While science and technology have come a long way since the U.S. first sent an astronaut into space in the 1960s, there’s still a remarkable amount we don’t know about the universe. How many stars and planets really exist beyond our own solar system? Will we ever be able to build ships fast enough and powerful enough to reach those stars and planets, or are those other worlds destined to remain a mystery forever? Is space exploration a field we should still care about?
Christopher Nolan explores some of those questions in his new science fiction film “Interstellar.” It’s an elegant, thought-provoking film, with echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Alfonso Cuarón’s more recent “Gravity.”
Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a single father living in a not-so-distant future where Earth is dying and losing its ability to support life. “Coop” is recruited for a top secret mission to send four astronauts through a mysterious wormhole that could lead to worlds capable of sustaining life and saving humanity from extinction. The mission is understandably very dangerous, and due to the warped passage of time, Coop’s children could be elderly by the time he returns (though he’ll barely have aged at all) — or Coop could fail to return, period.
As with any Christopher Nolan film, the less you know about the movie’s plot going in, the more effective Nolan’s trademark twists will be. “Interstellar” is a lengthy film — clocking in at almost three hours — and one could make the case he spends a little too much time on build-up at the beginning of the film. However, the film really takes off once Coop and the team of astronauts leave Earth and begin the terrifying adventure of delving into the great unknown. The visual effects in Nolan’s interpretation of outer space are at times beautiful and strange, awe-inspiring and desolate. There are a few times when Nolan strips away all the sound, leaving us with the heavy and oppressive silence of space. Hans Zimmer’s score makes frequent use of the organ, an instrument with religious overtones that reflects the grandiosity of the universe and mankind’s smallness in relation to it.
The film leaves viewers with plenty of ideas to reflect on. It’s not as abstract as “2001: A Space Odyssey” but is more concerned with “bigger picture” issues than the more intimate “Gravity.” One of the film’s main themes is family, and how the power of love can stretch across time and space. There’s a particularly heart-breaking scene where Coop watches a series of videos that have been sent to him by his children. Because time is passing more quickly for them, they’re now the same age as he is. Tears stream down his face as he realizes everything he’s lost — and all the milestones he’s missed — by leaving Earth. The film also surely was designed to serve as a tribute to the history of space exploration — and make a statement about the shutdown of NASA’s manned space flights program. Nolan believes there’s still value in exploring the stars, and I agree. To be human is to be curious, and if we stop trying to accomplish the impossible, we stifle our own future. To thrive, we have to keep stretching our imaginations, and asking difficult questions and seeking answers.
I do think Nolan could have tightened up the film, particularly in the beginning, and there are times when the themes are perhaps delivered with too heavy a hand. In the middle of the film, Anne Hathaway‘s character makes a speech about the power of love that’s perhaps a bit too direct; it’s a theme that is implied more subtly — and more effectively — in other parts of the film. Still, it’s a beautiful, moving film, one that’s well worth catching on the big screen. I’ve always had an interest in movies that take place in space; when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut but found that dream didn’t pan out. I still like looking up at the stars, however, and imagining what mysteries in space are waiting to be discovered. I hope one day the type of space travel depicted in “Interstellar” actually becomes possible, and I hope kids will still keep dreaming about becoming astronauts — and that some of those dreams will come true.