2016 Film Essays

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ and the Need for Humane Media


November is a bleak month. The skies are gray and heavy. It’s when the splendor of fall decays into the dying of winter. It’s a time for the end of the world. And in the the shadow of a shattering election, it feels like we are witnessing the end of an old order. There’s a heavy helplessness felt by a great many right now. Few films have better caught that feeling than Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Two years on, it’s still one of his most divisive films. And it’s more timely than ever in showing that when hope has fled, that means it’s time more than ever to get to work.

Interstellar posits a future where climate change and wars have rendered the planet inhospitable to human life. On a farm belonging to former pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his family, it’s been a slow death, as the soil has become unable to produce anything other than corn. An old drone from the wars leads Cooper and his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) to a secret, underground installation. It’s the remnants of NASA led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), and they’ve been working on a project to find an exoplanet capable of giving Earth’s refugees a new start. A mysterious wormhole has opened, making interstellar travel possible. Scouts have already been sent through it, and Cooper’s proposed mission is to discover if they found habitable worlds. The mission will take decades, possibly more, and Cooper leaves a heartbroken Murph behind. She will grow into adulthood (played by Jessica Chastain), angry at her father but committed to solving the gravity problems that make it impossible to build giant orbiting arks (to house Earth’s population) while the planet succumbs to a global dust bowl.


For a filmmaker as famously cold and clinical as Nolan, even his most ardent fans were thrown for a loop with Interstellar. It’s not a puzzle film that rewards an audience member the satisfaction of “solving” it. Rather, it makes a startling request from modern American audiences: it asks them to feel. In an era where audience members feel “tricked” if a movie gives them an unexpected unemotional reaction (especially those who post endlessly online about fan theories), Interstellar’s humanism and warmth beneath the surface is nothing less than radical. And in a time where sci-fi movies are too often bland action movies with lasers in place of guns, there’s real pleasure in watching a story about professional adults working together to solve problems.

And it’s Interstellar’s willingness to show progress as slow (and with heavy cost) that makes it especially timely. A great many of us feel lost in our own country right now. Overnight, some familiar neighbors revealed themselves to be strangers — people who look at the world so differently that they might as well be from a different planet. Despair and denial are understandable, and easy, responses. In Interstellar, Murph’s brother continues to farm the family homestead even as the crops die and his family develops respiratory conditions from the billowing clouds of choking dust. But in order to survive, people must continue to show up and do the work — work they may not live to see the fruition of. That’s a vital message for now, especially with the comforts of cynicism and the lotus eating pleasures of burying yourself in your Netflix queue, licking at your heels with every horrifying bit of news on Twitter.

Given the amount of work to be done, the weight can be crushing. But it’s all the more reason to keep looking up at the stars. To keep learning. To watch movies like Interstellar and to remember that love cannot save us alone. But love can buffet the work we do. Love can buoy us from getting lost in space and time. Love can be what survives if we show up to do the work.

Jessica Ritchey (@Ruby_Stevens) is a writer based in Maryland. Her writing on film and pop culture has appeared in RogerEbert.com, Flavorwire and Oscilloscope Labs. She loves good scores to terrible movies, and movies where plucky chorus girls stick it to snooty society ladies. She is working on several offline projects at the moment.