‘Interstellar,’ a space-time odyssey: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan project human destiny through the prism of one man’s journey

November 29, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 29, 2014

Interstellar, the new science fiction drama from director Christopher Nolan, is a domestic drama that takes place across the reaches of space, time and physics.

The ostensible hero of the movie is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a widower who farms an increasingly desolate homestead in what may be rural Texas. The ostensible heroine is Brand (Anne Hathaway), a scientist whose drive to salvage humanity is sometimes undermined by her usually tightly controlled sentimentality. I don’t think the film ever reveals Cooper’s first name; Brand’s given name is Amelia, but it’s seldom used, a very deliberate omission that marks the character’s emotional coolness, underscoring the distance — real or figurative — between her and the people for whom she cares, and who care for her.

If the movie, which the English director co-wrote with his younger brother, Jonathan Nolan, ever specified the time in which it takes place, I missed it. The story seemed to me to begin a generation or two after our present time. In this dystopian future, climate change has evidently occurred, bringing with it massive dust storms and global crop failures. The ensuing famine and population collapse bring a singular focus on feeding and expanding the human population at the expense of nearly everything else.

Cooper is a relic in this world. Currently a farmer, he once had an abortive career as an astronaut. He’s bitter because the advanced technology that is now all but officially eschewed includes magnetic resonance imagers, which if available might have detected the cancer that killed his wife. He’s also angry because his children — Tom, who’s about 16, and Murph, 10 — are being taught almost exclusively about agriculture.

How narrow-minded is the emphasis on survival? It’s suggested, rather improbably, that the world’s military forces have disbanded. Also, we’re told that federally approved textbooks describe the 20th-century moon landings as a clever hoax that the U.S. government perpetrated to goad the Soviet Union into wasting enormous amounts of resources on space exploration.

That isn’t the only source of tension in Cooper’s household. Murph’s bedroom is afflicted by — well, something. Murph identifies it as a ghost or poltergeist; Cooper isn’t sure what to think.

Whatever it is, it gives the pair a set of coordinates. The plot kicks into gear when Cooper and his daughter head to that location and discover a secret NASA installation. The location is overseen headed by Professor Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine), who is leading a two-pronged effort to insure humanity’s survival.

Brand enlists Cooper, who may be the most experienced astronaut alive, to join the crew for what the movie calls “Plan B.” Cooper, Amelia Brand and two other astronauts will fly a spaceship through a black hole that has been hovering near Saturn for the past few decades. Their mission is to visit some of the habitable planets that have been detected on the far side of the wormhole and select one of them for colonization.

When they find a hospitable setting, the explorers and their aides — block-shaped but extremely versatile wise-cracking robots TARS (the voice of Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart) — are to start a new civilization by incubating cryogenically frozen embryos. They may have a few extra helpers in this endeavor, for each of the dozen potential new home worlds has already been visited by a single, now-marooned scientist. Some of these explorers have begun transmitting sketchy but promising data.

This scenario brooks no possibility that Cooper will return to his daughter, which is one reason why the child (played as a 10-year-old by Mackenzie Foy) is so reluctant to see him go. For Murph or any of the other remnants of humanity to have any hope of survival, Plan A must be realized: As they travel near and through the black hole, the scientists Brand and their aides must collect data that will provide some understanding of gravity that will enable Professor Brand to… Well, the movie is also a bit vague about this, but this plan somehow allows people to escape the ecological disaster into which mother Earth has descended.

The movie’s middle stretch depicts the disillusioning of the protagonists. Cooper and Brand barely survive their first planetfall, on a perilous watery world orbiting so close to the black hole’s extrasolar manifestation that gravity slows the passage of time compared to the rest of the galaxy. One member of the expedition is lost; another spends years waiting for his companions to return. Cooper’s father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow), dies; Cooper’s children mature; Tom (played as an adult by Casey Affleck) marries and begins fathering — and burying — children of his own.

More importantly, Murph (portrayed as an adult by Jessica Chastain) loses hope that she will ever again see, or even hear from, her father. She also begins to fear that her new surrogate parent, Professor Brand, will never unlock the mysteries of gravity that he had long proclaimed would offer the increasingly wretched folks who have been left behind on Earth a chance to survive.

As is typical in the films of the brothers Nolan, Interstellar features an extended series of climaxes (see: The Dark Knight Rises) that many viewers will find baffling (see: MementoInception). Trouble ignites when Cooper and his fellow voyagers find that the second planet they visit is not as welcoming as it had initially seemed. Their would-be host is a scientist named, significantly, Mann (a husky Matt Damon). The action begins with hand-to-hand combat and escalates into grand theft rocketship; soon, there’s a wildly spinning orbital debris field, à la Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity; then we revisit territory vaguely familiar from the conclusion of director Gary Nelson’s 1979 misfire The Black Hole, in which a small space probe descends into the menacing heart of a singularity.

Here in this penultimate phase, Interstellar begins to limn its most important secrets. Cooper and TARS find themselves inhabiting a strange slice of space-time continuum, a sort of archive that connects them to…

To provide additional story details would be to ruin the voyage of discovery that is Interstellar. I’ll just say that, in a sequence that resembles the conclusion of Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey if that movie had explanatory narration, the filmmakers provide a rationale an explanation for everything in their convoluted narrative. The coda offers a resolution, and a revelation or two, that will leave some viewers feeling emotionally or intellectually unsatisfied — if not both. Suffice to say that Cooper and Amelia Brand are merely adjuncts to the movie’s true protagonist, who never roams very far from Cooper’s heart or his home.

I myself feel ambivalently toward Interstellar. The plot mechanics work; so do the characters’ emotional arcs, although they feel somewhat contrived. The movie resembles the Nolans’ Inception, which was heavy on dazzling imagery and plot twists but light on characters about whom it’s possible to care much, let alone love.

Part of the problem is McConaughey. Despite the actor’s natural warmth and charm, I didn’t find him to be entirely convincing as the skilled pilot-engineer whose unique mix of pragmatism and sentimentality make him the perfect man to execute Professor Brand’s plan. (Cooper’s desire to guarantee the survival of the human race is rivaled, and arguably at times trumped, by his desire to return to his daughter.)

Another problem is that Amelia Brand, the scientist who has been groomed by her father to save the human race, never fully comes to life. Granted, hers is a tricky character to write — Brand is a scientist who attempts to make decisions without allowing emotion to cloud her judgment. In practice, the character is here warm, there cool; vulnerable in one moment, guarded the next. As scripted and directed by the Nolans, and as portrayed by Hathaway, Brand works better as a plot device than as an actual person; she came across to me more as a series of character beats than as a living, breathing, occasionally self-contradictory person.

The Nolans are great filmmakers — some of the greatest of the earliest 21st century, I feel confident in saying. Christopher Nolan, who has co-written seven features with his sibling, creates beautiful, clever spectacles that happen to make lots of money. But sometimes, I feel as if the brothers have fallen in love with complexity for complexity’s sake. I wonder if they’d benefit from narrowing their ambitions somewhat and creating great but somewhat modest films, as opposed to good movies that fall a bit short in their attempts to depict events with world- and universe-defining consequences.

Still, the Nolans are too good to ignore; anyone who thinks seriously about cinema, science or science fiction should feel duty-bound to watch Interstellar. They may not enjoy the feature, but won’t be able to say that they were subjected to the cheap, facile kind of entertainment that we’re used to seeing out of Hollywood.

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