Interstellar achieves a rare feat for a blockbuster. Like the best science fiction, it manages to tell a distinctly human story while also holding up a mirror to our societal ills. But it's also a film that isn't afraid to explore real science -- the plot largely hinges on its space-time dynamic, and it does so while plumbing the depths of human sentiment. At its core, Interstellar drives home the idea that we humans are curious creatures, and inherently explorers.
That's an important point to make today, when sending people into space almost feels like something we simply can't do any more. Just look at recent headline news: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crash and Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket explosion in late October were particularly tragic in that respect. NASA's budget has been aggressively cut over the past decade, forcing the agency to explore private/public partnerships. The space shuttle has been decommissioned for years. And the most recent space buzz has been more focused on mining asteroids, rather than figuring out a way to easily get people back to the moon or to Mars.
At its core, Interstellar drives home the idea that we humans are curious creatures, and inherently explorers.
Outer space now almost seems off limits. It's a theme director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception), never one to shy away from loftier fare, has baked into the film, albeit under the guise of Hollywood spectacle.
In the world of Interstellar, the technological revolution has collapsed, forcing humanity to revert to a mainly agrarian state. Massive dust storms are now such a regular occurrence on the planet that people cope using survival techniques adapted from the Dust Bowl. What's more, humanity's past technological accomplishments are so far removed from the present day that those feats are misconstrued as lies. To wit, even educated professionals and schoolbooks say the moon landing was faked. Pretending we put a man on the moon to bankrupt the Soviet Union, it seems, is far more digestible than the fact that we actually planted a flag there.
It's a future where the film's hero, Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), clearly doesn't belong. A former engineer turned reluctant farmer, Cooper stumbles upon the clandestine remnants of NASA, which has spent years working in secret in the hopes of once again reaching space. It's there he learns that Earth's fate is far worse than he could have imagined. And the only hope for saving humankind involves a wormhole and a long-shot mission to a far-off solar system that could support life.
Sending people into space almost feels like something we simply can't do any more.
The problem for Cooper is that saving the world means leaving his two kids behind with no certain return date. And even if he does make it back, space-time distortion means he'd end up missing decades of their lives while staying around the same age. Knowing this, Cooper embarks on the mission anyway and embraces his role as explorer rather than "caretaker," as one character describes their generation's lot.
Though we never learn the cause of Earth's malaise in the film, it's not hard to imagine that bleak future caused by a slew of problems we're facing today; issues like climate change, rampant overpopulation and global pandemics. By not spelling things out, Nolan sets up the film as a reflection of whatever collective fears we have about where our society is headed.
It's hard not to feel a twinge of regret for our own sad state of spacefaring while watching the film. Today, we're relying on private companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Mars One to push the boundaries of space travel. NASA, at this point, is mostly focused on doing the best it can with unmanned missions. On the bright side, however, we're now seeing other countries pick up the space exploration slack, with China's recent moon rover landing and India's successful Mars orbital mission.
Interstellar is a reminder that we might want to spend more time looking up and wondering what's out there, rather than down at the phones in our hands.
Interstellar doesn't shy away from the sacrifices associated with treading brazenly into the unknown: People die, often suddenly and unsympathetically. That inevitable loss is something true explorers have to accept and embrace. By embarking on a journey, you may never see your loved ones again; there's a chance you'll be stuck all alone on the frontier. It's a measure of risk versus reward. That's the point Nolan's Interstellar strives to make: Our world was built on the back of fearless exploration.
Whereas with Inception, Nolan dove into our psyches, Interstellar looks to the greater mysteries of the world around us. It's a reminder that we might want to spend more time looking up and wondering what's out there, rather than down at the phones in our hands.
[Image credit: Lifestyle pictures/Alamy]