by Gabriel Valdez
Interstellar is the best movie I have ever seen. As a critic, you’re expected never to say things like that, but that’s never how we watch movies. We invest our emotions, put ourselves into another world, develop faith in characters, we give our entire body over – our pulses race, we tremble, our mouths drop, we grip the armrests, our minds reel. We watch movies because that very next one might be the best we’ve ever seen.
We watch films as engrossing and challenging as Interstellar to find that awe and wonder we had as kids, when we looked up at the sky and dreamed that this very moment – as a people – caught us midstep in becoming something greater. We dreamed that as kids, and we never stopped dreaming it, even when we struggle.
When we struggle, we hope, or we wouldn’t struggle anymore – we’d just let things be. But when we hope, we fear, and Doctor Who tells us fear is a superpower. We rage, and Dylan Thomas tells us rage is the driving force of pioneers. We wonder, and Star Trek tells us wonder is the thing that can unite entire races in the midst of destroying themselves. We’re driven by love, and Robert Heinlein tells us love isn’t a wild, unpredictable emotion, but rather the mastery of our pettiest stresses and insecurities.
Science-fiction houses its what-ifs in scientific theory and social experimentation, but its curiosity is invariably driven by hope. Interstellar poses an Earth that’s lost hope, caught in a postapocalypse driven not by the violence of nuclear war or excitement of zombies, but by crop plagues and soil deterioration caused by overpopulation.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was once a NASA pilot. Now, like everybody else, he’s a farmer. Corn is the only crop left. One can’t escape the feeling that his daughter Murphy’s generation will be the last on Earth.
But…Murphy has a ghost that keeps knocking books off the shelf in her bedroom. Cooper doesn’t believe her until he witnesses it during a ferocious dust storm. It’s not a ghost, it’s a gravitational anomaly, and it carries a message.
That message means Cooper will leave his family, discover the remnants of NASA and – being the last experienced pilot around – lead an expedition to find another planet for humanity’s migration. He’ll be joined by Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and a sarcastic robot named TARS on a journey that will take them through wormholes, past black holes, and onto other planets.
The laws of relativity mean that, while their journey will take a few years, decades will pass on Earth. Murphy will grow up. Our pioneers don’t just need to make choices about fuel and food and air supply. Time is the resource they can’t afford to lose. On one potential planet, an hour on the surface equals 7 years back on earth. Every conversation, even about minutiae, carries the weight of the world. Our species hangs in the balance of philosophical debates.
There will be personal betrayals, nerve-wracking space maneuvers, haunting and inspiring sights of space in all its lonely glory. Pioneers will be heartbreakingly lost, the laws of physics will be bent, teary-eyed arguments will be had. Interstellar is an action movie, a tale of discovery, a crash course in both philosophy and astrophysics, but more than anything else it inspires awe in a way few pieces of art ever do.
Interstellar is nothing short of a narrative masterpiece. Director Christopher Nolan’s past narrative contortions, like Memento, The Prestige, and Inception? Those seem like training runs for what Interstellar pulls off. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted science-fiction to be, and as the movie delves further into quantum mechanics, it isn’t just a science-fiction movie anymore; it becomes magical realism.
(The ending may throw some viewers – it’s heavily based in concepts like quantum consciousness. Interstellar will explain it to you fast, but it never stops too long to run down its more difficult concepts, favoring emotional reaction and more plot over understanding every little nuance. If you’ve got a basic understanding of quantum mechanics – say, you watch PBS or other science programming occasionally – you should be fine. If not, you’ll still have the film’s complete emotional journey, but you may lose out on some of the finer plot logic.)
Nolan favors an old-fashioned approach to narrative – the journey is told through simply presented story and excellent performances. Even the special effects are grounded in live action. CGI isn’t abused, but saved for exceptional moments, making their impact far greater. For my money, McConaughey delivers a performance that knocks his two last year (in Dallas Buyers Club and Mud) out of the park. There’s no trace of ego there, just a completely internalized character. Hathaway and our two Murphys, young Mackenzie Foy and adult Jessica Chastain, are nothing short of remarkable.
If hope contains fear and rage and wonder and love, it’s what gets us through our struggles. The single greatest gift a parent gives to a child…that’s hope. That’s practicing hope, learning hope, being disappointed in hope, and being surprised by it. It’s learning how to use it, how to make it bring out the best in us and – when all is at its worst – allowing it to master us despite all evidence to the contrary.
So you’ll understand when I tell you that, for a child raised on enough hope for himself and every other person he’s ever met, who’s been inspired by hope, betrayed because of hope, who’s been ruined by hope, achieved things he never thought he could but always suspected he would because of hope, who thinks the most important thing he can do after seeing a movie that inspires him is sit and write like a hurricane…you’ll understand when he comes away from a film like Interstellar and tells you: “This is the best movie I have ever seen.”
I don’t say that as a critic, I say that as someone who looks up at the stars every night and wonders why the hell we’re not up there in droves, who stayed up late to watch Star Trek and the really old, boring Doctor Who where every planet was the same old rock quarry, who read Asimov and Heinlein and Le Guin and Pullman until four in the morning, and who learned from them all that hope is the real superpower of the human race.
Interstellar is a movie that tells its story through impossibilities, that finds a way to treat emotion as a dimension through which you can move and marries this to complex, cutting-edge science that tells you why. It’s a rare film that reminds us “it’s hopeless” is not a state of being. It’s a challenge to do better, not just in the world’s eyes but in your own. That doesn’t mean we always will, but it does mean we should always try.
Interstellar was designed for the child who looked at the stars and wondered, and learned all he could about them, and grew up to still look at the stars and wonder. Is it the best movie ever made? Who knows, who cares? For that child, and I suspect I can’t possibly be the only one, it is the best film he or she may ever see.
Interstellar is an astonishing love letter to the human race. What else is science-fiction but exactly that?