Near the midway point in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, there's a simple but remarkable shot that seems to embody everything the always-ambitious filmmaker is aiming for. A NASA spacecraft on a crucial mission is approaching its destination—a wormhole near Saturn—but for a moment on this journey, the craft and the people on it aren't the center of the universe. The ship is rendered simply as a tiny spot of light, sliding beneath Saturn's massive rings—and, watching it on an IMAX screen, I actually found myself gasping out loud. In an era where we might think we've seen everything possible on a movie screen, from dinosaurs to superheroes to a hundred different urban apocalypses, Nolan accomplishes something fairly miraculous: He reminds us what it's like to go to the movies and experience not just spectacle, but awe.
At its core, Interstellar is about awe, about respect for the forces of life that we barely understand yet depend upon for our survival. He wants you to feel that sense of astonishment, that realization that we have so much still to discover about the universe and about ourselves. And by God, you will feel it if he needs to shake it into you for three solid hours.
Nolan—working from a screenplay written with his regular collaborator, his brother Jonathan—does a wonderfully efficient job setting up the premise on which he hangs all these notions. In an unspecified near future, the Earth is teetering on the brink of collapse, with "Blight" gradually killing off edible crops and rendering the atmosphere less and less breathable. Faced with the impending extinction of humanity, a secret NASA program has been tasked with finding a new, habitable home planet, somewhere through that mysterious Saturn-proximate wormhole that may have been placed there by an unknown extraterrestrial "they." And one-time 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 for a trip from which he might never return.
Plenty of fantasy/speculative fiction movies could take a lesson from Nolan in terms of the knack for world-building he shows here, creating a vision of a planet where technological innovation for its own sake has become the scapegoat for societal near-collapse. He's content to make reference to the strife that came before a massive agrarian reorganization, and not to waste time on the obligatory training montage before Cooper and his team—Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi)—take off. You don't often think of 170-minute movies as lean, but that's what Interstellar is.
It's also a story firmly grounded in an almost corny can-do spirit of American flags planted on distant heavenly bodies. As clear as Interstellar makes it that its world's crises are of human invention, it's even clearer that its solutions are similarly within our power. The "ghosts" that young Murph initially imagines are sending her messages ultimately get a much more concrete explanation; even the movie's "villains" are people who are just examples of a twisting of our motivating survival instinct. This is the kind of profoundly humanist science fiction you don't see all that much anymore, the kind that sings with the amazing things of which we are capable.
There's just one problem: Nolan keeps singing so long, and so loud. As popular as it has become in certain cinephile circles to mock the grandiose Hans Zimmer scores in Nolan's films, that music is merely emblematic of what Nolan sometimes does on screen with his thematic material. Interstellar turns into a tale not just about a single Big Idea, but about every possible Big Idea: about the mysteries of time and space, about mortality, about the power of love, about the bonds of family. Its emotional beats leave you almost no time to breathe, a multi-hour, cross-cutting crescendo that's as exhausting as it is thrilling.
When it is thrilling, Interstellar is too special to dismiss; this is an IMAX experience far more enveloping than most. Nolan's ambitions tell us something we need to hear about humanity—something that both exalts and humbles us in our relationship with the natural world—but it's okay sometimes not to yell it. We can hear it just as powerfully in the silent flight of four people on one small, fragile dot of light.