The first thing to remember about “Interstellar” –Christopher Nolan’s fantastically-loopy apocalyptic father-daughter space saga is its nature as a scientific parable. Nolan, along with his brother and screenwriter Jonathan, are attuned to how scientific theory and discovery open new possibilities for story structure and mythic storytelling.
In fact, the term “wormhole” in space comes from just such a scientific parable. If space is curved, like the surface of an apple, then following a worm through a hole in and out of the core would be the shortest, fastest way to the other side. Moving through similar “wormholes” in space could make possible travel to faraway galaxies. It’s through a wormhole that astronauts played by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway travel to other galaxies in “Interstellar,” as they try to find a place for humans to move from a dying Earth.
Nolan’s space and time travel story is cut from the same cloth as other artists with scientific inclinations. Two that come to mind are the writer Thomas Pynchon or the filmmaker Shane Carruth. They draw critical comments for under-developing characters and emotion. This is a little like blaming a quarterback for not hitting enough home runs. That’s right—he doesn’t. But it is beside the point.
These artists are interested in how the weirdness of scientific understanding has changed our perception of reality. They then have incorporated these changes into the structure of (often mythic) storytelling. Gravity’s Rainbow starts with the image of a V-1 rocket above London where the explosion arrives before the sound of the missile. Upstream Color largely abandons the rudiments of character in pursuit of Transcendental questioning. Either you admire Carruth’s intellectual confidence, or you wonder what the hell the deal is with the pigs.
The most controversial scene of “Interstellar” tries to visualize the implications of gravity, physics, relativity and perhaps a touch of string theory. It’s not perfect, in the sense that I suspect a future filmmaker will eventually do it better. But it is groundbreaking, in the sense that it is trying to tell a story on a mass scale in a different way. And that is of unmistakable value. While watching “Interstellar” it would be good to keep in mind the old Pauline Kael axiom that, “great films are rarely perfect films.”
“Interstellar” is a wildly entertaining film, a grand space adventure told on a broad canvas. The visual effects, bolstered by IMAX and a Hans Zimmer score, overpower the senses as we travel with the astronauts to other worlds. The best news is that it is a thinking-man’s universe, filled with wormholes, and it has fun with galactic weirdness caused by gravity and explained by the theory of relativity (one hour on the film’s ocean planet equals seven years on Earth). That’s an unusual way to create drama using science.
The film’s human notes are not legion, although McConaughey, Hathaway and Gyasi do squeeze some drips out of the stone. Nolan considers love in a “Tree of Life” sort of way, wondering if it is merely a survival mechanism or a part of the fabric of the universe. But only the father-daughter relationship of McConaughey to little MacKenzie Foy makes you feel that issue rather than just think about it.
There are so many good and bad and excellent points to talk about in this film that contains multitudes. In the end I admire “Interstellar” for the possibilities it opens rather than dislike it for its shortcomings. There might be things you could change, but I don’t think it might prevent “Interstellar” from being so curiously fulfilling.