Interstellar is a big film. Big in budget and big in scope. Directed with Christopher Nolan’s often heavy-handed style, it isn’t afraid to wrestle with some really big ideas and questions. The fact that sometimes it loses doesn’t lessen its impact.
I won’t go into too much detail of the plot, because the marketing did the right thing by only revealing the basics. Earth is dying, and humanity with it. One option, the last option, is to find another world for humanity to occupy. And since there are no suitable candidates in our solar system, we need to look elsewhere, hence the title.
The surface mechanics of the film are where potential problems lie. The direction, the dialog, the cause and effect that leads one scene to another. Some of it at points is a bit wobbly. Nolan has never been a great director. His directorial style is a bit self-important and scene construction is very basic. But he does manage to keep the film exciting and emotional, as well as set up some rollicking set-pieces.
The film does have some impressive images, too, especially in deep-space. But the IMAX cameras always cut away just a bit too soon, or an unnecessary insert is put right in the middle of the shot. But those are minor issues for a film that is concerned with some major ideas.
Some spoilers will follow from this point on, because the film’s ideas are very interesting to think about and discuss. And actually, that is exactly why the film works. The ideas it explores. The questions it asks. These are big hefty things that are presented in a big hefty large-budget production. That is very rare and very interesting to see. Comparisons made to 2001: A Space Odyssey aren’t far off.
I would break down the film into an exploration of three main questions.
How does humanity react when it’s on the verge of destruction? The Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go gently into that good night” is the oft-repeated backbone of that idea. Both globally, as a species, and on an individual basis, humans are raging against the dying of the light.
Professor Brand (Michael Caine), as the last NASA project manager, knows that the plan to save the current members of the human race is impossible. But he withholds that information in order to give a reason for our last astronauts to go on their final mission. One of whom was his own daughter. It’s described at one point as the ultimate sacrifice: destroying your own humanity in order to trick others into saving the species at the expense of the ones who are still alive.
There is also the story of the stranded astronaut Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), described as “the best of humanity”, who selflessly undertook a mission to explore a remote planet, knowing he would never return. When confronted with his very real demise, which is now a fact and not just an idea, he makes a very deliberate choice to save himself.
And of course the main character, Cooper, who chose to give up his family and everything he cares about for the slimmest chance of saving them. And what would he do if he was given a choice to see them again, or save the species but let them die without him?
It made me think about what I will do when my time comes.
At one point during the film, Professor Brand’s daughter, (Anne Hathaway) one of the astronauts, is given a choice of what planet to explore. They may only be able to reach one, and everything hinges on finding a suitable candidate. They are both promising, but one has an active beacon from a previous explorer. The other, where the man she is in love with had landed years earlier, has good data but no signs that he is still alive.
She wants to go to the planet that he is on, even thought he may be dead. Cooper, wants to go to the one where the data is just as good, but the previous explorer is probably still alive. He asks her, point blank, does she want to go to that planet because her lover might be there?
Yes, she admits, part of her does. Would love to see him again. But maybe that love is a quantifiable thing. Something science doesn’t quite understand yet. A real connection through some variation of space and time that allows two people to connect in ways not yet comprehended. Is that what allows her to feel, to know, that his planet is the right one? Is that connection what makes soul-mates?
The idea is explored more in the climax of film. Is a connection like that what allows Cooper to communicate with his daughter? Or does it just allow them to know that communication is possible? Is it even a factor?
The last idea that intrigued me is related to that scene. Where is humanity going? Where do we end up? In the long, long, very long view of our species, what are we capable of? The film posits that humanity of the very far future are the ones that are helping this generation through the crisis of a lifetime. They have learned how to control time and gravity, to essentially manipulate the fabric of the universe.
They know that our species is at a crossroads and needs help, and seeing all possible permutations of the past and future, they give clues that put the people in the right place at the right time for the breakthroughs to be made. For the right people to discover and understand the information needed to save the species.
Will we ever get to a place like that as a species? It reminds me very much of Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Asimov’s “The Last Question”. Two thought-provoking pieces that examine the next stage of our evolution.
Interstellar is in good company with those big-idea science fiction stories. The ones that ask those big questions. And even if they are never answered, they are ideas that evoke valuable discussion. I watched the film with someone who did not care for it, but we both discussed the ideas in the film for a very long time afterward. There is a lot going on, as evidenced by the length of this review.
Does that make it a good film? It’s another question that will have different answers, depending on who you ask. I believe it does. That’s what art is there for. To provoke discussion, to make us question ourselves, and to give us hope for what the future might bring.