The Earth is dying. This message is reinforced in every terrestrial scene in Christopher Nolan's space epic about death and destiny, "Interstellar." If it isn't a character discussing blighted crop harvests, we're looking at personal possessions caked in dust or children choking on dirt. Everything fucking sucks, everything's broken, and the past is literally poison.
You get a nice sense of just how screwed humanity is during a parent-teacher conference early in the film where astronaut-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, rocking a fighter-pilot flat-top) is told to measure his expectations for the academic success of his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) in an economy concerned only with scraping by day to day. Cooper is even chastised for giving his daughter, Murphy (MacKenzie Foy here, Jessica Chastain later, and Ellen Burstyn way way way later), a science textbook to bring to class and is calmly informed that the moon landing was Cold War-era propaganda. We never really get a complete picture of what's going on here, but we're given enough to put it together. Cooper and his children are "a caretaker generation" tasked with keeping their heads down and tending to the Earth's dwindling crops.
"Interstellar" finally kicks into gear when we get to NASA or, rather, an all-new, all-secret underground NASA Illuminati headed up by Cooper's old friend Professor Brand (dependable old-man Nolan-movie-crier Michael Caine), his scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and an unnamed plutocrat played by celebrated character-actor William Devane. Following a series of bizarre, distinctly unscientific clues to a remote military compound, Cooper is chosen by God, Michael Caine, and secret NASA to captain a four-person crew into the heart of a wormhole that leads, "The Dating Game"-style, to three potential nu-earths on the far side of the universe.
Charged with saving the species, Cooper is torn between this call to adventure piloting NASA's Endurance spacecraft and his own duties as a father. Due to the conditions of his galaxy-spanning mission, Cooper won't be around to witness or guide the best years of his children's lives. Nolan gets a rap for being cold and aloof as a filmmaker because none of you are willing to admit we cried at the end of "The Dark Knight Rises," but more so than in his previous works, "Interstellar" has a strong emotional core, concerned with parenthood and the heavy burden of living up to the expectations of your children. In one scene, McConaughey drives away from his angry daughter toward his destiny, and his eyes well with tears and our hearts collectively break for him.
Once "Interstellar" leaves orbit, it gets real crazy real quick. Nolan's big-budget background is largely in grounded, practical effects, but he avails himself well in the film's ambitious space sequences. Upon the Endurance's initial descent into a black hole, people start shaking hands with ghosts and our stomachs turn as the starscape spins and shifts. Nolan proceeds to pile on an escalating series of time-related stakes and the movie's first planet-side trip ends disastrously as the crew desperately tries and fails to avoid a series of impossibly gigantic waves.
"Interstellar" also has a pronouncedly novelistic approach that splits the movie between two narratives: Cooper in space and a now-adult Murphy back on Earth, both of them desperate to save the human race. Nolan weaves the two threads around each other, with the events in one half often mirroring the other. Lies, especially lies told from parent to child, are an important theme here and Chastain's performance as a now-grown Murphy faced with the prospect that her father may have abandoned her to die is a heady mix of desperation, hope, and anger. This is all before we get to the film's balls-out insane MC Escher by-way-of the-power-of-love final set piece, by the way.
Since Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" was released, great directors have all tried their hand at a version of the seminal, 1968 sci-fi (see "Solaris," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Contact," "Prometheus"). And Nolan is aware of his film's place as the latest in this line of succession, but "Interstellar" offers up a mesmerizing and heartfelt space survival epic with one significant difference: It is more interested in everyday human bonds than mankind's ultimate cosmic meaning.