Interstellar: Nolan’s Wild, Audacious Sci-Fi Epos

Interstellar_PosterThe most eagerly-awaited film of the year, “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan’s ninth feature, is his most ambitious to date, offering the kind of fare that few directors are capable of, an epic spectacle of special effects, which is also intellectually provocative and sporadically emotionally stirring.

That said, there is still considerable gap between the film’s level of ambition and execution, between promises made in pre-release publicity and actual fulfillment by way of what is actually presented on screen. In several ways, “Interstellar” is a product (some might say victim) of over-hype to the point where viewers expectations might not be entirely satisfied.

Though the plot has been veiled in secrecy, director and co-writer Chris Nolan has said prior to his movie’s release that “Interstellar” is closer in aim and scope to Kubrick’s masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey” than to his “Batman” movies, and on that level the movie delivers, even if it is not as visionary and innovative as Kubrick’s epos.

interstellar_1_mcconaughey_hathaway_nolanBack in 1968, “2001” came out of nowhere, so to speak, as the sci-fi genre was not particularly popular at the time.  In contrast, “Interstellar” follows last year’s Oscar-winning “Gravity” and can be placed in a rich generic landscape, which includes George Lucas’ franchise “Star Wars,” the successful reboot of “Star Trek,” not to mention Spielberg’s 1977 masterpiece, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (my favorite sci-fi alongside “2001”).

As he has shown in all of his films (“Inception” included), Nolan is blessed with boundless imagination that has enabled him to travel to far and remote places, in which there is a fine line between the real and surreal, and which could be understood by applying Freudian and Jungian psychology with such concepts as the real and the imagined, the conscious, subconscious and even unconscious.

Nolan has always understood that the heart of popular and commercial cinema is in basing a film on an engaging narrative and populating it with characters the audience can relate to.  Perhaps responding to criticism that his characters are too intellectually and emotionally detached (which was one problem in “Inception,”  Nolan and co-writer Jonathan have gone to the other extreme by constructing not one but two two-generational families. Moreover, in a casting coup, the three central roles are all played by appealing and relatable actors, perhpas the hottest working in Hollywood today, recent Oscar-winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, and multiple Oscar-nominee Jessica Chastain.

Set in a near-future, in which a major agricultural crisis prevails, “Interstellar” chronicles a daring mission to pierce the barriers of time and space in a desperate effort against extinction.  After blight has decimated the food supply, civilization turns back to the earth, clinging to corn, the only viable crop left.

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former test pilot and engineer who combines in his personality a spirit of adventure, a cowboy-like swagger, and commitment to family as a widower. A dreamer, Cooper is also a man out of time, realizing that the world needs farmers, not pilots.

On a homestead surrounded by acres of corn, Cooper is raising his kids with the help of his father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow). Like his grandfather, Cooper’s teenage son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) loves the farm, helping his father to keep it running. Cooper wants to know he can rely on him to handle things, and Tom wants to prove to him that he can.

Cooper’s daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy) takes after her father in other ways. She is obsessed with rockets and space, even though no one talks about those things anymore. Cooper loves both of his children deeply, but he has a special bond with Murph over their shared passion for science and discovery.  But, as with many parents and children, what binds them together can also pull them apart.

Sealed off in an underground bunker, a group of scientists and engineers is gambling their lives on the prospect that somewhere in the universe lies a planet that might. The project is sparked by the mysterious appearance of a disturbance near Saturn—a wormhole that bores through a higher dimension of space and time to a galaxy that would take lifetimes to reach without it.

To endure such a journey, the group has salvaged the best available technology from the ruins of the space program to build the mission’s three ships:  the Ranger shuttle, the Lander heavy-lift vehicle, and the Endurance mothership waiting in low Earth orbit.

In one of several movieish contrivances, Cooper joins the team when the mission desperately needs an experienced pilot. Though the mission may fulfill his professional dream, there is a price to be paid, as this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity calls for leaving his two kids behind and embarking on a risky journey, whose nature and duration are unknown (and unknowable).

As scribes, the Nolans then construct a another, parallel family story. Cooper isn’t the only father who is making a sacrifice: The mission is the brainchild of Professor Brand (Michael Caine, by now a regular presence in Nolan’s films) whose daughter Amelia will be among its crew. Though different in nature, Brand’s burden is just as heavy as Cooper’s, because he is sending his own daughter out into the unknown.  Since no one knows what’s out there, if anything goes wrong, the responsibility is Brand’s.

Ultimately, conceptually, “Interstellar” may be more wildly audacious than truly satisfying, a result of blending new intellectual ideas with a rather old-fashioned family melodrama.

A longer review will be published later today.