Beyond infinity and back again

Interstellar takes its place in the sci-fi canon

It’s not that hard a thing, capturing the vastness of space, and with it, the adventure of transcending our home planet: just look up. What is hard is capturing something bigger than that—the stars behind the stars, really. Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s epic spacescape of a film, gets pretty close.

Anne Hathaway and Wes Bentley in Interstellar.

Anne Hathaway and Wes Bentley in Interstellar.

Interstellar takes the science fiction of its premise quite seriously. So seriously, in fact, the film is a solid three hours long. We are in it for the long haul, so dig in. Blights are decimating the planet’s food sources, one at a time. There’s less than a generation’s worth of time before everyone starves.

Matthew McConaughey is Cooper, a chiseled former NASA pilot who, like most of the world’s working people now, is a farmer. You know how serious the situation on Earth is because you have the conversations between Cooper and his father-in-law ( John Lithgow) that painstakingly draw out for us the movie’s moral lodestones. “We’re a caretaker generation,” he says to Cooper at one point. There are a handful of shots of Cooper sipping a beer and squinting his eyes as he looks up over his cornfields and at the hazy horizon.

The yarn spun for us is an improbable one involving ghosts inside gravity and Cooper finding a hidden space compound in the middle of nowhere. See, even though world governments gave up on space travel so as to focus on feeding the planet, somehow NASA survived (alright science!). They’re led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine in a perfect oxford shirt), and they’ve discovered a wormhole in our solar system. They sent 10 solo explorers through the wormhole so as to locate a new home for Earth. Three are pinging back good news, so it’s time for a bunch of scientist to go find them before it’s too late. They just need a pilot.

And so McConaughey joins a crew that includes Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway), and we’re off into the biggest space adventure story I’ve ever seen.

The pace of everything up to this point, and everthing that follows, is measured and calm. Every line, every scene is carefully crafted to bring the story along, one plot point at a time. It’s mechanical. McConaughey and Hathaway deliver solid acting performances that are ultimately tied down by the script itself. That’s too bad, since; again, the move is three hours long, more than enough time to flesh out memorable characters.

The flaw is easily forgotten, however, in the face of mind-bending graphics and spaceship sequences that are overwhelming and tragically beautiful. If nothing else, Nolan captures the Platonic silence of space.

When we’re watching ships docking or wormholes wormholing, more often than not the scenes begin with deep silence. The effect is almost monastic, reverential.

Never has space felt as big as it does in Interstellar. Never has space felt so alone, either. The crew locates one of the original explorers, but the planet in question is so close to a black hole that time f lows vastly slower. One hour on that planet equals seven years in earth time. Something goes wrong, they take longer than they thought to return to their ship (which lay outside the black hole’s effect), and they find their remaining crew member Romilly with gray in his beard. The look on his face when he says “I thought you would never return” is chest-hollowing sad.

On Earth, everything is hidden beneath an enormous sepia smudge of dust, farms, trucks, and bureaucrats. There is little light and lesser saturation of warmth or color, and so the high-contrast angularity of space is that much more pronounced, that much more full of awe and gravity. And it is gravity that plays the most crucial role in the whole story. Nolan is completely committed to explaining the science behind everything, going so far as to have McConaughey explain the exact sequence of scientific plot points to a robot. That penultimate scene could be a live action rendering a scene from Futurama—and I mean that, mostly, in a good way.

Nolan’s film is epic in scope and limited in character development, but in the end the former trumps the latter. Interstellar is ambitious and gorgeous, the sort of film that leaves you with a different understanding of what makes a great space film and a greater appreciation for all that matter above our heads, impossibly out of reach.

All photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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