Director Christopher Nolan is known for making thought-provoking films.
He’s done it again with Interstellar, a movie about a team of explorers who travel through a wormhole in an attempt to find a potentially habitable planet that will sustain humanity.
Sounds simple enough, in a sci-fi sort of way.
The movie is also a story about human relationships. Central to the story is the father-daughter relationship of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), the astronaut-pilot and his daughter Murph.
What’s the central problem that requires a solution? The end of humanity, of course. Sci-fi movies are known for their cataclysmic themes and this one is no exception. In the near future, Earth has been devastated by drought and famine, causing a scarcity in food and extreme changes in climate. A mysterious rip in the space-time continuum is discovered, giving mankind the opportunity to widen its lifespan. A group of explorers must travel beyond our solar system in search of a planet that can sustain life.
Wait just a minute: Earth devastated by drought and famine, extreme climate changes. Is this just another Hollywood propaganda film for global warming? In a word, no. According to film notes, the dustbowl-like climate was actually inspired not by future events but by the 1930s Oklahoma Dustbowl.
Like many sci-fi films, this one posits a future dystopia in need of saving. As the story begins, Cooper goes to a parent-teacher conference about his children—Tom (15) and Murph (10). It seems Murph brought an old textbook to school that talked about the Apollo lunar landings—something “debunked” as a hoax by the current government-approved textbook. Cooper, a former NASA pilot, is incredulous as the young woman teacher explains that Murph can’t bring an old book to school and wants to know what he’s going to do about it.
His son Tom has issues, too. It seems he’s not smart enough to be allowed to go to college. He needs to become a farmer. Cooper protests, “He’s only 15. His whole life is determined for him?” The principal responds, “We need farmers, not scientists.”
Common Core, school-to-work programs and the whole of government-controlled education come to mind.
Yet the movie isn’t about bashing the government. These early themes fall away as Cooper and Murph discover a secret NASA base and the work of Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) to take advantage of the mysterious rip in the space-time continuum—usually referred to as a wormhole.
At this point, if the science is beginning to sound more like fiction part of sci-fi, it’s not quite. The story is based in part on the work of theoretical physicist Dr. Kip Thorne. (Thorne has a cameo role in the film, and there’s a robot named “Kipp.”) Thorne laid down two guidelines for the science: nothing would violate established physical laws, and all wild speculations would spring from science and not from the creative mind of a screenwriter.
There are some wild scientific speculations—as well as some incredible images to accompany the interstellar travel.
Yet again the story doesn’t really center on the science—it’s about the relationships.
Nolan wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan. He wanted a film that manages to tackle serious subject matter while still appealing to all audiences. It does that. If you’re in it for the science, or the adventure or the grand themes or the human interest, you won’t be disappointed.
There’s one more thing that stands out—if not initially, then on reflection. The movie contrasts the existing state of life on earth with interstellar travel. More than once Cooper says that we humans are explorers and entrepreneurs—which the travelers do while back on Earth people simply struggle for survival. More than once Nolan cuts between actions on earth and those on a distant planet.
If the movie could be boiled down to one word—and whether Nolan intended it or not—that word would be hope. Hope and the human spirit attempting to overcome the greatest of adversity: the stuff of all great literature.
Go see this movie. You will not be disappointed.