While not wholly original in the story it tells or even how it tells it, the scientific detail and craftsmanship within Interstellar is truly a site to behold. The film is a lengthy one at nearly three hours of screen time, but it spends nearly every second well as it balances between an Earth on the brink of death, humanity on the brink of extinction, and a group of astronauts fighting to save it all by attempting to find a new planet to inhabit.
Considering its title hinting heavily at space travel, the fact that the entire first act of the film takes place without even a hint at leaving Earth may catch a lot of viewers off guard. It follows Cooper (played by Matthew McConaghuey), a former engineer and space pilot suffering from nightmares of a past flight gone horribly wrong. As much as he hates it, Cooper is relegated to little more than a farmer with fancy harvesting machines enhanced by his own tinkering. He is forced into this role due to the fact that a disease called ‘the blight’ has swept the globe, rapidly killing crops and giving humans a dwindling time left on the Earth as it feeds on nitrogen and is slowly reducing the amount of breathable air on our home planet. Not much is explained about this disease outside of this, which is fine because it gave everything the audience needs to know to properly motivate the characters.
There was a pleasant lack of tedious expository dialogue as all the information about the world, and the hidden menace destroying it, were revealed throughout the main character’s every day life.
Cooper is eventually called upon to attend a PTA meeting to discuss his children and how they’ve been at school – which also gave a lot of information about the world and the people in it. He learns that his son, Tom (played by Timothee Chalamet) is doing just fine and, while considered smart enough to earn a college degree and be an engineer, will be instead trained as a farmer. As the school principal explains, the current state of the world dictates that good farmers are needed more than good engineers. “We’re not running out of TV’s,” he stated plainly. Cooper, visibly upset by the fact that his son may suffer the same fate of being stuck as a farmer while wanting more, eventually accepts it – until they move on to the behavior of his daughter, Murph.
Young Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy) had the audacity to bring in a textbook from before they were all refreshed to reflect the truth. In the textbook she brought in, it still contained the old “fake” information that the moon landings actually happened and there were several successful Apollo mission. The overly peppy teacher explains that Murph should instead be reading the “federally corrected text” which “correctly” teaches that the moon landings were in fact faked with the end goal of bankrupting the Russians during The Cold War. As she explained, the leaders that be believe that time and money would be better well spent teaching kids to farm and help keep the world afloat instead of impossible dreams of leaving the planet – a “wasteful pastime of the 20th century” as she called it.
This meeting (and the rest of the first act) did a great job of setting up essentially everything we needed to know about the background and world of Interstellar – and it worked marvelously. Yes, a lot of the opening scenes were just dialogue, but it was never sitting down and explaining the world to you. All the clues of the current state of the planet were subtext in other every day conversations and events. Whether it was Cooper tracking down a recon drone that had no guidance since its home country’s home base was longer functional, or he and his children running form one of the many dust storms that roam the mostly crop-less great plains, or the “World Famous New York Yankees” being reduced to people who obviously were not very good at baseball because of the dwindling world population. Everything that happened went towards the common goal of world-building without blatantly beating you over the head with it.
What we ended up getting, before the idea of leaving the planet was even a twinkle in the eye of Cooper or anyone else on screen, was a rich world full of struggle and a tremendous feeling of dread. I would honestly watch an entire movie based around watching these people trying to survive in this world, it was just so well done and such an interesting world.
The main chunk of the film’s story is kicked off when they return home from a raging duststorm and the dust settles in odd patterns in Murph’s room. She has always had problems with a “ghost” in her room, normally knocking over books in patterns. Cooper realizes that these lines of dust are being caused by gravity and are forming a message in mores code, which turn out to be coordinates to NORAD: the last remaining bastion of hope for NASA and, as it turns out, the survival of the human race.
Cooper is introduced to Dr. Brand (played by Anne Hathaway), and her father (played by Michael Caine) who he knew previously but assumed was long gone or dead. From there, the story kicks off into what you’d expect from the trailer, title, and hype leading up to the film being released. A lot of beautiful space travel.
While the story was not all that original (it basically boiled down to planet hopping in another galaxy to track down beacons being set off by other pilots of the “Lazarus Missions” who were checking planets for survivability), the way it was told was extremely engaging. Despite a massive amount of what could be called “science mumbo jumbo” it never feels overwhelming while information and advanced quantum mechanics are being thrown at you at once. The characters all clearly know what is going on, and that’s good enough for me.
When the writing was at its best, even if you have no idea what they are actually talking about (chances are you won’t – I didn’t either 100% of the time) it was still not hard to feel them struggling with the equations when it was needed, and completely understanding them when they should have been. Every character was written to be extremely approachable despite their mental superiority – something a lot of these films lack. It never felt like they were talking down to an audience, and it was obvious that the wild connections they were making had some real foundations in actual science. A lot of Interstellar’s appeal hinges on this understanding and empathy with the main characters and it does a great job keeping it intact. If you didn’t believe for a second that they were genuinely stumped by some of the things going on, their actions would seem like nothing more than trope-y stupid decisions to advanced the plot like a bad horror movie.
The link between Earth and the brave explorers was never lost, either. Without getting into too many spoilers, they eventually have to land on one planet next to a blackhole that slows down time to the point that one hour equals approximately seven years on Earth. They plan on just dropping down on the planet, getting the data they need, and flying off, but something goes terribly wrong and they end up getting stuck on the planet for a few hours, enough to accumulate over 23 years in Earth’s time.
When they get back on the ship, all the messages from their families that were being sent to them and backlogged are played at once in an intense and genuinely depressing scene. Matthew McConeguey range shows in spades here. You could watch this scene on mute, have no idea what was actually going on, and feel the pain that Cooper is going through based on McConeguey’s performance alone.
On the contrary, I don’t know what it is with Anne Hathaway, but no matter what film she is in I can never believe her crying face. It ranges from dull to flat-out hilarious at times. At one massive reveal towards the end of the film she is in the background fighting back tears and I swear I almost burst out laughing in the theater just from the faces she was making. She was decent otherwise in the film, but I cannot take her emotional scenes seriously – at all.
Anyway, the messages from their families depressingly show them growing older. Cooper’s son gets married and has children and his daughter, Muprh, still visibly holds a grudge against him for leaving. It’s a heart-wrenching montage of watching family members live’s pass them by while they were on the planet for mere minutes that will stick with me for a while.
At its worst, particularly during the sparse action scenes, the plot and events happening on screen got convoluted to the point where it completely disconnected me from the film. There were a couple logic flaws along the way that bugged me as well. One in particular occurred when they landed on the first planet and their ship was waterlogged. Their robot/AI assistant, Tars, tells them that the engines would take hours to be usable again due to the water, and Cooper instantly accepts this and just sits and talks to Brand. It wasn’t until the last possible second before another wave came that they sprung into action and manually dumped the water from the engines and “sparked” them to life. Why they didn’t just do this immediately is beyond me, but it felt like this was all done for the sake of plot as this was the planet that caused to slow down and it set up the rest of the movie.
They put a huge emphasis on time being a major factor on this planet, routinely ignored the AI previous to this to make better decisions, but suddenly they threw that all out the window and gave up when Tars said they had to wait. It just felt really out of place and betrayed a lot of the character’s established behaviors.
After the total failure that was the first mission, the group embarks towards another another Lazarus mission astronaut, Dr. Mann. Finding Dr. Mann on the planet and the sequence of events that followed were a massive disappointment. It was a pretty limp attempt at a plot twist and turned the movie into a space-farring Jason Bourne flick in the blink of an eye. The actions and explanations of the science during this sequence were also the only point in the film that I felt entirely disconnected. Characters stopped acting like scientists and started acting like action heroes, which completely contradicted their characters, the established logic in the film, and the tone of the film leading up to it. I was fully on board with Interstellar when it was about man against nature (or lack of nature), but when it turned into man against man seemingly just because it had to “for plot,” the story absolutely lost me for a while.
Granted, I was completely engaged after the events of that planet ended and Interstellar moved towards its conclusion, but that was a solid 20-30 minutes of just pure not caring about anything on screen, which is a real black mark on an otherwise pretty solid plot. The forced action sequences that come out of Dr. Mann and his brash actions completely broke up the actual tense and exciting moments of the crew flying through space to a jarring degree.
The ending, while extremely surreal and much more fantastical than the rest of the film’s realistic take on science and space travel, worked well. If someone says that it was just too darn confusing and did not make sense, I would not argue with that. But as someone who enjoys complicated plots that twist around themselves and answer their own questions in interesting ways, the ending was phenomenal. Especially the mild cliffhanger of an ending. You are given a hint at what will probably happen, but it is not blatantly laid out, and it doesn’t need to be.
Visually, what more could you want from a movie? Even before it took up its namesake and went into space, Interstellar was a very well-shot film. The dustbowl Earth was satisfyingly muddy and and bleak, camerawork was great, and the lone on-Earth action scene involving Cooper and his kids chasing down a Drone in their truck was full of long shots and interesting angles. When the film does finally get into space is where the visuals get to another level.
The launch stages and subsequent first seconds in space were accurate as far as I could tell and exhilarating to watch. And when they were traveling intergalactically through wormholes and around black holes, the visuals were breathtaking and exciting but still had a solid base in reality. Every location, despite a lot of them just being different points in spaces, were interestingly varied. The individual planets had a life of their own, with imposing obstacles and impressive special effects to make you really feel the danger that the crew was in. There was never a moment when it was not clear where the characters were or why something was happening on screen – despite what could have easily become a clouded mess of flashy effects and loud noises.
I also appreciated how the shots of Earth events and those of the Endevour crew were interlaced at the appropriate times. Shots would flip back and forth but there was never a sense of confusion, and it was always clear why things were happening and how they were related.
Complimenting the gorgeous visuals was a Han’s Zimmer score that ranged from forgettable to too way too loud. I am perfectly ok with sound effects flooding over dialogue if it fits – such as a rocket launch. But a score getting in the way of dialogue (which happened a few times in Interstellar) is completely unacceptable.
Sound design, on the other hand, was fantastic throughout. By now, there are enough space fanatics to call out films that incorrectly puts sound in space, and Interstellar took great care to avoid doing so. Moments of intense and overwhelming interior sound were abruptly ended and the film sank into total silence at times. Few things can really convey the feeling of the nothingness of space as a deafening amount of noise inside a space craft followed by a shot of its exterior and total silence. Various scientific instruments and robotic components made believable sounds that further enhanced the importance of every move the main characters made. Like I said before, there were times that sound effects would drown out character dialogue a bit but that is perfectly fine, especially in a movie going for so much realism most of the time.
Overall, Interstallar is a must-see for fans of space and science in general. Whether or not the science was 100% correct (which early consensus seems to be that it damn well nearly was), everything they did and said worked well within the movie, which is what matters. I remember saying at this point last year that Gravity was about as good as we could hope to get when it comes to hard science in a big budget Hollywood movie. Well Gravity’s logical flaws, which seemed small on their own, make it seem like Fisher Price Baby’s First Science Fiction Film compared to Interstellar’s insane dedication to realism and not contradicting itself for the sake of plot points.
Despite going completely off the rails during one particular segment and heavily impacting my score because of it, I cannot recommend this movie enough. It’s been out for a couple weeks now and, if you’re going to see it, be sure to do so in IMAX to not miss a single detail of the gorgeous space visuals or Anne Hathaway’s hilarious crying face.