A doomed earth

The opening sequence in the new sci-fi epic Interstellar strikes a humble, Earth-bound note, interlacing farm shots with interviews of Dust Bowl survivors taken directly from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl (which I reviewed here last year). No one identifies the elderly people in the clips as real people talking about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, so viewers accept their message as referring to the ruined Earth featured in the movie. The time is unspecified, but the impression is a not-so-distant future where blight is ravaging Earth’s crops and humanity faces starvation and eventual suffocation.

My husband and I were powerfully affected by the movie’s emotional heart—a father sacrificing his relationship with his children to save their lives.

With that cheery notion firmly established, Director Christopher Nolan introduces us to reluctant farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his 16-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. Cooper was once an engineer and astronaut, but the Earth needs farmers more than it needs engineers, so he does his best to make a living and keep the door open for his kids to have more opportunities than he had.

But when a mysterious force leads him to a secret NASA compound, Cooper learns the Earth is dying. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) convince Cooper to pilot a last-ditch effort to find a new home planet—but it means leaving his children as they grow to adulthood (played by Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain), or worse: never seeing them again.

Christopher Nolan is famous/infamous for loathing bluescreens, so the film inevitably features a patina of realism that makes everything in it seem more believable. The cornfields are real. The dust storms are real (albeit created for the movie). Iceland stands in for the alien planets, and the crew transported 10,000 pounds of (mock) spaceship there for filming. This is the way epic movies used to be made, and it shows. If you want swooshy future-tech and slick spacesuits, this ain’t the film. The events in Interstellar could happen—in about 70 years or so. The most sci-fi part of the movie is a blocky joke-cracking robot named TARS, and even he seems plausible (he almost steals the show).

Seeing the movie in IMAX (the real 70mm projected version, not the “Digital IMAX” theaters many commercial chains have installed in recent years) is worth it because Nolan filmed a substantial portion of the film with 70 mm cameras. Imagine six-story-tall black holes, collapsed stars, extraterrestrial waves, and a spaceship rocket launch that feels like you’ve been perched on the nose of the thing—with a front row seat looking back to Earth as the rockets fall away.

Perhaps it was the clarity of the sound in the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center IMAX theater (where we saw the film) but I didn’t have trouble understanding most of the dialogue—which was a complaint lodged by many other critics. Some of the video transmissions (including audio) from Earth to Cooper were so hard to understand I missed out entirely, but in the rest of the film, the majority of the music soundtrack never eclipsed the spoken dialogue.

We saw the movie with a group; we were the only parents, and we walked out with a much more positive and perhaps visceral reaction to the movie than our friends did. They talked about the length (it was about 40 minutes too long) and the prolonged climax that ultimately fell a little flat as the characters are bound up in theoretical intersection between time, gravity, and love. They also mentioned parts where the science stretches credulity—although theoretical physicist Kip Thorne was rather strict with Nolan in his role as science advisor for the film, and popular science figure Neil DeGrasse-Tyson praised the science in the movie through a series of Tweets this past week.

Meanwhile, my husband and I were powerfully affected by the movie’s emotional heart—a father sacrificing his relationship with his children to save their lives. Did I understand all the twists of time and physics? No. Did I have to suspend disbelief a few times and just go with it? Yes. But ultimately, I was moved. Moved by Cooper’s agonized regret as he watches his children grow up via infrequent one-way video transmissions—reduced to tears by the sight of the grandbaby he can never hold. His drive to survive is far more intense than that of your average space cowboy, because to him, humanity has two faces. And he is their only hope.

Interstellar is rated (PG-13) for some intense, perilous action and brief strong language.