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Interstellar Movie Review Essay Example

“We’ve forgotten who we are,” says Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper. “Explorers, pioneers — not caretakers.” That could be Christopher Nolan speaking about movies in this timid age of old genres endlessly recycled and coarsened. He’s the rare filmmaker with the ambition to make great statements on a grand scale, and the vision and guts to realize them.

Nolan is also a consummate conjuror. Memento, his amnesiac movie, ran its scenes in reverse order. In The Prestige, magicians devised killer tricks for each other and the audience. Inception played its mind games inside a sleeper’s head, and the Dark Knight trilogy raised comic-book fantasy to Mensa level. But those were the merest études for Nolan’s biggest, boldest project. Interstellar contemplates nothing less than our planet’s place and fate in the vast cosmos. Trying to reconcile the infinite and the intimate, it channels matters of theoretical physics — the universe’s ever-expanding story as science fact or fiction — through a daddy-daughter love story. Double-domed and defiantly serious, Interstellar is a must-take ride with a few narrative bumps.

In the near future, a crop disease called “the blight” has pushed the Earth from the 21st century back to the agrarian 1930s: the world’s a dust bowl, and we’re all Okies. In this wayback culture, schools teach that the Apollo moon landings were frauds, as if America must erase its old achievements in order to keep people from dreaming of new ones.

Farmer Coop, once an astronaut, needs to slip this straitjacket and do something. So does his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy); she’s getting “poltergeist” signals from her bookshelves. A strange force leads them to a nearby hideout for NASA, whose boss, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), drafts Coop to pilot a mission to deep space. With Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and two others as his crew, Coop is to find a wormhole near Saturn that may provide an escape route for humanity. “We’re not meant to save the world,” Brand says. “We’re meant to leave it.”

Coop, a widower, wasn’t meant to leave his children. Son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) can manage; but the precocious Murph sees abandonment and betrayal in Dad’s journey to save billions of humans. Coop, who thinks a parent’s main role is to be “the ghosts of our children’s future,” shares Murph’s ache. He needs her. He goes out so he can come back.

What’s out there? New worlds of terror and beauty. Transported by the celestial Ferris wheel of their shuttle, Coop and the crew find the wormhole: a snow globe, glowing blue. One planet it spins them towards has a giant wall of water that turns their spacecraft into an imperiled surfboard. Another planet, where treachery looms, is icy and as caked with snow granules as Earth was with dust. Interstellar may never equal the blast of scientific speculation and cinematic revelation that was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but its un-Earthly vistas are spectral and spectacular.

Someone on the icy planet says, “Our world is cold, stark but undeniably beautiful.” Shuttling between the grad-school blackboard and the family hearth, this undeniably beautiful film blows cold and hot, stark and sentimental by turns. Taking the visual wow factor as a given, you may feel two kinds of wonder: a child’s astonishment at the effects and a bafflement that asks, “I wonder why that’s happening.”

It’s not just that the rules of advanced physics, as tossed out every 15 minutes or so, are beyond the ken of most movie-goers. It’s also that some scenes border on the risible — a wrestling match in space suits — and some characters, like Amelia, are short on charm and plausibility. In story terms, her connection with Coop is stronger than that of the two astronauts in Gravity. But Sandra Bullock and George Clooney gave their roles emotional heft, in a film more approachable and affecting than this one.

If the heart of Interstellar is Coop’s bond with Murph, its soul is McConaughey’s performance as a strong, tender hero; in the film’s simplest, most potent scene, he sheds tears of love and despair while watching remote video messages from his kids. He is the conduit to the feelings that Nolan wants viewers to bathe in: empathy for a space and time traveler who is, above all, a father.

With Interstellar, Nolan’s reach occasionally exceeds his grasp. That’s fine: These days, few other filmmakers dare reach so high to stretch our minds so wide. And our senses, all of them. At times, dispensing with Hans Zimmer’s pounding organ score, Nolan shows a panorama of the spacecraft in the heavens — to the music of utter silence. At these moments, viewers can hear their hearts beating to the sound of awe.

Read next: Watch an Exclusive Interstellar Clip With Matthew McConaughey

In the age of shopping-centre cinema, Christopher Nolan builds cathedrals. His films are cold, enormous, sky-puncturing constructions, echoey with triumphant gloom, rippling with the gasps and whispers of the faithful. 

He’s the preeminent blockbuster auteur of our time, a fiercely rational puzzle-maker and problem-solver; the Mies van der Rohe of Hollywood. He prefers shooting on film to digital cameras, and strives to achieve special effects on set rather than at a computer-graphics workstation. 

The rotating hotel corridor scene in Inception – a fist-fight in which the combatants spin and click together like the workings of a combination lock – is Nolan’s vision of cinema in miniature. Depending on which critic you talk to, he’s either a throwback, a fusspot and an ideologue, or the spiritual offspring of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. (Of course, there’s no reason he can’t be all of the above.) 

Like Kubrick, he has a reputation for chilliness, and none of his films are ever likely to be mistaken for romantic comedy. Memento, his 2000 breakthrough hit, is about the vagaries of truth and memory, while his recent Batman trilogy, which culminated two years ago in The Dark Knight Rises, deals with order and chaos, and society’s schizophrenic craving for both. No other filmmaker working today is as determined to use blockbuster spectacle to say something big about our world – even as he sends his characters zooming away from it, through wormholes, at light-speed. 

Interstellar is Nolan’s best and most brazenly ambitious film to date. Doubling down on the Kubrick comparisons, he’s made his own sweeping space odyssey in which a team of astronauts, led by Matthew McConaughey’s stoically smouldering Coop, venture into the great beyond in search of a new home for humanity. Starlight whirls, planets rock on their axes, and spacecraft cartwheel through nothingness, all soundtracked by a reverential Hans Zimmer score that’s equal parts Johann Strauss and Philip Glass. 

At its heart, Nolan’s glimmering cosmic ballet is less concerned with space than time – and particularly the way it’s experienced by parents, who watch their children grow up and drift away at a speed that seems brutally out of step with the rest of the universe. 

Nolan and his co-writer and brother Jonathan explore that question here in the most Nolanish way imaginable, with black holes, event horizons, and much metaphysical bungee jumping. (The theoretical physicist Kip Thorne was a script consultant and served as executive producer.) But the aim of Nolan’s film isn’t to reduce love to a function of quantum physics: it’s to set quantum physics and love on an equal footing, as two densely complex, destiny-steering forces his characters learn to surrender to without ever fully fathoming. 

The film takes place in the near future, with Earth in the grip of The Blight, an airborne disease that causes food crops to turn to grey-brown powder. It rolls and billows across the land, piling up around houses and cars like the dust-drifts in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, another film in which the characters slip between time’s cogs. 

Coop (the allusion to Gary Cooper is vigorously intended) is a former Nasa pilot who’s pitching in with the dig for victory effort, although for him the plan to sit out the famine lacks ambition – and therefore humanity. 

“We used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars,” he grumbles. “Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” The words ring with Nolan’s own frustration at cinema’s narrowed ambitions. Where have the wild-dreaming pioneers gone? 

Coop has faith that his daughter Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy, and later, as an adult, by Jessica Chastain) is one of them. She’s troubled at night by strange shufflings from her bookcase – a ghost, she believes, and one with a flair for foreshadowing, given the way it pointedly knocks volumes by Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot off the shelf. 

But at first, it’s Coop that destiny comes calling for. The strange force in Murph’s room points him towards a restricted airbase where his former Nasa boss Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), is captaining the ‘Lazarus Project’: a secret search for a new habitable planet. “We’re not meant to save the world, we’re meant to leave it,” he explains – a belief bolstered by the recent appearance of a mysterious wormhole near one of Saturn’s moons, through which a cluster of potentially suitable planets have been glimpsed. 

A crew of five are ready to depart, including Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), a couple of engineers, and the robots TARS and CASE, two inscrutable oblongs in the Kubrickian monolith mould. There is a spare seat on their ship, the Endurance, as if they knew Coop was coming all along. He accepts the commission. Time, after all, is of the essence. 

The catch is that, on the far side of the wormhole, with the planets on the lip of an enormous black hole, time is far more stretched out than it is on Earth, with years, even decades, flashing past in an hour or two. This turns Coop’s quest into a heartbreaking inversion of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia: the real world doesn’t freeze while his adventure unfolds, making childhood last a lifetime, but slips away quicker than ever. 

There is a brilliant, terrifying sequence in which Coop returns to the ship after a brief, disastrous ground mission and discovers 20 years of new video messages on his computer, which he watches with his eyes and heart wide open, milestones in his children’s lives hurtling past like comets. 

Outside, there are enough wonders to fill an entire Dawn Treader cruise: frozen clouds that hang in the sky like weightless glaciers, tidal waves as tall and wide as mountain ranges, strands of pure time, tight and strummable as zither strings. The film is a feast of extraordinary ideas, each one depicted by Nolan’s cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, and his visual effects team with heart-swelling grandeur. But all the while, time passes, life vanishes, and the loss gnaws at Cooper like frostbite. 

As David Gyasi’s crew member quips earlier in the film, “That’s relativity, folks” – a shrugged-off reminder that time, whether flowing in a torrent or a trickle, is inescapable. To use a canvas this vast to make a point that searchingly intimate is the noblest thing science-fiction can achieve: it's the reason Kubrick’s 2001, Spielberg’s A.I, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, beyond their obvious visual astonishments, are so difficult to shake. Interstellar may be drifting a million miles out in the void, but it knows exactly where it's going.

Interstellar: watch the trailer 02:29

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