• Science
  • movies

Interstellar, Where No Movie Has Gone Before

16 minute read

There is no reason at all you should care about the universe. For one thing, it doesn’t care a whit about you.

It’s huge, it’s cold, it’s soulless. It’s possessed of forces that would rip you to ribbons the second you dared to step off the tiny planetary beachhead it has permitted us. What’s more, it completely defies understanding, at least for anyone who’s not fluent in the language of singularities and space-time and wormholes and all the rest.

But never mind, because we believe in it all–and oh, how we love it. Big cosmology has become our secular religion, a church even atheists can join. It addresses many of the same questions religion does: Why are we here? How did it all begin? What comes next? And even if you can barely understand the answers when you get them, well, you’ve heard of a thing called faith, right?

Like religion, cosmology has its high priests: Einstein and Hawking–people who, like Muhammad and Jesus, don’t even need second names. It has lesser priests as well: Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson–the great communicators. It has its storytellers too, none more powerful than those in Hollywood. And no moviemaker is currently more influential than Christopher Nolan, director of the coming-soon, don’t-miss, shrouded-in-secrecy Interstellar.

The premise of Interstellar is simple enough. Earth is dying from an unnamed blight, and it’s the job of a small band of astronauts (led by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway) and scientists (Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine) to look for a new world to colonize before it’s too late. So far, that could be the stuff of a Bruce Willis joy ride–a rocket-jock movie in which lots of things blow up and lots of people die.

But Interstellar has bigger ambitions–ambitions that go hard at the physics and at those cosmic questions. That’s not easy if you want to keep your movie entertaining. I watched Ron Howard successfully wrestle with the same challenges as he was making Apollo 13, a movie based on the book I co-authored with mission commander Jim Lovell. In some ways Nolan has it easier, because a sci-fi movie can take liberties a nonfiction tale like Apollo 13 couldn’t.

But in some ways he has it harder. It’s an awfully slippery slope once you start getting glib with your physics, and what starts with a Saturn V can end up with warp drive, and no one takes you seriously anymore. “[You can use] science fiction as an escape from the constraints of reality,” Nolan said during a sit-down with TIME, along with McConaughey, Chastain and Hathaway, in Los Angeles on Oct. 22. “But what we’re trying to do is observe those constraints and then move to the most extreme places we can with them.”

That opens up lots of narrative possibilities. Since time moves slower for a space traveler than it does for people on Earth, what of the commander (McConaughey) when he takes off on his humanity-saving mission? To him it’s an extended business trip, but by the time he gets home, his 10-year-old daughter could be middle-aged. If you fancy a wormhole in your film, exactly what should it look like? If you want a black hole, how does a real one behave? A deep dive into those questions isn’t typical popcorn-feature fare, but our appetite for it appears infinite.

Nolan believes our fascination is rooted in the fact that we can gaze at the universe we wonder about: it’s visible, if unreachable. “You can actually look up at the sky and see this stuff. That’s the prime thing,” says Nolan. “Looking up at the stars is the primal connection.”

That’s part of it, surely, but the other part is that unlike the millennia of humans who have previously gazed skyward, people of the modern era are actually puzzling out the cosmological physics. “The question I get more than any other when I talk about being in space is, ‘Did you see a black hole?'” says retired astronaut Marsha Ivins, a five-time shuttle veteran who served as a technical consultant on Interstellar. “Black holes are the dinosaurs of our era. If you could make a black-hole plush toy, it would be a big seller.”

So great is our hunger for a science film that can both entertain and edify that in the same week that Interstellar opens, so does David Marsh’s deeply moving film The Theory of Everything, a biopic about Stephen Hawking, which deals with much of the same science as Interstellar while telling Hawking’s personal tale. But the films are also linked in a less obvious way. Hawking’s lifetime goal, as described both in the movie and his books, has been to write a single, elegant equation that unites the large-scale universe–up at the level where stars and planets and galaxies live–with the quantum, or the province of bosons and quarks and other subatomic particles. Nolan is trying to do much the same, only in cinematic and human terms.

Chilly Man, Hot Ideas

You could be forgiven for not liking Chris Nolan right away. Film-industry shorthand for him is that he’s cold, and his critics say his movies–which include the phantasmagoric dreamscape Inception and the Batman Dark Knight trilogy–are cold as well. It’s true that in the casual world of Hollywood, where every day on the set is dress-down day, Nolan is famously buttoned-up–rarely seen without a suit and tie. He once told London’s Sunday Telegraph that it’s a habit he adopted out of respect for the crew. That may be true, but it does nothing to make him seem more approachable. He has no cell phone and doesn’t use email either–again, either pose or preference, but hardly the behavior of a man who wants to be reached.

But the “cold” label doesn’t bear close scrutiny. He is a father of four, married to a woman he met when he was in college; his wife Emma Thomas has been the co-producer of all his movies. And he can be playful with his stars, laughing easily and intimately with them, and he takes care to hand out credit whenever he can.

To keep Interstellar scientifically honest, Nolan signed on Kip Thorne, the celebrated theoretical physicist from Caltech who literally wrote the book–numerous books, actually–on much of the cosmology referenced in the movie. So central has Thorne been to cosmological science that he appears as a character in The Theory of Everything too. With such an eminence on the Interstellar set, the cast had to get up to speed on the science fast, all except Hathaway, who came to the movie already interested in and conversant with cosmology. But when she talks about that fact, she is almost apologetic, describing her understanding as “a grain of sand on Kip Thorne’s beach of knowledge.”

Nolan will have none of that. “You shouldn’t be so shy about your interest in science,” he says. “According to Kip, you know a lot about it. He’s on record.” Hathaway demurs: “I was very poor at math and science, but as I got older, it did start to make more sense.”

When it comes to the screenplay, Nolan is equally generous. One of the niftier details in the script involves the names of Hathaway’s and McConaughey’s characters–Brand and Cooper, the names of real astronauts. In McConaughey’s case the name is actually twice resonant, a hat tip to both NASA’s Gordon Cooper, whom everyone called Gordo, and to Hollywood’s Gary, whom people called Coop. The characters in Interstellar address McConaughey’s Cooper in the same abbreviated way, a little wormhole of its own that neatly links the lone commander stepping forward to save the planet in Interstellar and the lone sheriff doing the same for Hadleyville in High Noon. Sweet touch, but Nolan deflects credit to his brother Jonathan, who co-wrote the script.

The science, to hear cosmologists tell it, can be spot-on too. For all the merits of last year’s space adventure Gravity, it went soft on that part–particularly when it came to orbital mechanics, with the entire movie turning on an accident that could never happen. But for Interstellar, Thorne’s equations were even incorporated into the special effects to ensure that things look the way they should. “Kip has calculated the ray tracings going through the wormhole geometry,” says Princeton cosmologist J. Richard Gott. “What he determined is that a wormhole should look like a mirrored ball that might be sitting in your garden, except that when you looked through it you’d see a garden on Alpha Centauri.” And in Nolan’s hands, it does look like that.

It’s hard not to admire the respect Nolan has for the nonfiction history that informs this fictional film as well. At one point, the Interstellar plot calls for the spacecraft to begin spinning at 67 revolutions per minute, a speed that can lead to vertigo, and we see McConaughey’s and Chastain’s characters struggling not to black out. It’s a beautifully shot scene, and it could stand on that all by itself. But if you’re deep in NASA geekdom–which Nolan knows many of his viewers will be–the moment recalls a similar spin-up at almost exactly the same 67 r.p.m. aboard Gemini 8 in 1966, a mishap that nearly cost the lives of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott. That parallel is no accident.

“I did add that to the script based on that Gemini story,” Nolan says. “Those are the missions we kept coming back to. That program felt the most raw and experimental.”

McConaughey’s performance plays into that too–the pilot out in here-be-dragons territory, trying whatever he can to keep his mission going. It’s similar to the way Lovell often described the Apollo 13 experience to me–turning over card after card in a mortal game of solitaire and playing each one the best way he could.

“Every hero doesn’t go do this great big hero thing,” McConaughey says. “They do the simple thing over and over and over. And they have endurance and they have persistence and they stick to it.” That hero remains necessary to human affairs whether he–or she–is a Western pioneer or a space explorer. “No matter how much technology has evolved,” says McConaughey, “it comes back to human will, human chutzpah, human resilience.”

There’s a similar authenticity to the part of Interstellar that takes place on Earth. The scourge that’s killing the planet wipes out crops and turns the world into one great dust bowl. Nolan employs the documentary trope here, with a few elderly earthlings looking into the camera and describing the wasteland their world has become. If it sounds eerily like those actors know exactly what they’re talking about, it’s because they do–and most of them aren’t actors. They’re survivors of the real 1930s Dust Bowl who were originally interviewed by Ken Burns for his 2012 documentary on those plague years.

“I was watching it for research and was so moved by it,” Nolan says. “We could not in the film make it as bad as it really was or people wouldn’t believe it.”

But the Interstellar dust bowl was bad enough, and that made the scene in which McConaughey leaves to save the world the most wrenching moment in the movie. No fool that 10-year-old daughter of his–played by Mackenzie Foy–who must stay behind on the earthly wasteland. She knows that Dad may be gone for decades. Dad, meanwhile, a frustrated rocketeer who was grounded after the blight hit and government space programs became an unaffordable luxury, suddenly sees his ticket to ride. So is it selfish to leave? (Yes.) But isn’t it selfless too, since he just might save the world–including his child? (Yes again.) Both father and daughter know all those painful truths, and call the director cold if you want, but the scene absolutely scalds.

“Cooper, in my mind, felt like he got screwed out of being what he was put here to be,” says McConaughey. “Now he has a chance to go experience his dream again, and on top of that, oh, he may save the species. But he also has to make his daughter feel safe. People will take action if it’s personal–in their house, in their kitchen.”

That dual perspective–the cosmos and the kitchen–is a big part of what sets Interstellar apart from the other movies to which it will be compared, particularly Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It speaks to the thematic hugeness and the emotional aridness of 2001 that the movie’s most memorable character is the HAL 9000 computer, who may have betrayed the crew but still breaks your heart when he pleads for forgiveness as astronaut Dave Bowman is shutting him down. Interstellar suffers from no such bloodlessness.

Chastain’s character spends much of the movie in a state of coiled–and sometimes uncoiled–rage. But when she’s at her blackboard, working on her equations, she relaxes–even exults. “She’s protected by the numbers,” Chastain says. “It’s an obsession for her. It’s a way not to feel, and it’s how she realizes that science and the spiritual world are the same thing.”

Nolan doesn’t hesitate to call that spirituality religion, and Hathaway, the science student in the Interstellar cast, sees things that way too. “I might botch the quote,” she says, “but I just kept thinking about Einstein saying, ‘Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.'” For the record, she didn’t botch the quote.

Keeping It Real

Hathaway’s perfect recall of Einstein is a reminder that movies have become a real source of scientific inquiry for millions of people in an age when science itself can be too baffling and complicated to comprehend. Which is why the way Nolan treats the science is so reassuring. It wasn’t just the wormhole that was handled well; it was the business of time dilation too. When the astronauts make a brief stop on a planet that is so close to the gravity well of a black hole that one hour spent on its surface is the equivalent of seven years on Earth, the device isn’t placed in the script just to create don’t-waste-a-second tension–though it does. It’s because that’s how the science would really work.

“One of the defining features of a black hole is that it imprints a gravitational field around it,” says cosmologist and best-selling author Brian Greene of Columbia University. “And gravity doesn’t just pull on matter–it pulls on time itself.” You can think of space and you can think of time, but if you think of them together as the horizontal and vertical threads in a weave, you realize that you can’t stretch one without stretching the other.

Just as true, if far trickier, is another aspect of black holes. It’s received wisdom that what happens in a black hole stays in a black hole. But suppose your plot requires information in the form of some kind of energy to come back out or the human species dies? As it happens, there’s a scientifically honest way to do that, thanks to something called Hawking radiation, which lets telltale particles break free, providing clues to what’s going on within.

“Information about whatever went into the black hole–stars, planets, Buicks, typewriters–is shredded,” says Princeton’s Gott. “But the Hawking radiation comes back out, so some of that information could come out too.” This left Nolan free to play within the mysterious world inside the black hole, and he does–to dizzying effect.

Closing the Gap

A critical part of what is likely to be the success of Interstellar is the mind-virus quality of so many of Nolan’s films. It was impossible to watch Inception and then go to bed without the mysteries of the dream world you were about to enter noodling at your thoughts. The same was true of your awareness of the fragility of memory–and the destruction of the self that can result when it’s lost–that came from watching 2000’s Memento, a mystery involving a man with anterograde amnesia.

Interstellar will unavoidably help us look at the cosmos more as cathedral than void–a place to contemplate the riddles of space and time, yes, but life, death and love too. That’s explicit in the movie. “My character is someone who tries to connect with love through science,” says Chastain. “And when she does, she blossoms.”

And it’s implicit too. It’s not for nothing that Hathaway’s astronaut character is a trained biologist and not, say, an engineer. She’s engaged with the science of life. “It sounds like, I don’t know, such a hippie thing,” she says. “But go stare at a leaf. You can draw molecular charts, you can talk about photosynthesis or decomposition. But just staring at it is such a treat.”

Both of those imponderables–the science and the treat–are things we can rarely wrestle with on our own. So we refract them through our philosophy and our faith and our equations too, trying to tease out the colors that will make them make sense. We need all the encouragement we can get to keep asking those questions, because their complexity can sometimes make us duck them entirely.

Long ago, in May 1969–more than a year before Nolan was born–the crew of Apollo 10 was orbiting the moon, preparing to take the lunar module out for a final test drive low over its jagged mountains in preparation for the first landing, which was just two months away. The night before that hair-raising ride, astronaut Gene Cernan looked out his spacecraft’s window at the clay-gray moon 60 miles below, and his thoughts and words were captured by the onboard voice recorder that operated throughout the entirety of all the Apollo missions.

“Where do you suppose a planet like this comes from?” he asked. “Do you suppose it broke away from the–away from the Earth like a lot of people say?”

“Don’t ask me, babe,” his crewmate John Young answered. “I ain’t no cosmologist. I don’t care nothing about that.”

“It sure looks different,” Cernan said, trailing off.

Cernan’s question hung unanswered in the air, and before long the men turned to other, more immediate matters. That chasm–between the machinist and the poet, the engineer and the philosopher–is one that has always existed between and within all of us. It is the job of stories like Interstellar to help us close the gap.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com