Leaving Home to Find Another One
“The world needs farmers,” says a father to his son in Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s far-reaching space epic. We’re a good distance into the future but the message suggests we haven’t come too far. Farming is just about all that’s left to do. The world has found itself near the finish line of an environmental catastrophe. A shrunken population tills land in rural North America, which has turned into a fluctuating 1930s dustbowl. Blight eats away their acres of corn, their fuel, their food, their candy, their only source of life. Some of it must be burned. Talking heads of elders discuss their unsustainable reality as though Ken Burns is doing a Great Depression retrospective. Eventually the town packs their bags before another dust storm and sends their weathered SUV’s into exodus. You get a look at children’s dirty faces in the backseat like John Steinbeck were re-envisioning The Grapes of Wrath.
That’s just the initial atmosphere. Nolan wants to provide the groundwork before looking down at it from high above. There is no explanation why the earth has become nearly inhospitable but it’s not particularly important. This first section is the film’s richest—there are real stakes– but also the most necessary. Space exploration only thrives with context. The slice of “Kansas” we get isn’t exactly profound but it offers Norman Rockwell-ian comforts, a place we’re familiar looking at and knowing about. This isn’t a near future dystopia like Looper envisioned. People still play baseball, America’s pastime, in between the cornfields. Nolan shot in IMAX and also on 70-millimeter film so you get grandiosity with the grainy look to further texture the nostalgia.
Matthew McConaughey plays Joseph Cooper, a former pilot now single dad who has tabled his engineering and astronautic expertise in order to farm. He lives with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and imparts his wisdom to his teenage son (Timotheé Chalamet) and ten year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). The government has given up on its space program and the school system pushes textbooks that deny its history’s achievements. But Murph inherits her father’s scientific mind. She witnesses some ghost-like anomalies in her bedroom—books fall from her shelf, dust settles into straight lines– and some sleuthing with dad leads them to an underground NASA compound, the secretive last remnants aiming for mass survival.
A professor named Brand (Michael Caine) heads the operation, which plans to find another planet capable of sustaining humans. He’s quick to ask Cooper to pilot a team of astronauts that includes his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) along with an astrophysicist (David Gyasi) and geographer (Wes Bentley). The obligatory wet feet ensue, but soon hugs are given and tears dribble down noses. McConaughey takes his truck and drives off to leave his family and stares through the windshield like his Lincoln commercial. Soon he’s staring through his spaceship’s window at a small blue sphere. The problem is relativity. A few hours on a distant planet means years of life on earth. Cooper knows the longer he spends exploring these places, the quicker his kids will look at him with the same amount of wrinkles and disappointed expression.
The second half of the film is largely about these space expeditions, bulleting through wormholes and suctioning into black holes. The imagery is stunning as expected, shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema. The camera swerves through gravitational pulls and ejects you into free-float, a first person experience that rivals a role player game. With each new target, a new level, a new challenge to overcome, a new setback. Over this time, Murph grows into Jessica Chastain (even older into Ellen Burstyn) and her brother becomes Casey Affleck, holding down their farmhouse. They’re able to send out video messages that transmit to the ship but the years they go unanswered discourage any hope for the crew’s return. This is where Interstellar lags, caught in between narratives while laboriously setting up the full circle conclusion.
Nolan is channeling 2001: A Space Odyssey in clever ways, even in these video chats. Robots on the ship appear to be walking monoliths with their own discretional settings for truth and humor. Hans Zimmer’s score inflates and swells with every dramatic pulse, switching to a stringy ode to “The Blue Danube Waltz” as the ship first escapes orbit. The terror remains in the unknown, the black void. Kubrick was interested in our reliance on technology and the limits of its influence. In Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron borrowed that existential fear while his astronauts existed in the quiet of their environment. There might be two short scenes of pure silence in Interstellar, but this film isn’t about cosmos contemplating so much as accomplishing. You rarely fear this mission is in jeopardy because McConaughey only sweats from exertion, not weakness. Even his moments of resignation seem coordinated in advance. You have confidence something big is going to happen; it’s just a matter of when.
That’s Nolan, who wrote the script along with his brother Jonathon, never ending with a sour climax. The dialogue, not the duo’s strongest suit, is still infused with laconic values and inevitabilities. Every character speaks like they’re looking into the distance on the precipice of something grand. They also use endemic vocabulary, jargon about dreams and consciousness in Inception, layering on more worlds, more characters, more possibilities. Interstellar uses the same formula only with physics and mathematical banter. It also layers its themes. Cooper and Murph’s relationship is mirrored with Professor Brand and Amelia’s, fathers and daughters each separated with grief and regret, each trying to find a way back to each other. Nolan likes navigating those moods on grand scales in his films, maybe most effectively in The Dark Knight, creating parables of choice in his own urban landscape.
Science fiction offers a spiritual realm for Nolan to negotiate the boundaries of his conventionalities. Once we get to the “aha!” moment you wonder what took so long but you also smile, exhausted and still inspired. Then the film continues, suffering from the indecision of when to finish a story that could still continue for many years. Nolan likes creating detailed and vast puzzles but tries to put them together in ways you won’t expect. There’s usually a wrinkle. A special cameo here is one example and shakes the plot into overdrive. Because McConaughey never feels broken, Hathaway becomes the surrogate to share wonder and then pessimism, slightly more competent than Sandra Bullock’s pilot, just as equally damaged. Their similar bobbed hairstyles provide an androgynous appeal.
Space can be so beautifully frightening in its enormity. Earth sits as a speck in the galaxy, just another dot of light. But it still remains our home. Every science fiction film capitalizes on this emotional tether, be it human or E.T. “Phone home” is canon because of its ripe truth. “I’ll be right here,” E.T. says pointing to Elliott’s heart and Nolan chauffeurs that emotional transcendence some thirty years later. Home is what drives Bullock to stay alive and rocket back to earth. It’s what motivates Cooper to listen to crickets and thunderstorms through his iPod. “This is our boat,” he says and the metaphor invokes Greek mythology and some Joseph Campbell. It suggests however far we go, in some ways we never leave. You might question what’s next for Nolan now that space is checked off his list. How bigger can he go? Interstellar answers the question by inviting the notion that we never really leave the ground.