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It may not be quite as magical as Dorothy Gale stepping from her sepia-toned farmhouse into the Technicolor burg of Munchkinland, but it comes mighty close.
There is a scene in director Christopher Nolan’s oft-spectacular, doggedly humane space epic “Interstellar” that shifts from deep space back to Earth, from a father who hasn’t aged much physically to a daughter all grown up.
Matthew McConaughey is ace pilot and astronaut Cooper. Jessica Chastain plays adult daughter Murph.
The difference captured in this moment was everything Cooper feared about leaving his heartland farm, son and daughter, for a last-gasp mission to find an inhabitable planet for Earth’s population.
Before this scene, Murph was as an adventuresome girl (Mackenzie Foy). Son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) reflects Cooper’s belief in responsibility. Casey Affleck steps into his dust-covered boots as a struggling farmer in a famine ravaged world.
Blight is gobbling up the last of the world’s food crops. Wheat’s finished. Okra’s just had its final harvest. (Hold your applause.) The Coopers’ acres of corn will slowly die.
Influenced by Ken Burns’ documentary series about the ravages of the Dust Bowl, Nolan weaves in fictionalized video of personal narratives about that man-made ecological disaster. (Yes, the woman who looks like Ellen Burstyn is indeed the award-winning actress.)
In the midst of their dust-coated life, Cooper’s youngest proved to be his partner in scientific revelry, in rule-bending jaunts. It is the two of them who discover that NASA has gone underground. That the space program Cooper had trained for before the world required “caretakers,” not pioneers still exists.
Nolan veteran Michael Caine portrays Professor Brand. He’s working on a project to get humans through a wormhole that has been discovered near Saturn. If and it’s the biggest “if” of all Brand and a crew of astronauts can find a sustaining home. In this sci-fi fable of fathers and daughters, Anne Hathaway plays Brand’s daughter, astronaut Amelia Brand.
Movies journey to space at least the best of them to contemplate Earth. They hurl headlong into the future to ponder the past and the present. We escape into their multiplex fantasies to re-engage emotional realities.
Nolan grasps this better than any purveyor of mass movie entertainment since Steven Spielberg. The director is as compassionate as Spielberg and far more cerebral and bold.
Co-written by director and brother Jonathan Nolan, this three-hour adventure begs repeat visits. While the challenges Coop, Amelia, Doyle (Ben Bentley) Romilly (David Gyasi) and two mechanical colleagues, TARS and CASE, face may be the stuff of sci-fi musings, the quandaries that underlie them resonate: For instance, what do you do when your honorable job no longer serves the needs of the community?
The theory of relativity vetted by executive producer and renowned astrophysicist Kip Thorne meets theories of relatives, of loved ones.
What is love, exactly? In the midst of a deep-space crisis, Amelia riffs on that question with philosophical poetics worth considering.
“Interstellar” is as much about time as it is about space. The Nolans make fine and sorrow-infused sense of time for the spaceship crew. An hour in space is 7 years on Earth. Who will be lost in that span?
“Interstellar” is as cinematically epic as it is dramatically intimate. A wide and high wave of dust bears down on a small town. On go the dust masks, the goggles, like a duck-and-cover, drop-and-roll routine. A mountainous wall of water crests, making a spaceship a vulnerable dingy. A frozen cloud is a thing of wonder with dangerous edges. Could a jagged, icy tundra be our new home?
Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema use a great number of close-ups, making the human drama old-fashioned, even melodramatic. Cinema’s special gift gave us larger-than-life movie stars. Here the close-ups beseech us to identify. To find our place in the heroic.
As desperate as the situation is and there is ego and arrogance, good intentions and mistakes made throughout the film has a hushed, persistent beat of optimism.
“We’ll find a way. We always have,” says Cooper.
“Interstellar” keeps us guessing whether this gift for surviving has finally run out.