For all its splashy galactic imagery and action sequences, Interstellar might be one of the most grounded movies about space ever made. Director Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter brother, Jonathan Nolan, let the same ideas that propelled their films Memento and Inception — that human love transcends time, space, even death — inspire their storytelling in a film destined to divide audiences and critics.
As Earth descends into an inhospitable dust bowl, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an engineer who was long ago forced by circumstance to trade his dream job for a more mundane existence as a farmer, is called upon by NASA to lead a group of three astronauts in the search for another, livable planet. The leader of that crew is the whip-smart but sheltered Amelia (Anne Hathaway); her father, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), is overseeing the project. As the foursome travels throughout distant galaxies, their journey becomes increasingly metaphysical and philosophical. Noted theoretical physicist Kip Thorne was an executive producer on the film and played a role in bringing the complicated science it references to a place where audiences can (more or less) understand it.
Hathaway's wide, expressive features are a real help here. Even through the thick screen of an astronaut's helmet, she projects emotions from terror to relief with surprising power and clarity. McConaughey's role as an everyman tasked with something extraordinary mirrors his public image so well, it's easy to believe him as the slow-drawling, steel-focused Cooper. With a supporting cast including Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon, it's hard to overstate the strength of the performances.
As I watched, I did find myself wishing that Gravity hadn't already been released — the space imagery would have likely felt a little fresher and more impactful had it not — but in terms of storytelling, it's hard to compare the two. In Gravity, the storyline about Sandra Bullock's character's loss of her daughter was one of the film's flimsiest points, a tool to bolster the more straightforward survival story and the epic visuals. Here, the center of the story really does lie in emotion and relationships, with space as a backdrop. Some critics are already holding up this movie as proof that Nolan is a "cold" director, but I've never understood the characterization. To me, his cerebral storylines and stunning visuals have struck me more as a tool for illustrating the problems and joys of being human, rather than as the end goals in themselves.
Part of the grounded-ness here clearly owes itself to the fact that Nolan eschews overusing computer effects, preferring "the real thing" — or at least an illusion of it — whenever possible. To create the wild dust storms in the film, he used massive fans and C-90, a nontoxic, biodegradable substance made out of ground-up cardboard. He took a similar tack with the space imagery, projecting the visuals on floor-to-ceiling screens on set so the actors were working against something tangible instead of just a green screen. It's hard not to feel that this commitment amps up his actors' performances; Nolan himself said the trick was the key to capturing the "claustrophobia" inside the movie's fictional spaceship Endurance. During a Q&A following a screening of the movie I attended last week, Hathaway shared a telling anecdote about the world he strives to create on set. She remembered asking the director about a part of the film in which they were "pretending to be in zero-gs," when he stopped her and said: "We don't pretend around here."
Interstellar sometimes gets tripped up by forcing its characters to discuss the movie's own lofty ideas — the well-worn Dylan Thomas poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" starts to feel less impactful than clichéd and convenient around its third appearance in the film — but they are ideas worth exploring. Plenty of moviegoers will sigh when they find out the movie is a whopping 169 minutes long, but with performances so visceral and some of the most gorgeously rendered space imagery in recent cinematic history, the time is for the most part well spent. In the end, Interstellar might prove too divisive to emerge as a best picture frontrunner this award season, but with it, Nolan has succeeded in creating something otherworldly yet deeply human.