Christopher Nolan has made a name for himself in the world of Hollywood. Two of his films claim a spot in the top-50 highest-grossing films of all time, and several more have earned a spot in the top 100. Yet they distinguish themselves sharply from the other films on that list. Next to the thoughtless worlds of the “Fast and Furious” series or Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” Nolan’s films shine bright like OEGE.
Nolan always makes you think, and do not expect anything different from his newest, most ambitious project: “Interstellar.”
The premise of “Interstellar” is typical. Earth is dying, and former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) must lead a band of explorers through a wormhole to find a new home for the human race. But Nolan does nothing typical with this premise. He uses it as an excuse to create the most expansive journey imaginable, beginning in a futuristic dust bowl society and taking you to the edge of theoretical astrophysics — black holes, relativity, etc. If last year’s “Gravity” scared you into abandoning your childhood dream of becoming an astronaut, get ready to suit up again. Nolan’s final frontier is not much safer than “Gravity’s,” but the visual effects are so chillingly beautiful that it might revive NASA single-handedly.
Of course, Nolan is not content to simply show us a journey; he takes us every bit as far as his characters. Everything Cooper knows, we know. Everything Cooper feels, we feel. And that means we feel it all. Historically, Nolan’s films have had a certain disinterested quality, engaging the intellect but disengaging the soul. “Interstellar” shatters that tendency. We see a piece of Nolan’s heart on a screen where we are used to seeing his mind alone.
Portraying the characters of Nolan’s heart must be a challenge, but each member of the cast rises to the occasion. Cooper’s dialogue is mesmerizing, though it often sounds like that of a grouchy philosopher rather than an astronaut-turned-farmer. Yet, coming from McConaughey, the weighty words sound surprisingly natural in an otherwise unnatural world. Jessica Chastain, playing Cooper’s daughter Murph, draws equally intense emotion with far fewer words. While Chastain and McConaughey are both first-timers on a Nolan set, Michael Caine joins the cast for his sixth consecutive Nolan film, playing NASA’s Professor Brand. Fans will lament that Caine is finally starting to show his age at 81 years, but they will also appreciate the gravitas that the veteran actor adds to the plot.
“Interstellar” is a movie about possible extinction, but it does not fit the post-apocalyptic genre. Instead, I might call it “pre-apocalyptic,” a genre much more sensible. While addressing the heavy-hitting questions of human mortality, Nolan avoids being melodramatic at all costs. “Interstellar” is not without flaws, however. The scientific basis for much of the plot is dense — a contribution of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. While the astrophysical details add a certain degree of plausibility, Nolan also loses his less attentive viewers in the process.
Whatever might be lacking in “Interstellar,” Nolan replaces it with something of incomparable value. He takes us somewhere new. As Cooper would say, he is an explorer, a pioneer — not a caretaker of conventional Hollywood.