Interstellar is the best science fiction film I have ever seen. It’s so good that I hate even putting the “science fiction” condition on that last sentence. It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot of hyperbole in movie reviews, everything’s the best this or the worst that, but I’m not being hyperbolic here in the least. This movie is why I watch movies, it’s why I read books, it’s why I write in the first place. I wish it was a novel, because I want to start reading it from the beginning again and spend twenty hours savoring the words before putting it on a shelf next to Endymion and a handful of others, from where I’ll pluck it once every year or two to read again and again.
Good science fiction has never been about rocket ships and lasers, but about people. It’s about using alien settings to tease out the nuances of truth that we can’t look at head-on because they involve such quotidian realities that they fade into the background if we look right at them. Great science fiction though marries that universality with stories about grand ideas, meditations on who and what we are as a species and what our future holds. Good science fiction uses the trappings of the future to tell stories of the present, while great science fiction is one layer more: telling stories of the future that resonate in the present even as they map the future. The difference between the good and the great is the difference between simile and metaphor.
Interstellar starts slowly, building a dystopian future of technological society collapsing, of crops failing, of humanity fighting a losing battle against this year and the next. It’s a world only one step removed from our own, a future made plausible not so much by the particulars of events but the details of people. Of the embrace of a dark age, of the easy slide into ignorance. And through mysterious events, an old pilot is pulled out of his dying life as a farmer to where he’s needed to fly again. There is one last shot in the dark, a hope in the blackness of space created by alien hands, that might offer the sliver of survival for the species. No magic bullets, no brave stand against the forces of evil, just humanity striving against the harshness of the universe to survive. But that doesn’t make it an impersonal story.
It tells the story of a man and his daughter, yes. And of another man and his daughter. And of the way that we forge our own families out of the acquaintances we love, step by step over the years. But what makes this great science fiction is the fact that it uses those basic elements of love and family, of the mundane power of human bonds, to tell a larger story of humanity and its children on the level of species and centuries. Each conversation, each turn of events, plots back onto these central themes: what do we do to survive? What do we do to let our children survive?
There’s an unfortunate dystopian turn in science fiction of late, in which the antagonists are always bad men doing bad things. It’s a myopic fiction, a fiction of a people who see nothing to fear in the universe and so can only imagine drama in the context of what we do to each other. It takes a special sort of arrogance to imagine that we are so in control of our own destiny that only human folly represents any threat to us.
It is a gorgeous film, one that everyone who watches Cosmos and Nova for their spiritual experiences could just watch on mute. It builds truly original worlds, the sort that populate the pages of moldy old science fiction short story collections. Worlds unique, not just variations on “ice planet” or “water planet” that are rife in lazier science fiction. Black holes and blazing stars and sweeping rings dwarf the tiny spacecraft in every frame. Relativistic forces bend moments into decades. We are such tiny beings, ants staggering across an infinite expanse in search of some barest hard scrabble shelter.
If you love science fiction, see this movie. This is a movie for everyone who still stares at the stars with tears in their eyes, who is frustrated at the blindness of everyone who thinks space programs are a waste or that we should solve our problems here before building toys to play out there. This is a movie for everyone who would sign up on the first colony to Mars without even blinking at it being a one way trip. It’s for everyone who thinks “because it’s next” is not just enough of a reason, but that it’s the only one that matters.