Hoo-boy is Interstellar a nerdy movie. I don't mean nerdy as in "Sure, I like to watch a Captain America movie every now and again." I mean full-on hard science fiction nerdy, like Larry Niven–novel nerdy. I mean the plot hinges on speculative fiction about black holes and wormholes and event horizons and other vagaries of space travel, and the characters talk ceaselessly about this stuff like it's their damn jobs.
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Which, of course, it is. Without spoiling anything, you have probably already discerned from the trailers and promotional materials that Interstellar is set sometime in the not-so-distant future, when the environment is failing and humanity is gently drifting into extinction. Corn is the only crop hardy enough to grow in the heartland's fallow soil anymore—as the movie opens, okra just flickered out, like a dying lightbulb—and tremendous dust storms are threatening the lives of people who are trying to coax the world's only food from the ground. We meet Coop (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA pilot who's now farming and raising his two kids (the mother is dead, because the mother in these sorts of movies is always dead). You know that he and a crew of astronauts, including a woman named Amelia (Anne Hathaway), are soon enough traveling off into space to find a planet for humanity to colonize.
Interstellar is obviously Christopher Nolan's response to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. And on that level, it's a breathtaking thing to behold. Nolan uses the full canvas of the movie screen for everything it's worth—yes, you should see Interstellar on film, as Nolan intended, and yes, you should see it on the most gigantic screen available to you. It's filled with beautiful effects you have never seen before, illustrating scientific phenomena that have up until now only appeared in the nerdiest of science fiction novels. Some later sequences illustrate concepts I honestly never believed I would be able to see in a film. Clearly, as a work of visual art alone, Interstellar is worth the price of admission.
But when you move past the visual splendor, you realize that Nolan also engages Kubrick on maybe the dullest of levels. While 2001 was admittedly bloodless, Interstellar demands you to acknowledge it has a beating, human heart at its core. In fact, the movie practically beats you over the head with its themes, right from the very beginning. "It's like we've forgotten who we are," Coop says early in the film, seconds before clarifying: We're "explorers, pioneers" and not "caretakers," a word he practically spits out. (And yes, Interstellar continues Nolan's creepy trend of subliminal conservative themes, in the form of a socialistic government that indoctrinates children into sacrificing their sense of wonder for the sake of the greater good, a pedagogy that Coop heroically shuns.)
Like Kubrick, Nolan has often been referred to as a chilly filmmaker, one who shuns human emotion in exchange for intellectual delights. But Nolan has chafed at that description in recent interviews, and several characters in the film let fly with hoary speeches about love and family that seem programmed to challenge those charges. Steven Spielberg circled Interstellar a few years ago, and the elements that attracted Spielberg to the earlier drafts are still in the film—yes, another reaffirmation of the power of family—though Nolan handles those themes with all the subtlety of a paddle to the ass.
Maybe it's all the secrecy and hype that surrounded Interstellar's production, but I found myself disappointed with the film, and I say this as a full-throated fan of Nolan in general and Inception in particular. For one thing, there's all the uncharacteristic emotional neediness described above. For another thing, the acting is spotty, with Hathaway delivering a few lines with all the shamelessness of a high school drama queen. (McConaughey, at least, is excellent, because he doesn't pump up Coop's heroic nature too much, instead playing him as a good ol' boy who does what he needs to do in part because he gets a little thrill out of it.) And maybe most disappointing for me, I could predict exactly how Interstellar was going to end after watching the first half hour of the film. Sometimes predictability can be an underrated gift in filmmaking, but for a movie as inventive and intellectually curious as Interstellar to fail to deliver any surprises with its structure seems to me to be an unforgivable failure.
But Nolan's filmmaking prowess makes it a genuine three-hour moviegoing experience, and in that regard, Interstellar's well worth your time.