The writing credits for Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” should probably have included this: Based on an idea by Albert Einstein. For the theory of relativity and Einstein’s mathematical models pretty much form the basis for this science fiction that restores and expands the notion of “science” forming a huge part of any such fiction.
Which is to say: “Interstellar” is the most mind-bending movie of 2014. It contains a third act that will be pondered and debated for at least as long as the finale of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” And its smooth facility in orchestrating exciting set pieces and skin-of-your-teeth escapes mark this as a crowd-pleaser for the ages.
“They could have dumbed that down a bit for me,” laughed one bemused and bewildered viewer at the film’s inaugural screening at the new Chinese Imax theater in Hollywood. (The film is getting released on something like 770 Imax screenings worldwide, and if possible that’s the way to see it.)
Only Nolan, one of our best modern filmmakers, could have made a movie whose speculative science is incredibly complicated yet whose characters and visual adventures so dynamic that you hang on every plot turn — despite understanding only a little about what is actually turning that plot!
This is an achievement to which Nolan’s career has been pointing from the interesting backwards-forward memory mechanics of “Memento” to the game-theory puzzle that was “Inception,” not to mention those blissfully intense “Batman” movies. Whatever its flaws, this is his best movie yet.
Writing with his frequently collaborator and brother Jonathan, Nolan makes theoretical constructs into a dramatically viable, highly entertaining movie without having to “dumb down” the science. Even if that science is purely speculative and possibly even a tad silly.
I’ll let physics professors argue about this although I can say that one of his exec producers is theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. So Nolan evidently gave the compelling screenplay a stress test via a scientist who knows this stuff.
(This apparently is Kip Thorne’s Hollywood moment. He not only received a credit on “Interstellar,” he is a character, played by Enzo Cilenti, in the upcoming Stephen Hawking movie, “The Theory of Everything.”)
The movie imagines a world falling to dust amid multiple crop failures. Nolan and d.p. Hoyte Van Hoytema film the early scenes like an extended, colorized version of those scenes in John Ford’s “Grapes of Wrath” with Dust Bowl imagery and blight-stricken farms and weary, discouraged farmers.
The film’s hero, Cooper, played with taciturn wariness yet genial compassion by Matthew McConaughey, is an ace NASA test pilot forced back on the farm because America, indeed all humanity, thinks it needs farmers more than pilots, warriors or space exploration.
It needs food, in other words.
This is, of course, short sighted as the planet is worn out. Corn is about the only crop that isn’t failing and scientists already know it’s turn is coming. Plus the atmosphere is growing richer in nitrogen and poorer in oxygen causing the world to suffocate. So earthlings are going to need a new home somewhere out there in deep space.
The first act contains a bit of hokum about Cooper and his precocious daughter Murph (played as a youngster by Mackenzie Foy) discovering a highly secret NASA base very near their own dying farm. Here the government hopes to cover-up its off-the-grid attempts at space exploration.
Since Cooper was NASA’s very best pilot why not just send an emissary to his door and beg him to join the team? Well, it’s more exciting and tension-filled this way with a dead-of-night attempt at a break-in and the dad and daughter’s seeming “capture” by government agents.
There is also another bit of seeming hokum about a “ghost” of some sort inhabiting the family house, in particular a book-shelf lined upstairs room where objects mysteriously move around. This will, however, play plot dividends in that dazzling third act.
Thus it is that Cooper encounters a former colleague, the wise old scientist Prof. Brand (Michael Caine), and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) in this NASA hideaway. Cooper is instantly recruited to lead a dangerous mission from a dying Earth to search for a new home for humanity.
A wormhole has just been discovered near Saturn and, better yet, it’s right in an incredibly convenient spot to enable travel to a dozen potentially habitable worlds within reach. It seems almost too good to be true, a fact the characters mutter of one another with shaky conviction. (Perhaps the work of the Creative Designer Himself?)
Now Einsteinian mathematical models predict that wormholes do exist, although none has ever been found. In theory, wormholes are tunnel-like connections made out of spacetime, offering a shorter distance between two vastly separated areas of the universe.
The idea is that space travelers can use such tunnels to make space commutes much shorter than thousands of years. Of course, many books, TV shows, and films have utilized wormholes for deep space travel but few before “Interstellar” have conceptualized what this might actually mean.
For instance, Murph is furious that her father would even contemplate abandoning his family — his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and her older brother Tom (Timothee Chalamet) — for such a journey. Since time becomes relative in deep space he might well return home (if he returns at all) at the same age or even younger than Murph will be by that time.
Indeed on one planet the gang decides to investigate, you’re told an hour spent there will be the equivalent of several years Earth time!
NASA has already secretly sent earlier missions to these dozen possible planets but there is uncertainty about what they found. So off go the heroes into deep space.
The crew is small — Cooper, Amelia, Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and a robot called TARS (voice by Bill Irwin), a space oddity with rectangular slabs whose plank-like segments can decouple and rotate to pull off a variety of actions. No R2-D2 nonsense for this pure-science fiction.
The film’s major flaw — although correcting this might have expanded an already lengthy movie — is the entire crew other than TARS is underwritten. There is a vagueness in their relationships and responsibilities as they serve more as mouthpieces for arguments over theoretical physics and what the next move should be.
Their adventures take them through months of hibernation and then that wormhole, which comes off as the ultimate theme park thrill ride. Then it’s off to two potential planets for Earth 2.0, where they encounter a surprise survivor from earlier probes.
One crew member is lost and the film does locate a villain, of sorts, although you kinda understand this person’s predicament and actions given the utter isolation of being a zillion miles from home.
The film conjures up all sorts of philosophical, ethical and practical considerations. Is it the duty of the mission to return home to rescue the billions of inhabitants of a dying Earth? (Is that even possible?)
Or should they resort to “Plan B,” to begin populating a human colony in decidedly inhospitable yet still livable circumstances in order to continue the species?
The main clashes come between Cooper and Amelia although what they’re arguing about may only make sense to a physics major. Nolan avoids the obvious — a romantic entanglement disrupting the voyage — and keeps their attraction (if there is any) on the intellectual level.
Those on Earth re-enter the picture via video messages (perhaps somewhat implausible) wherein Murph has grown up into Jessica Chastain but is just as bitter and disappointed with her dad as ever. She has also replaced Caine’s professor as the theoretical physicist who must solve an equation of time, gravity and space to save both the mission and the world.
There is contrived melodrama back on Earth that gets intercut with much more plausible melodrama in deep space. Then comes that doozy of a space-time-gravity bend in the third act.
There is ever a ticking clock in all this which keeps “Interstellar” as pulse-pounding as the best suspense movies. Mankind literally does hang in the balance but that’s an abstract concept. How much better is the question — will the youthful dad ever reunite with his now aging daughter?
The movie frequently catches you off-guard with its legitimate twists and surprises. It remains a movie movie and lets science fulfill and enrich the fiction.
The bombast of Hans Zimmer’s score sometimes contributes to the suspense but other times overwhelms dialogue and other neat effects in the sound design.
“Interstellar” is open to criticism for the occasional hokum yet the film pays such homage to and makes such a substantial leap beyond “2001” that you can forgive this.
Opens: November 5, 2014 (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. in association with Legendary Pictures present a Syncopy/Linda Obst Prods. production
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, Matt Damon, Michael Caine, John Lithgow, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck, Ellen Burstyn, William Devane
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Producers: Emma Thompson, Christopher Nolan, Lynda Obst
Executive producers: Jordan Goldberg, Jake Myers, Kip Thome, Thomas Tull
Director of photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Production designer: Nathan Crowley
Music: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Lee Smith
PG-13 rating, 169 minutes