“We used to look up in the sky and wonder about our place in the stars, now we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt.”
From the nonlinear, backwards-and-forwards storytelling of Memento, to the hidden identity of the central masked vigilante in The Dark Knight trilogy, to the multiple dream levels explored in Inception, director Christopher Nolan is no stranger to the idea of deception. It is embedded deep within his films, including his characters and their motivations, the stories that unfold on-screen, and the storytelling methods used to push his films toward their respective conclusions.
Nolan has been making films about deception ever since he came on the scene with his debut feature Following in 1998, which he followed with the detective noir Insomnia in 2002. His 2006 film, The Prestige, was entirely devoted to the idea, unspooling a tale of rival magicians seeking to outdo each other by pulling off the greatest trick, whose secret isn’t fully revealed until the film’s final frame.
However, despite the reputations of the films that precede it, the blockbuster auteur’s latest project, Interstellar, is inarguably his most ambitious film to date, and it just might be his most beautiful piece of cinematic deception. Pegged as an epic science fiction adventure, the film is actually an intimate and emotionally resonant drama, more concerned with themes of humanity, love, legacy, and family than with grandiose space exploration, nifty special effects, or theories about wormholes.
Interstellar contains those other things in droves, and those aspects are absolutely key to the film’s ability to keep the audience staring at the screen in wonder — which I did for all 169 minutes of its runtime — but the narrative of Interstellar is really nothing more than a compelling vehicle used to relay the tale of an inseparable bond between a father and his daughter. This relationship is the focal point of the film, and it keeps the movie grounded and fills it with raw human emotion, important things for a film that seeks to help the audience understand both its own humanity and its ultimate place among the stars.
Matthew McConaughey stars as jack-of-all-trades single father Cooper, a former test pilot and engineer whose career has shifted towards farming ever since devastating dust storms and severe blight began ravaging the Earth’s crops. The human race facing dire circumstances, Cooper is recruited by NASA to lead a team of explorers into the deepest depths of space, a mission that forces Cooper to leave behind his loved ones — including his teenage son Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and his elementary-age daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) — and travel through a wormhole in order to find a new planet for mankind to inhabit, as his children’s generation is likely the last that will survive life on Earth.
Jessica Chastain plays the grown-up version of Murph, working alongside NASA chief John Brand (Michael Caine) as the two attempt to successfully guide Cooper’s crew and NASA’s earthbound team in the search for an inhabitable new planet. Much in the same way Cooper attempts to reconnect with his daughter, Murph’s life becomes centered around bringing her father home safely, no matter the pain he has caused by leaving her behind.
As I mentioned though, despite the awe-inducing effects at work, from the technically marvelous visuals that fill the picture to the astonishing sounds that shake the auditorium, the film’s central space voyage narrative isn’t what makes the film work. Rather, the emotions and heart at the center of the film, in the form of the relationship between Cooper and his daughter Murph, are what drew me in and kept me invested in the film from beginning to end. Just as soon as their relationship is established, once we understand the strong bond between father and daughter, the two are ripped apart, and the remainder of the film details Cooper’s attempt to return to his daughter and restore their relationship to what it used to be before he left her behind. It goes without saying that his journey isn’t an easy one, but he will do whatever it takes to make it happen.
Interstellar might wind up as one of the most flawed films I’ve ever loved. Christopher Nolan’s films have featured their share of weak characters, cheesy dialogue, melodrama, and obvious plot devices, and Interstellar is no different, but if a film — ahem, a nearly three-hour-long film — can get me to overlook those flaws and stare at the screen with childlike wonder from its first frame to its last, I don’t know how to do anything but love it, warts and all. Interstellar was able to do just that for me, not because of its special effects or its intriguing surface-level plot, but because of the hugely personal stamp placed upon the film by its director, and especially the deep human emotions that course through the film’s celluloid veins and left me damn near speechless once the movie ended.
There is no denying that this movie has flaws, obvious ones even, and perhaps those will bubble up into my field of vision with repeat viewings, there’s no way for me to tell just yet. But I can say without a sliver of doubt that Interstellar is both Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious film and also his most intimate, a beautiful deception that looks like an epic science fiction adventure on the surface, but is a truly personal drama at its core, resonating with emotions I just can’t seem to ignore or forget.
Grade: ★★★★½ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language
Runtime: 169 minutes