By Preston Wilder
Man is the hero of Interstellar, a serious-minded, three-hour chunk of science fiction. Not the symbolically-named Dr. Mann (played by a special guest star who appears unbilled) but mankind in general – and of course not ‘man’-kind but humanity in general, since a woman turns out to be key to the species’ salvation. Her name is Murph (played by Jessica Chastain as an adult) and she’s the daughter of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), our hero. The bond between father and daughter is central to the plot – which, along with director Christopher Nolan’s wide-eyed humanism, is why the film is touching as well as serious-minded.
Nolan’s been here before, in The Prestige (2006) which contrasted a magical/mystical explanation of the world with the way of Science – and Science is the only way out as humanity faces certain doom in a (near?) future of famine and pestilence. Can the world be saved? “We’re not meant to save the world; we’re meant to leave it,” says grizzled Professor Brand (Michael Caine), sending ex-NASA pilot Cooper on an interstellar mission. A wormhole has appeared near Saturn, allowing access to hyperspace and a possible new home for our species – but the question remains, who put the wormhole there? Friendly aliens? God? Or someone else?
The film can be hard to follow. Online fans are currently debating its science – concepts like Time dilation and singularities – but it’s not really about quantum physics, it’s about human frailty. Outer-space dramas usually challenge their men (and women) on a mission with mechanical problems and alien beasties, but here the challenges lie elsewhere – for instance in the yearning to be with other people, an emotion that’s “the foundation of what makes us human” and almost ends up destroying the human race altogether. Emotion is the joker in the pack here – because, as someone points out, evolution still hasn’t managed to evolve us into robots, let alone rational beings: we’re “a species based on love”. Even the actual robots (metal plates known as TARS and CASE) get emotional in Interstellar – they make jokes, and show signs of friendship – though of course they’re merely programmed that way, to appear more human.
It sounds very grand, and I guess it is. Is it entertaining? The first half will surely seem slow to some viewers, trudging through life in this dying world mired in austerity and the dialled-down hopes of “a caretaker generation” – though Nolan is smart in showing the extinction of mankind as a gradual process, like the story of the frog in a pot of boiling water. Earthlings don’t know the planet’s dying (only the scientists know), they just know crops are failing and they keep having to adapt – a lot like climate change now, when we know something’s wrong but adapt to the changes rather than admit the worst. Cooper’s son Tom (played as an adult by Casey Affleck) is a born farmer, sticking to the land even when the land is no more. Murph is the scientist, noting “abnormalities” that could point to some greater force – an explorer, like her dad. Cooper’s admission of love for his daughter (the line that begins “I thought they chose me…”) is the only bit that brought me to tears.
The first half sometimes drags, admittedly. The second half – the mission itself – is better, the vastness of space coming up against human frailty. Spaceships and wormholes are fine for science nerds – but when people lie, or deceive their loved ones, or succumb to all-too-human weaknesses, that’s real drama. The final frontier turns out to be ourselves, Interstellar working as an exhortation to mankind to keep trying, keep fighting – Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” gets repeated again and again – not lose sight of the genius that could still tame the universe. Look at that, says one astronaut to another, pointing to the hull of their spaceship: “a few inches of aluminium, then chaos”. The awe (and even the fear) behind that line is the film in a nutshell.
Let’s ask again: Is it entertaining? I’m not sure. Even the big action set-piece, cross-cutting between Cooper in one world and his kids in another, doesn’t really make sense (we don’t know why the film should be cross-cutting) except in retrospect. Much of Interstellar consists of watching a space mission where not much ‘happens’ interspersed with scenes back on Earth where not much ‘happens’. But the film comes together, both plot-wise – after Cooper plunges into a black hole, and finds the answers he’s been looking for – and emotionally, positing Love as the Nolan equivalent of what religious people call God, “the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends space and time”. Our greatest flaw is also our salvation. Science or fiction, there’s a poetry in that.
DIRECTED BY Christopher Nolan
STARRING Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
US 2014 169 mins.