What’s the last space-faring movie you’ve watched? Sci-fi in recent years continues to be the bore well of pop culture, hiding in plain sight yet goes into great depth of knowledge unlike any other genres. The 60s and 70s brought us Star Wars and Star Trek and took people into journeys millions of miles deep into space with various alien creatures and laser cannons, but somehow it wasn’t until the last couple decades that the journeys went much closer. Armageddon (1998) took the few brave men to face their destiny by conquering the massive Earth-bound meteor, and the impeccable Moon (2009) explored the lunar mining station through the lonely eyes of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). Gravity (2013) brought the theme even closer to real life by putting Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in a space mission with current-gen technology that went awry. Beyond those films, Nolan’s Interstellar steps out as a prolific drama set not too far in the future, where humans are just making baby steps towards extraterrestrial colonies. Where we are now regarding extraterrestrial affairs, we’re not even a baby, yet.
If you haven’t watched the movie but don’t care about slight spoilers, read on.
Let’s start by acknowledging the McConaissance. Matthew McConaughey has done so much in recent years to flip his image from a golden-smiling romcom alpha male to a dark, enigmatic personality best embodied in True Detective‘s Rust Cohle (which everybody should have watched by now), and his Cooper persona in Interstellar was done in the same vain, albeit with more fatherly figure than the miserable detective Cohle. Cooper is an atypical protagonist, a man of science, a daring fighter, but above all, a loving father. His affection towards his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is something most people can relate to, and it gives a genuine heart to an otherwise cold sci-fi plot — considering that previous Nolan films rarely took the form of a humanist drama, it is a surprisingly good progress in the right direction.
The biggest concern about Nolan’s films is never about their characters, though. I’ve written about his films way more than other directors, but Nolan isn’t even in my top 10 — it’s just that most of the time his movies are a talking point, a fresh take on otherwise tired genres. The Dark Knight trilogy redefined the superhero genre, and Inception introduced people into complex movies that you might only get on the third viewing, and that’s not a bad thing. He created movies that people will talk about for weeks, and through that reaffirms people’s belief that they actually love and care about movies. There are a myriad of Inception infographics that attempt to ease people into their second viewing, a feat that previously only Shane Carruth’s Primer could achieve. (I still don’t get Primer.) Yet, Interstellar is no Inception, and I found it stupid that some people still feel the need to create infographics to explain the plot of Interstellar while it’s as straightforward as it can be. But, as I watched the scene in which Cooper driving away from his family transitioned right into Cooper launching into deep space, I feel the urge to readdress the problem that’s always there in Nolan films: his affinity towards great ideas and ignorance towards passage of time.
The basic concept to grasp on Interstellar is that humanity is in dire need of a new home, and a hope shimmers in the form of a wormhole that reveals a few potentially habitable planets within reach. We send a few astronauts, and one of them accidentally got caught inside the black hole, revealing that it is actually future humans that created the wormhole and this astronaut is also the trigger to his past self to join the mission. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan seem to be fixated at realizing these ideas, forgetting the truckload of plot details that came in the way of reaching that goal: why not try Mars first? Why don’t they just send the highly intelligent robots first? Why did Cooper need a very basic explanation of a wormhole only when it’s right in front of his face? Why don’t they realize that the one-hour-is-seven-years planet’s data is only a few hours old before landing on it? I won’t question the science of the film as I’m really, really not good at physics, but physics aside, the plot itself is just too tempting to not be bombarded with questions. (PopWatch summed many of my curiosities.) The film tries to shove too many themes inside the already-packed 169 minutes running time, creating unnecessary scenes such as the Topher Grace character hurrying Murph to get out of the house in a faked out sense of urgency. Interstellar aspires to achieve a sense of grandeur, but neglected to jump into the details that carry the story.
The aforementioned trait of neglect is best expressed in the film’s tendency to forgo the sense of duration. I’m not buying that NASA hired Cooper to be their leading astronaut just one day after he left his family behind, showing that the film ignores the need of detail for the urge to jump right into action. I don’t buy it either when Murph jumped with joy after figuring out the magic gravity equation like it’s the be-all-end-all solution of humanity’s problem without showing further research. Presenting an entirely new setting for the audience to grasp in sci-fi movies is a matter of do or don’t: you either dive right into the setting and let the film run in a balanced pace without letting extended duration of the film happen offscreen (i.e. District 9) or you try to explain everything and split the story into several films (i.e. the Star Wars franchise). For a film toying around with time, letting too many things run offscreen for an extended period of time is not really a good idea.
All of these nitpicking about the film doesn’t mean it wasn’t without a silver lining. In fact, I wrote this because Interstellar goes beyond simply interesting and lingers around in your head longer than its running time — if I can still remember a film after a few days, then it’s interesting enough to write about. Movies like Star Trek suggest that space travel is a trivial thing, something as simple as “beam me up, Scotty” to the spaceship a couple thousand miles away from us. Interstellar reminded us that our current technology is still far away from human interplanetary travel (cryogenic chamber? Nope. AI robots with dark sense of humor that also happen to be incredibly agile AND won’t kill us all at the end? Also nope) and even if we make it, it’s not going to be a smooth ride. But, the wonder of space itself is that it presents us with infinite possibilities, and sci-fi at its core is an exploration of humanity’s capabilities to venture beyond the limits. Interstellar familiarize many people with habitable planets, wormholes (the “sphere portal” depiction is my favorite scene of the film), black holes, time dilation, even it daringly imagines what happens inside a singularity, one of science’s biggest mysteries that we haven’t been able to solve. But more importantly, it gives us hope that one day, not too far in the future, we will see one of our own kind bravely launch into the dark, limitless space and discover the next stop for our civilization.
Runtime: 169 min.
Release date: October 26, 2014
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Mackenzie Fox, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Matt Damon
Company: Paramount Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures