Movie Review: “Interstellar”

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At some point while watching Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” on 70mm IMAX film at its sold-out opening at the Museum of Discovery and Science this weekend, I stopped taking notes completely. To look down and miss even a fleeting glimpse of the cosmic majesty would be an insult to the art, like the emperor who yawns during the Salieri performance in “Amadeus.”

Besides, the film’s hypnotic hold is so gripping, so immersive, so all-encompassing, that when you’re ingesting these speedy 169 minutes, nothing else matters, including such inherently meager assessments as this very review.

Like so many science-fiction blockbusters, “Interstellar” is about the fate of the human race. Also like many sci-fi blockbusters—most recently “Snowpiercer”—its apocalyptic plot is precipitated by today’s climate crisis. “This world’s a treasure, and it’s been telling us to leave for a while now,” goes one memorably ominous line.

The earthbound portions of the movie are set in rural New York state, in an environment that looks not unlike present day, except downgraded. Unrelenting dust storms have blighted farmers’ harvests, leaving ubiquitous cornstalks the only viable vegetable. The Yankees play in what amounts to a high-school baseball field. The military, and all militaries, have been dismantled. Robots have developed consciousness, but they have no interest in taking over the world. And NASA has been fully decommissioned and, in a frighteningly Orwellian scenario, rewritten out of the history books. Space isn’t the final frontier—it never was one to begin with.

This irks Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a widowed father of two and a former NASA astronaut, to no end. It’s difficult enough to raise two children toward a future of certain famine, but his life is about to change thanks to the unexplained phenomena beginning to physically affect the bedroom of his preternaturally bright daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). A series of enigmatic signs leads Cooper and Murph to the coordinates of a hidden base—an Area 51-like compound that has been housing the remnants of what was once the United State space program.

Cooper’s discovery was no accident. He is, in fact, the man NASA has been waiting for to pilot a spacecraft beyond our galaxy and into a wormhole, where NASA’s chief, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), believes at least one distant planet might contain the building blocks of life—a place to rehabitate our species when Earth finally shakes us off it.

The problem is, this sacrifice means—if not possible death—then the possible relinquishing of all earthly ties; after all, time works differently in wormholes, as Morgan Freeman has been patiently explaining to us on television for years. An hour in the nether regions of the universe can equal a decade on Earth. But if there’s one thing Cooper loves as much as his children, it’s the thrill of the cosmos, so the decision, while impossible to reconcile, is a no-brainer.

I’ll dispense with plot here, at the risk of giving away any of the movie’s myriad developments, but suffice it to say that the film is mind-blowing in the most literal sense, so monumental it defies words. Like Nolan’s “Inception,” it labors in concepts most human brains are incapable of comprehending, and there are times when the dialogue is so dense you just have to accept it on face value, lest the narrative leaves you behind (the movie’s centerpiece is remarkably “Inception”-like, intercutting rhyming crises on Earth and in space with an unrelenting sense of acceleration).

Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne assisted with the screenplay, which dramatizes concepts of quantum theory better than any film I’ve ever seen—even if, like me, you may feel one step ahead of its most significant revelation. It’s a movie that, for all of its spectacularly orchestrated set pieces and bowel-shaking special effects, is primarily a heady meditation on such mystical concepts as love, nature, space and time.

And unlike “Inception”—or anything else in Nolan’s dark and stylish canon, for that matter—“Interstellar” is deeply moving, by far the most human creation he’s ever brought to celluloid (and do see it on celluloid, if you can; as expected, its film imagery puts digital projection to shame).

Nolan has always made movies for the mind, and certainly “Interstellar” stretches our minds beyond four dimensions. Only this time, finally, it also touches our souls.

“Interstellar” is now playing in most area theaters.