It's a rare occurrence these days to see a blockbuster that deals in ideas rather than plot contrivances, but in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, sci-fi fans are treated to a true cinematic anomaly: an impeccably crafted slice of escapism driven by scientific concepts that fascinate and thrill in equal measure. The screenplay balances heartfelt drama with heady concepts like wormholes, black holes, and five-dimensional beings, while the outstanding cast sell both the humanity and the science with total assurance. Meanwhile, breathtaking special effects transport us to distant worlds, making Nolan's first post-Batman directorial effort an intense, occasionally heartrending voyage into the great unknown that never feels bloated (despite its intimidating 165-minute runtime).
The story opens on Earth in the distant future, as Mother Nature is waging war on humanity. Famine is widespread, and all of mankind's resources are now dedicated to farming in a desperate fight for survival. A former NASA pilot and engineer named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) has become a homesteader in order to support his teenage son Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Unfortunately, even that begins to look like a futile endeavor after a sandstorm ravages their close-knit community.
Meanwhile, a seemingly supernatural mystery begins to unfold when the "ghost" that dwells in Murph's room uses the power of gravity to send her a mysterious set of coordinates -- which lead the curious father/daughter duo to a clandestine underground base housing the remnants of NASA. There, renowned physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine) has been working with a team of astronauts and scientists to find a new planet capable of sustaining human life. Having recently lost contact with a crew who were sent to investigate a wormhole that inexplicably appeared near the rings of Saturn, Brand quickly persuades Cooper to pilot a second mission carrying the seeds of human life though that space-time rift, which will hopefully lead to another galaxy that contains potentially habitable planets.
Although the prospect of leaving his brilliant, beloved daughter for such a desperate mission is a difficult one for Cooper, he agrees; soon, he's on a space station bound for Saturn with Brand's daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and researchers Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi). Upon reaching the wormhole, the crew and decommissioned military-security robot TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) prepare to pass through. What they discover on the other side could be the key to saving all of humanity, if Cooper and his team can use their resources wisely and accomplish their mission while there's still time to save the loved ones they left behind.
If you spend enough time at the multiplex, you've probably noticed a curious trend -- somewhere along the line, science fiction became less about the "sci" and more about the "fi." Sometimes it feels as though killer robots have hijacked the genre, making it more of a delivery system for action or horror than a tool used to explore some of the universe's greatest mysteries. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but for every film like Neill Blomkamp's socially conscious District 9 or Shane Carruth's perplexing Primer, there are ten flicks like Transformers: Age of Extinction. With Interstellar, Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan (the pair wrote the screenplay together) take the genre back to its roots, exploring complex questions about space travel, theoretical physics, destiny, and, yes, even the transcendent power of love, all within the context of a gripping tale of survival out amongst the stars.
By allowing the viewer to live alongside the desperate protagonists on a dying Earth in the movie's opening section, the Nolans take a major gamble that thankfully pays off. Sure, this first act could have been easily condensed into a stylized credit sequence, but the filmmakers seem to realize that that would rob the story of its humanity. Instead, they simply drop us into this dust-blown world, giving us the opportunity to be fully enveloped in humanity's suffocating desperation. It's an approach that requires a certain amount of patience, to be sure, but also one that gives us an intimate glimpse into the lives of these characters as we learn what's at stake for them. In addition to dwelling on small details (like the way people turn over plates at the dining table in order to avoid gathering dust) that give the impression of a historical drama based on things yet to come, these scenes also provide the film with its heart by presenting Cooper as a father focused on nurturing his daughter's thirst for knowledge, even in the face of smug bureaucracy and total oblivion. While McConaughey effectively brings Cooper's internal conflict to the surface, it's Foy who surprises us the most with her portrayal of a believably intelligent, yet vulnerable ten-year-old girl faced with the trauma of losing a second parent.
Another aspect of the screenplay crucial to the film's success is that, once the mission is presented, it doesn't waste any time in getting Cooper and his crew out of the atmosphere. The countdown to liftoff commences right after Cooper speeds away from his farm, trying to keep his emotions in check, and we rocket into space on a blast of inspired storytelling shorthand that serves to get us better acquainted with Cooper's traveling companions, their motivations, and their fears. Though confidently executed, it's this section of the film that feels the most predictable, save for some unexpected comic relief from TARS (whose humor settings seem to have been set a bit too high for Cooper's comfort).
None of that matters, however, once the crew awaken from stasis and set course for that unexplained wormhole. From there on out, Interstellar frequently inspires awe with its vivid depictions of alien planets and mind-bending plot developments. To reveal any more would be unfair for first-time viewers, though it can be said that Murph and Professor Brand face their own unique set of challenges on Earth as they race to solve a mystery in time for the astronauts' return, which creates a compelling parallel to the events unfolding light-years away and inventively ties the story back to that mischievous "ghost" in Murph's bedroom. And while the screenplay here could have used a bit more nuance in order to make a late development truly resonate, Caine and Jessica Chastain are both in top form, and that minor misstep is easily forgiven once things really start to unravel for our intrepid explorers. Once that happens, the story comes together quite beautifully, ensuring that our patience and attention are richly rewarded.
But what truly sets Interstellar apart is Nolan's talent for flooding us with adrenaline during the movie's more intense scenes, then promptly stimulating our intellect without missing a beat. It all adds up to a singular, visually dazzling experience that can take its place among some of the most exhilarating and ambitious science-fiction films ever produced.