Posted on November 5, 2014 at 8:55 am
Writer/director Christopher Nolan takes on literally cosmic issues with “Interstellar.” It is an ambitious, provocative, thoughtful, and highly entertaining film that deals with, well, pretty much everything, and, all things considered (believe me, ALL things are considered), it holds together very well.
It’s the near future and some blight has turned humans from progressive, curious, and optimistic to beaten down, hopeless, close to desperate. “We once looked up to the stars and dreamed,” says Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). “Now we look down to the dirt and worry.” Cooper was once an engineer at NASA. Now, like most people left, he is a farmer, struggling to grow crops in a world that has turned into a dustbowl, with plant species dying off until all that is left is corn. Cooper is a widower with two children, teenaged Tom and 10-year-old Murphy, and they live with his father-in-law (John Lithgow). The earth is not all that has been blighted. It is a post-enlightenment society scrambling for “caretaking,” with no intellectual aspirations or opportunities. Cooper’s wife died because medical technology and expertise that was once available no longer exists. And he is called into school because Murphy is in trouble for insisting that Americans once landed on the moon. That never happened, Murphy’s teacher explains a little impatiently. That was just a clever ruse to bankrupt the Soviet Union. The clear implication is that this revisionist history is itself a clever ruse to prevent young people from developing an interest in science that human society no longer believes has any value when the only possibility of survival is to return to the cultural norms of a thousand years ago, when most of human endeavor was devoted to making food. We do not know why the idea that science might be of aid in solving the food production crisis is no longer of interest. A comment by one person that greed created problems may be a clue.
Murphy insists that she is getting messages from a ghost who throws books off the shelf in her bedroom. When Cooper investigates, it appears to be an anomaly of some kind, a gravitational singularity, a message. The “ghost’s” message points to a location. When Cooper goes there, Murphy stows away in the car. It turns out to be a secret NASA facility led by Dr. Brand (Michael Caine). They have concluded that Earth can no longer sustain human life. They have sent out rocket probes to find an alternate planet that can sustain human life. Plan A is to be able to transport Earth’s inhabitants to a new location. The project is called Lazarus. Plan B, if no one alive can be saved, is to transport fertilized eggs to the new location and begin again, a new Genesis. They want Cooper to pilot the ship.
And this sets up the central conflict of the story. It is only secondarily about whether humans can, will, or should continue as a species and culture. The primary concern is the relationship between Cooper and Murphy. He wants more than anything in the world to stay with her and watch her grow up. But he knows his participation is critical to the mission — no one else going has ever actually flown before — and if the mission fails, Murphy’s generation will be the last. In a wrenching scene, Cooper has to leave while Murphy is furious and hurt. He promises he will come back. Parent-child relationships and especially promises broken and kept, echo throughout the storyline.
Dr. Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway) is on the crew and the trip into space leads to some mind-bending conversations about cosmology, including wormholes, black holes, and why an hour on one planet can translate into seven years for the occupants of the spaceship circulating above. The visual effects (all built or “practical” effects, no digital/green screen) are stunning.
The storyline also provides an opportunity for extremely complex and difficult moral choices, as the crew has to make decisions based on very limited information and even more limited time. The broad sweep of themes means that some choices work better than others. The ending seems rushed and not entirely thought through. Cutting back and forth between scenes in outer space and back on earth during one passage goes on too long, and one mention of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem would be plenty. A detour involving an unbilled actor with an almost-unforgivably on-the-nose character name is particularly poorly conceived. But even that scene is so visually striking that it barely registers as a diversion. And overall, the film’s willingness to place the biggest questions in the grand sweep of the universe is absorbing and it is impossible not to be moved by it.
Parents should know that this film includes themes of environmental devastation and potential human extinction, sci-fi-style peril and violence, sad deaths of parents and children, attempted murder, characters injured and killed, and a few bad words.
Family discussion: Why did the school insist that the moon landing was faked and what does that tell us about this society? What should the crew have considered in deciding which planet to try?
If you like this, try: “2001,” “Silent Running,” and “Inception”