Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is the prequel…no, sequel…no, wait, remake of…wait, wait…just a second…holy crap!
It’s a big-budget Hollywood movie based on an original screenplay!?!
What’s more, it’s fairly hard science sci-fi (well, for a movie). It has space travel complete with relativistic effects and everything. At a time when the only other sci-fi film on the horizon based on an original screenplay is the obviously-destined-to-be-terrible Jupiter Ascending, that’s a very good thing (I’m not counting Chappie because it’s just going to be the unholy lovechild of Short Circuit and District 9).
The story goes like this: Earth is shriveling up and dying and it’s time to get the heck out of dodge. Unfortunately, anti-intellectuals have taken over our increasingly fractured societies (there’s a reference to old “federal” text books being replaced with corrected texts that label the Apollo moon missions a “propaganda campaign” to bankrupt the old Soviet Union). NASA, though, has trudged on in secret and through a mysterious message delivered via gravity waves, a retired cracker jack pilot cum farmer played by Matthew McConaughey is recruited to lead a desperate mission through a recently discovered wormhole and identify a planet suitable for human life.
How, though, to actually transport the Earth’s remaining population to this new home? If we’re going to get everyone left off this dirt ball, we’ll need to do better than good old fashioned rockets, that’s for sure. The daughter McConaughey leaves behind studies under the mastermind of this whole scheme to try to tackle the implications of the wormhole and the strange gravity waves. If they can crack that nut, then we can use the technology to quickly egress the planet.
That’s a big if, though, so there’s also a Plan B wherein a cargo of fertilized eggs could be used to develop a colony on the other end of the wormhole (apparently entirely via Anne Hathaway’s womb, but the movie glosses over the details of how this is supposed to work).
Having left his own kids behind in the hopes of saving them, McConaughey’s character is pretty intent on making Plan A work. So he leads the intrepid crew through some planet hopping with spectacular vistas both in orbit and on the surface of these candidate worlds in a desperate attempt to outfox General Relativity and get back before the Earth’s population wastes away (especially his little one who’s growing up while time passes more slowly for him out in another galaxy).
It’s a big, bold, epic film loaded with galactic ambitions.
For me, though, Interstellar is a disappointment.
Oh, it’s a good movie, don’t get me wrong. The visuals are sweeping and thrilling. It’s well executed and well acted, particularly Chastain and, to a lesser extent, Hathaway who makes the most of an underwritten character.
But it could have been sublime if it just had a little more courage.
For one thing, while Interstellar embraces hard science in space, it avoids the real stuff on Earth. Human civilization is being eradicated by “blight” striking our food supply and by an increasingly dust-storm prone environment. It’s as if Nolan and company wanted to put up a big sign for the Fox News set reading, “It’s not global warming, we promise!”
It is, of course. Dust storms like those depicted in the film would be more common due to erosion and desertification caused by climate change. Those same climate shifts would suit some pathogens more than others and, particularly if we rely on corporately patented monocultures for crops, leaving our food supply vulnerable.
The film, though, never admits that it is humanity who has ruined the Earth and so it never takes the time to contemplate whether we are worthy of another home after having despoiled our own. Instead it offers us a hackneyed theme about the intrepid explorers being “the best of us,” which is predictably called in question in due order only to be soundly answered through a certain former People’s sexiest man alive making (or trying to make) a really noble sacrifice. In the middle of all that underdeveloped moralizing, there’s also some big talk about love.
Some reviewers are really singling that out as hokum, as if physicists shouldn’t ever talk about such things, but I think they focused on those bits so much because it was all they understood. The real challenge of the movie is in tracking its time-and-space bending plot (my twelve year old said it broke his brain), which is fine and all, but if the film makers had taken a step back from the spectacle for a moment, they might have seen they also had an opportunity to make us think about even bigger questions.