Celebrating the feats humans can achieve.
Near the midpoint in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, there's a simple yet remarkable shot. A NASA spacecraft approaches its destination, a wormhole near Saturn. For a moment, the craft and its passengers aren't the center of the universe. The ship is rendered as a tiny spot of light sliding beneath Saturn's massive rings. I gasped out loud as I watched this scene unfold on an IMAX screen. In an era when movie screens are littered with dinosaurs and superheroes, Nolan reminds us what it's like to experience awe in addition to spectacle.
At its core, Interstellar is about awe, and respect for forces of life we barely understand yet depend upon. He wants us to feel that sense of astonishment, that realization that we still have much to discover about the universe and ourselves.
Working from a screenplay written with his brother Jonathan, Nolan efficiently sets up his premise. In the near future, Earth is on the verge of collapse, with "blight" killing crops and rendering the atmosphere unbreathable. A secret NASA program has been tasked with finding a new home planet, on the other side of a mysterious Saturn-proximate wormhole that may have been created by a group of unknown extraterrestrials. Pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is the perfect choice to lead the mission, even if it means traumatizing his 10-year-old daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), by leaving her behind.
Nolan shows that technological innovation for its own sake has become the scapegoat for society's sad state. He doesn't waste time on the obligatory training montage before Cooper and his team -- Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi) -- take off. We don't often think of a three-hour movie as lean, but that's what Interstellar is.
The story emanates a can-do spirit illustrated by American flags planted on distant heavenly bodies. It's a bit corny, but somehow it works. In addition to emphasizing that the world's crises are caused by humans, Interstellar hints that the solutions are within our reach. Even the villains are people who've taken humankind's survival instinct in an unfortunate direction. This is the kind of profoundly humanist science-fiction you don't see much anymore, the kind that celebrates the amazing feats humans can achieve.
For the most part, Nolan shares this important message about humanity in a graceful way, but sometimes he shouts too loudly. The message is just as powerful in that silent flight of four people on one small, fragile dot of light.