Interstellar is a rare hard sci-fi movie.
There has been a sad dearth of hard science fiction movies in recent memory. While comic book and alien invasion movies and the like have been proliferating (and some of them have been very good), there haven't been as many movies that have been willing to take science fiction subject matter seriously. The only mainstream releases that I can think of off the top of my head are District Nine, Inception, and Gravity, neither of which really wowed me. District Nine was alright, but I felt that its racism allegory fell flat since the aliens themselves considered the majority of their species to be mindless automatons. Inception was a fun ride, but nowhere near as clever or complicated as people made it out to be. And Gravity wasn't really "science fiction"; more like just "space drama" disaster porn.
That leaves the indie movie Moon and the surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as the only really good examples of high-brow science fiction that I can think of - and maybe Edge of Tomorrow can count as "medium-brow".
Hard science fiction in the vein of 2001: a Space Odyssey
That's why I've been very excited about Christopher Nolan's new movie, Interstellar. It had all the trappings of a modern-day 2001: A Space Odyssey, which (confusing psychedelic ending aside - read the book!) is one of the best hard science fiction movies ever made. Interstellar definitely lived up to this expectation, but it's a much gloomier and more depressing epic than Arthur Clark and Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece.
The space travel plot is, in fact, almost identical to 2001. A crew must travel in hypersleep in an experimental spacecraft to investigate an anomaly around Saturn (the original 2001 book placed the monolith in orbit around Saturn, but it was changed to Jupiter for the film). The sleeping crew is even overseen by intelligent robots. The rising action has conspiratorial undertones, and the climax dives deep into metaphysical fringe science.
Interstellar [LEFT] is very similar to Arthur Clark and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey [RIGHT]
in its detail-oriented depiction of space travel.
A lot of the science in the first half of the movie is solid, and it's actually integral to the narrative and drama between the characters. The second half takes a lot more creative license for the sake of plot. There are significant issues with relativity with regard to a black hole, metaphysical stuff about a "ghost", and some ham-fisted mumbo jumbo about the power of love transcending time and space. But despite some silly science, there's a very real possibility that audiences might leave the theater with a better understanding and appreciation of relativity.
So Interstellar definitely earns its comparisons to 2001, as well as similar movies like Carl Sagan's Contact, which also all ended with questionably metaphysical resolutions. But Interstellar isn't nearly as good.
Not your father's optimistic sci-fi view of the future
Where it really differentiates itself from 2001 and other classic science fiction films is in tone. This is a much gloomier, pessimistic, and more depressing movie. This, unfortunately, seems to be an ongoing trend in science fiction these days: instead of exploring the galaxy for the sake of exploration and curiosity, it's a begrudging last resort to save humanity from itself. Science fiction of the sixties and seventies was often optimistic, depicting a humanity that had transcended many of its contemporary woes and started looking to the stars simply to expand its knowledge and further better itself.
Modern science fiction almost always depicts a humanity on the edge of self-induced disaster, or the victim of a merciless alien invasion. Space travel and exploration are thus an ends to a means intended simply to save ourselves from destruction. The satisfaction of fulfilling our intellectual desires are secondary or incidental - if present at all.
This isn't necessarily a fault of the movie. And in fact, it does work in the movie's favors in some ways. While imminent death is certainly a valid motivator for buckling down and doing science, and it works as a narrative device, I miss the movies in which the discovery was its own reward. I highly doubt that a child will walk out of Interstellar saying that she wants to be a mathematician or physicist so that she can be the one to reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics because it looks fun or interesting.
The pessimistic view of the future is pulled straight from Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
But despite this pessimistic outlook, Interstellar does an excellent job of shining light on some serious social and ethical issues that we are facing today. Aside from the sensationalized (but frighteningly-prophetic) view of a near-future earth that is victim of rampant overpopulation and unfettered global warming pulled straight from The Grapes of Wrath, it also addresses practical concerns of science-denialism in the education system, overspending on the military-industrial complex to the detriment of social and intellectual spending, the ethical concerns of denying others' rights to survival, and whether the survival of the species trumps the survival of individuals.
All of these themes and allegories are handled with subtle precision and add to the film's narrative. Nothing seems ham-fisted or overly preachy (unless you're an ardent global warming-denier).
Beautiful and loud
From a technical level, the movie works well. It has its share of plot contrivances and some flawed science, but the plot is compelling, and the characters are sympathetic (including some charming robots). I also really liked Matt Damon's cold, calculating, villainous character. As someone with no attachment to earth or anybody on it, he acts as a contrast to McConaughey and Hathaway. His complete dedication to preserving "humanity" made the interplay between him and the other characters interesting and fun. But I can definitely understand if other viewers don't like him.
The visuals are phenomenal, and a lot of work went into making the space scenes look as accurate as possible. This is almost certainly the most visually accurate depiction of a wormhole and black hole that I've ever seen in a movie. Hopefully average movie-goers will be able to understand what they are seeing and see the beauty of them. I certainly did, as did the scientifically-literate people that I saw the movie with.
The wormhole and black hole are the most visually-accurate of any movie I've ever seen.
Sound design was a bit iffy though. Volume is awkwardly balanced. Music and sound effects can sometimes become blaringly loud and obscures important dialogue. I think this was an intentional move by the director in order to leave the audience wondering "what did he just say?" to artificially draw out the audience's suspense. It works in that regard, but it's also very off-putting. And it definitely won't work with home video viewings of the movie, since the watcher can just rewind and turn on subtitles.
So I have a few complaints, and Interstellar pales in comparison to other hard science fiction movies. But it's still well worth a trip to the theater, and I definitely hope that a lot of people see it and like it. If successful, this film (along with last year's Gravity) could potentially resurrect hard science fiction as viable blockbuster material, and hopefully, some of the future sci-fi blockbusters will be a little more optimistic.