space geek in conversations afterward. If you’re looking for a bit of recommended reading for another example of this kind of story, I suggest the series by Greg Bear that begins with “Eon,” which also features mankind playing some extreme games with the spacetime continuum to escape planetary apocalypse, and would also make a great movie.)
Update: For the benefit of readers whose decision to see “Interstellar” might be impacted by the presence of religious content, I should clarify there is not a bit of explicit religious material in the film, right down to the somewhat incongruous refusal of any character to discuss divinity in the face of awesome stellar phenomena and the impending end of the human race – not so much as a single “end is nigh” sandwich board is in view. I hesitate to name the core philosophy expressed through the plot of “Interstellar” for fear of giving away too much, but the viewer interested in such matters will easily recognize it by the time the credits roll.
Also, for the benefit of those wary of getting sucker-punched, the planet-ravaging catastrophe that sets the plot in motion is not related to “climate change” or anything like that. There is a single line of dialogue in which Lithgow’s elderly character muses that his generation (i.e. us) was too greedy, but McConaughey’s character clearly isn’t buying it, and the entire point of the movie is that humanity should not abandon its ambitions for technological progress and exploration.