Let's start with what Christopher Nolan got right in Interstellar, which is a lot. After spending eight or so years making successful, culture-defining Batman movies (with a stop in the dreamtime for 2010's Inception), he chose to spend his clout making a science-fiction epic in the mold of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's masterpiece, Nolan's Interstellar is "hard" sci-fi, meaning it relies on known science for its settings and plot points. Until it doesn't.
The first known science it throws at us is a near future earth ravaged by climate change and the resource wars we are already seeing break out in places like Central Africa and the Levant. Overpopulation is no longer as big a problem as it is today, because six billion people have died, including Cooper's (Matthew McConaughey) wife. But crops are failing, species are dying, and corn, our last remaining foodstuff, is threatened by a dust borne blight. Cooper, a former star astronaut and aerospace engineer, is now using his talents to build robotic harvesters to keep feeding the starving masses. But then, he receives a strange signal: a location encoded in binary somehow sent through gravity waves to his daughter Murph's (Mackenzie Foy) bedroom. The location turns out to be a secret NASA base where the world's remaining space scientists, led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) are preparing an expedition into a wormhole that unknown alien intelligence has opened near Saturn. Twelve expeditions have gone into the wormhole looking for a planet where humans can relocate to save the species when earth is no longer habitable, which will be within a generation. Three have reported back encouraging results, and Cooper, along with Professor Brand's daughter (Anne Hathaway), is tasked with diving into the wormhole and finding out which exoplanet is just right for us.
- Anne Hathaway in Interstellar
Shot on 70mm film with a pleasing mix of old-fashioned practical effects and digital wizardry, Interstellar is at its best when McConaughey is surfing his spaceship down a water planet's Everest-sized waves or skirting the event horizon of a black hole called Gargantua that is the most spectacular and accurate image of the astronomical phenomenon ever created. If you're going to see Interstellar — and if you're any kind of sci-fi fan you absolutely should — see it on as big a screen as possible to appreciate Nolan's impeccable craftsmanship.
But it's too bad the craftsmanship didn't extend to the script. Nolan's Batman movies were generally worthy, but they had one too many subplots, an over reliance on coincidence, and characters acting like archetypes instead of human beings. Outside the superhero space, these flaws become glaring. Seemingly afraid of losing some mythical demographic of viewers who came to a space opera to see a father-daughter relationship drama, Nolan can't go five minutes without repeating that it's hard to leave your kids behind when you're on a multi-year deep-space mission to save humanity. Then the (admittedly eye-popping) love-conquers-all ending undermines all that came before.
It boils down to this: Interstellar is 120 minutes of good movie stuffed into 170 minutes.