Interstellar has a gravity problem, a number of them, in fact. There’s a mathematical gravity problem that much of the film’s plot hinges on, wherein humanity’s efforts to escape a dying Earth are stymied by the calculus required to transplant our species to a new, habitable planet. There’s also the capitalized, italicized Gravity problem: Interstellar is releasing barely a year after Alfonso Cuarón went to orbit and back, relieving audiences of hundreds of millions of dollars, and no doubt a few lunches. As far as acts go, that’s a hard one to follow.
But when you’re Christopher Nolan, the most esteemed showman-as-storyteller of his generation, the task of providing adult sci-fi fans a worthy follow-up routine is more challenge than cross to bear. Nolan’s established a critically and commercially successful filmography on his ability to subvert physics; he made Batman soar back into the cultural zeitgeist after Joel Schumacher clipped his wings, bent time and minds with Inception, and even made the 21st century’s first great noir by telling a detective story backwards. Few filmmakers have proven as consistently as Nolan that gravity wasn’t just made to be defied, but defied in such a way that leaves audiences gasping, clapping, and begging to know how the trick was pulled off.
Perhaps that’s what makes Interstellar feel like one small step in the director’s catalogue, but one giant leap into the unknown for his career. For his ninth feature, Nolan has decided to incorporate the weightiest assistant he could possibly bring on stage: human emotion. Nolan films previous have largely been defined by their wealth of ideas and intricate plotting, which are layered on top of one another into a clockwork apparatus that could only be of sentimental value to the viewer, but not any of the cogs trapped by his machinery.
Interstellar, by contrast, trades the precision that’s guided the rest of Nolan’s oeuvre for the messy, but powerful forces that are love and human connection. Much as it’s encouraging to see the entertaining con artist so far afield from his comfort zone, the illusion of an emotionally coherent space epic is only maintained fitfully by Interstellar.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a Texas farmer and father of two living in a not-too-distant future that’s more Steinbeck and Rand than Asimov and Clarke. War and conflict have been eliminated, but only because global food shortages make killing one another too high a caloric investment. Cooper, a former pilot and engineer, chafes under a government authority that’s running the planet like a 5.97E24 kg triage patient. An inexplicable local phenomena discovered by his incorrigible daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), leads Cooper to the heart of humanity’s secret, last-ditch effort to blow this dust-ridden popsicle stand for new worlds made available by a recently opened wormhole.
Aside from a framing device that fades into the background almost immediately, and one incredible cut (which captures in a split second what the film often struggles to achieve elsewhere), Interstellar sees Nolan leaving his usual bag of temporal tricks behind. Once Cooper is leading the mission to save humanity, what complicates the story isn’t the way that it’s told, but the emotional drives of the characters. There’s a lot of scientific hooey thrown about to explain how black holes and relativity will affect the crew’s travel to planets unknown, but ultimately, it’s the existential and personal fear of losing those left behind on Earth that’s pushing the crew forward.