Christopher Nolan’s Sci-Fi Masterpiece Has Never Been Topped
When it comes to great space travel epics, this one is in a category all by itself.
In most serious discussions of science fiction, the concept of “world-building” gets thrown around probably more than it should. But, whether it’s a novel, a TV series, or a film, the only important rule of sci-fi world-building is how fast you can convince the audience that your sci-fi world is real. Case in point: Less than 15 minutes into Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar, you know pretty much everything you need to know about this future world, and you’re utterly captivated by it. Well before Oppenheimer but right after the conclusion of his Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan gave us a nearly perfect science fiction masterpiece. And almost a decade later, when it comes to films that take place in outer space that aren’t part of a massive franchise, no other sci-fi movie has touched Interstellar.
Interstellar opens on a near-future Earth in which climate change has wiped out a huge portion of the population and left the vast majority of humanity working as farmers in an effort to regrow food to survive. Matthew McConaughey stars as Joseph “Coop” Cooper, a guy who was a NASA test pilot before the entire agency went into hiding because of shifting global politics. Jarringly, Interstellar tackles the idea that in the face of a worldwide catastrophe, government propaganda might encourage people to believe space travel was not only useless but also fake. In an early scene, Coop confronts his daughter’s teachers over altered textbooks, which claim the moon landing was faked. The teachers believe that getting kids excited about space travel is bad because there are more pressing concerns on Earth.
Coop isn’t having it, but brilliantly, the audience is a little conflicted. Obviously, nobody wants to believe in conspiracy theories that are patently untrue, but the audience also doesn’t want Coop to leave his daughter Murphy or son Tom. Very quickly, the idea of Coop leaving Earth worries you, but when Murph and Coop discover an underground version of NASA — one that needs pilots — the movie quickly lets you know where it’s going. This isn’t just going to be a movie about space travel. It’s going to be a film about generations of people trying to find a new planet to replace Earth, and these young kids you see at the beginning of the movie — Mackenzie Foy as Murphy and Timothée Chalamet as Tom — are going to grow up.
But, the themes of family and intergenerational thinking aren’t the only things that keep Interstellar grounded. Of all the sci-fi movies made in the 21st century, this one likely holds the gold standard for scientific accuracy. The story was originally conceived by physicist Kip Thorne and producer Lynda Obst, who had both worked on Contact. The screenplay was later written by Jonathan Nolan, and then, his brother Christopher Nolan added the final touches when he became the director. Both Nolans did extensive research on real space travel and space science while Thorne remained a huge influence on the film. The depiction of a black hole in the film — utterly central to the plot of Interstellar — was also one of the first times that a black hole was depicted somewhat accurately in visual science fiction. This black hole design, which quasi-accurately depicts the event horizon of a singularity, later appeared in various other TV and film sci-fi, most notably, in various newer Star Treks, including Discovery, Strange New Worlds, and the opening sequence of Lower Decks.
Speaking of black holes and their secrets, revealing the various twists and turns in Interstellar will almost certainly ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the movie today. Yes, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the younger Chalamet and Foy versions of Tom and Murph become Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain as time passes, and yes, there’s a really good sci-fi reason why Matthew McConaughey doesn’t visually age. But again, revealing those details, even this many years after the film’s release feels unfair. Like so many of Christopher Nolan’s best films, the emotional ways in which the story turns are connected to the specifics. Some might argue that Nolan gets away with conflating emotion and math in order to make the story work, but when that kind of mashup works as well as it does in Interstellar, it’s hard to complain.
In addition to McConaughey himself, much of the intersection between the human heart and cold, rational space science can be found in Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Dr. Brand, a character who serves as an early foil to Coop. But without her, the rest of the movie simply doesn’t happen. Hathaway gives an understated and utterly realistic performance throughout, making Interstellar one of her best films to date, and one for which she was only nominated for one award, the Saturn.
The Oscars didn’t bother giving either Nolan brother a nod, not in the writing or directing departments. Matthew McConaughey was also overlooked by the big awards, which is shocking, considering how scenes of him crying in this film have become the internet’s go-to symbol of someone experiencing strong emotions while watching something. When you watch this movie today, you will be shocked, and perhaps a little angry that McConaughey wasn’t formally praised more for his performance.
In 2023, it’s undeniable that Christopher Nolan is one of the greatest filmmakers alive. The legacy of Oppenheimer seems already on a path toward, a big, modern, and important classic film. But back in 2014, it felt like both Christopher and his brother Johnathan were okay with making a smaller movie, one that might not have been an instant crowd-pleaser. Despite its epic premise, Interstellar is an intimate movie, one that isn’t afraid to take its time and make you think. There’s been no other science fiction movie remotely this serious and grounded since, and it’s possible there may not be another movie to top Interstellar for a very, very long time.