Interstellar: American Exceptionalism Saves the World

By Kevin J. Ryan interstellar_banner

The new movie Interstellar is a rare treat: a big Hollywood blockbuster that’s as entertaining as it is ambitious. Like all the best science fiction, it deals with big ideas in an entertaining and accessible way. It’s probably the best movie of the year and the most significant science fiction movie in many years.

Some critics say it’s too sentimental and others say it’s too scientific. Maybe both are right. Sure, there’s plenty of the usual science vs. emotion dialogue, but it’s handled in an unusually compelling way, thanks to its writers and cast. It’s not perfect, but the sense of awe and the conversations it inspires are probably unequaled by any new movie this year. It aims so high and deftly balances science fiction, adventure and human drama in a way that few movies have.

Directed by Christopher Nolan (the recent Batman Trilogy), Interstellar is a technical beauty. Nolan is one of the last big Hollywood directors to insist on shooting on film and the results are spectacular. The cinematography and special effects recall the grandeur of classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and will hold up far longer than most new action movies’ CGI effects. Nolan shot much of it in IMAX and the technical prowess of the movie is best appreciated in IMAX film (with the non-IMAX scenes projected in 70mm) or IMAX digital.

The plot is simple: the earth is dying and humans will either find a new place to live or cease to exist. The dystopian earth has a long history in cinema, including films like Blade Runner, Soylent Green and The Road Warrior. The solution, to send brave astronauts out looking for a suitable home for the human race, recalls most strongly Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The influence of Kubrick’s masterpiece is everywhere, from the gorgeous old-school special effects to the organ tone so prominent in Hans Zimmer’s score.

Interstellar’s hero is Matthew McConaughey’s pilot-turned-farmer Coop, a former NASA pilot who, like many people in this dystopian world, had to give up his dreams and become a corn farmer to help feed the human race. Resources are terribly scarce, as something referred to only as “the blight” has destroyed crops, dried up the planet and even knocked satellites out of orbit. In fact, our own space program has been disbanded (as far the pubic knows) because of political pressure to focus financial resources on earth. While it’s clear the earth is suffocating due to a terrible ecological disaster, we are spared the usual heavy-handed Hollywood ecomentalist preaching as the movie makes its point through numerous scenes of sandstorms, dust clouds and deadly respiratory illness from constant dust in the air.

The necessity of NASA and space exploration is a central point in the story. Thankfully, the government secretly kept an underground NASA installation run by Michael Caine (so you know it’s trustworthy). That secret base, as it turns out, is humankind’s only hope. The story asserts that if we put a hold on space exploration until life is perfect on earth, it’ll be too late. In one scene, Coop and his father-in-law lament the loss of American innovation. Coop, who could have been played by Gary Cooper or John Wayne, says, “It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are — explorers, pioneers, not caretakers. We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” It’s refreshing to see an old-fashioned American hero lead a NASA team of Americans. In Interstellar, American Exceptionalism saves the human race. Co-writer/director Nolan is British, by the way.

Opponents of Common Core and revisionist history in our schools will get a kick out of it. In an early scene, Coop, shown to be an excellent (if struggling) widowed father, is called to a parent-teacher conference to discuss his daughter’s poor behavior. Coop’s daughter, Murphy, is in trouble with the school because she disagrees with a revisionist history textbook’s assertion that the NASA moon landing was a scam, faked by the US government as a piece of anti-Soviet Cold War propaganda. When asked what he’ll do to address Murphy’s insistence that the moon landing was real, Coop says he’ll take her out and buy her ice cream and soda. After rejecting the public school’s revisionist, anti-American propaganda, the brilliant Murphy grows up to play a vital role in saving the human race.

Coop is the quintessential American hero who says goodbye to his family to go and save the world without telling them. Coop’s daughter is particularly upset at his leaving and their relationship is central to the plot. In a later scene, one of the other astronauts asks if he told his daughter that the reason he left was to save her life along with everyone else’s. Coop replies, “No. When you become a parent, one thing becomes really clear. And that’s that you want to make sure your children feel safe.” Even as we are told the laws of relativity, under which hours of his time are years for his children back on earth, Coop is devoted to keeping his promise of returning to his kids and constantly counting the relative time as if he was worried about a parking meter on Northern Boulevard.

The ending, which most viewers will at least partially predict right from the beginning, divides audiences and critics and there are plenty of plot holes. But for a story involving wormholes, black holes, a fifth dimension, the theory of relativity and maybe even love as a cosmic force (in one of the script’s goofier moments), it’s amazingly coherent and the three-hour running time flies quickly.

For all the awesome special effects and otherworldly vistas Interstellar brings us to, it’s the unrelenting American spirit that dazzles most.

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