The large number of reviews comparing Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is rather perplexing. Sure, both films tell stories involving intergalactic travel, but “Intersellar” is narratively straightforward where “2001” was enigmatic, and Nolan’s focus is on characters where Kubrick’s was on ideas. I do not say this to be dismissive of Nolan’s accomplishments; in fact, I believe this to be one of the best American films of the year, perhaps the filmmaker’s best work outside of “The Dark Knight.” Rather, I point out the key differences between the films because I think to over-invest in the “2001” comparison is to fail to recognize what works best about “Interstellar”: that it is more about the distinctly human will to resist entropy more than it is about space itself.
Certainly, a lot of thought was put into the science of “Interstellar”; the distinguished Caltech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne served as an executive producer and worked closely with visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin to ensure that the movie’s space voyage was as credible as possible. There is a real sense of awe that emerges from the realization that the expensive, detailed renderings of wormhole travel and faraway planets where time moves at different speeds could accurately depict elements of our universe. But such an attention to “realism” does not primarily service philosophical questioning, as in “2001.” Instead, it provides a vivid backdrop for the characters’ epic, emotionally affecting journey. Nolan may list Kubrick as one of his primary artistic inspirations, but if he is channeling an old 70mm epic with “Interstellar,” it is actually David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.”
The man at the heart of “Interstellar” is Cooper, an astronaut-turned-corn-farmer played by Matthew McConaughey, whose down-home twang and natural presence function as immediate markers of Nolan’s human interest. Cooper is sent to space with scientists Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), and Doyle (Wes Bentley) in a top-secret government search for a viable alternative planet for mankind to inhabit, as Earth has been ravaged by widespread crop failures. (It is top-secret, as the mission-spearheading Professor John Brand [Michael Caine] explains, because Americans would never agree to pay for NASA exploration when they can barely afford food, in a firm-if-tangential jab at economic austerity measures.) The plot stakes are high, as is the melodrama: Cooper’s ambition to ensure humanity’s survival is driven almost entirely by his love for his children, who we watch age into adults (played by Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck) as the mission lasts decades in Earth-time. The movie places equal stock in character moments, such as Cooper watching video transmissions from his rapidly growing kids, as it does in perilous action sequences.
Furthermore, those perilous action sequences are deeply entrenched in the prospect of humanity’s survival, the notion that humans are a unique force for good in the universe. When Hans Zimmer’s most operatic score to date—I do not jest—reaches its organ-pounding crescendos, the film seeks to overwhelm less through its own inherent spectacle than it does through a strong implication of the profound cost of failure. Again, Nolan is not engaged in any obtuse philosophical questioning, but rather, he asks the viewer to reflect, in a literal sense, on what would be lost if Earth’s population went extinct. This, it seems to me, is just as worthwhile an endeavor as more theoretical modes of inquiry — an empathy-based treatment of man’s position in the cosmos. Thus, “Interstellar” is about two types of gravity, that which is tangible and that which is felt. It is as intimate as it is universal.