A character named Cobb in Christopher Nolan’s little-seen debut feature, Following, is a thief. He breaks into people’s homes and takes what possessions he can sell. But he’s also an anthropologist, a self-styled student of the human condition. While working with an apprentice of sorts, he explains that everyone has "a box."
The box typically contains nothing of monetary value: "See? Photos, odd bits of paper, worthless plastic jewelry." Rather, the box is "an unconscious collection. A display. … Each object showing something about the person, together adding up to an illustration of their personality. We’ve all got something of the artist inside of us, even if it’s unconscious."
Nolan’s box is his filmography. It is littered with concerns about identity—our conception of who we are, both to ourselves and to the outside world. Another Cobb, this one in Inception, is taken with the power of ideas to mold our self-conception, going so far as to create a box in his own mind filled with memories that define who he was.
Memento’s Leonard, unable to manufacture new memories thanks to a head injury, feels his sense of identity slipping away. "I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there."
Nolan’s greatest achievement at this point, the Dark Knight trilogy, deals with identity on both the micro and macro level. Bruce Wayne’s internal struggle between his desire to live his life and his duty to enforce justice drives the action, reflecting Gotham’s own struggle to discover, and maintain, a civic identity. Is it a city filled with people who will eat each other when the chips are down, as the Joker says? Or one in which Batman can serve as a symbol, inspiring hope and order in equal measure?
Interstellar takes this struggle and deals with it on the largest scale imaginable. It is concerned not only with the nature of the individual and the nature of society, but also with the very nature of humanity.
"We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible," Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper intoned in the film’s teaser trailer. "And we count these moments. These moments where we dared to aim higher. To break barriers. To reach for the stars. To make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten. That we are still pioneers. That we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us. That our destiny lies above us."
Coop’s world—our world at some point in the not-too-distant future—is dying. "The blight," a parasite that feeds on the nitrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere, is wiping out crops. Wheat’s gone. Okra too. Corn is hanging on, but only just so.
In response to this plague, Earth’s leaders have banded together, but not to achieve anything great. Not to save the population. Their goal is merely to subsist, to scratch out a living as the end comes. The very idea of greatness is terrifying to these managers of decline. The federal government mandates that children be taught the moon landing was faked, and that the space race was nothing more than a lie designed to bankrupt the Soviet Union.
"Your daughter’s generation will be the last to survive on Earth," Professor Brand (Michael Caine) tells Coop, warning that the final generation of humanity will have to choose between starving to death and choking on a blight-altered atmosphere. The only way for Coop, an experimental-pilot-turned-farmer, to save his family, and thus all families, is an expedition beyond our solar system—indeed, beyond our very galaxy—to find a new home for humanity.
Interstellar never quite reaches the majestic heights it must to justify such a bold thematic statement. The comparisons to 2001 are off in a very important way: This is a talky film, one that doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with just letting the action play out onscreen and trusting the audience to pull its (not-terribly-esoteric) meaning together. Over-reliance on exposition has always been a bit of a weakness for Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, who co-wrote. But the verbiage is especially dense in this film.
That density makes the issues with the sound mix especially daunting. We often lose snippets of dialogue here and there to audio effects and swells in the music. Some of that is undoubtedly intentional. We are made to feel the roaring of rockets deep in our chests. We are made to feel overpowered by the oppressive volume.
Still, it all gets a bit annoying, especially since the movie is such a technical marvel in other respects. Interstellar’s epic nature is well reflected in its imagery. You should see it on the biggest screen possible.
And you should see it, my quibbles notwithstanding. Anchored by McConaughey’s down-home turn as the embodiment of humanity’s hopes, Interstellar never feels overly long despite its almost three hour running time. It also packs an emotional wallop, tying Coop’s urge to save humanity firmly to his need to save his daughter, and giving the predations of relativistic time distortion a deep emotional resonance.