Corn. Growing, endless rows in the sunlight, corn can be spectacular. It’s especially spectacular near the start of Interstellar, when Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) takes his kids for a ride. They’re in his pickup, ancient and rusty, when Coop, an ace pilot by inclination, spots a drone overhead and gives it a decidedly off-road chase. As the truck plunges into corn, the music pulses and the camera swoops, so you see a bit of battered blue slicing through rows and rows of corn, a green sea parting and swaying and engulfing.
It’s a gorgeous, self-consciously breathtaking moment, the sort that Christopher Nolan manages exceptionally well, like the one in Inception when Parisian streets turned inside out, or the end of Memento when — with considerably less budget and effects — Leonard Shelby’s terrible plot unfolds. It’s the sort of moment when space and screen together turn fluid, when your visceral rhythms fold into the fictions before you, when your own smallness is palpable and thrilling, too.
You may remember this moment later in Interstellar, when vast digital canvases show tiny space ships against infinite dark, tearful faces are reflected in monitor lights, or book shelves represent multiple dimensions, at once stacked and slipping. Any one of these moments is lovely to see, but none is so surprising as the corn, and all are more thematically insistent than they need be. This sort of hammering, a determination that you’ll “get it”, distracts from Interstellar‘s effort to transport.
Consider the resolution of the corn moment, which hammers the father-daughter bond that will drive the adventure to come. When the once military-purposed drone lands, here piloted by Coop’s precisely precocious daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), he proceeds to once military experience and begins to rejigger its wires, while Murph stands over him and asks what he’s doing. He doesn’t miss a beat, offering a line that sounds like it’s been written: “I’m gonna give it something socially responsible to do,” Coop says, and when Murph sighs that he might just let it go, show a kind of generosity toward a machine without sense or direction, he shuts her down with a reductive mantra: it’s better for the drone, he says, to “learn to adapt, like the rest of us.”
Murph’s requisite frown at this moment — smaller and also more fateful than the corn rush — lays out the film’s emotional trajectory. She will not adapt, at least not in the sense of conforming, and neither will her dad. While the world around them is suffused with dust and death: corn is, now, the only crop anyone can grow, earth’s ecosystem is collapsing, and NASA is transformed into a secret entity, pursuing an escape from the planet, a way to save the race by leaving its desperate, ruined leftovers behind.
Coop is the pilot for this mission, but in so doing he leaves Murph behind, as well as her slightly older brother Tom (Timothée Chalamet), who is, in fact adapted, a corn farmer who’s fine with farming. As Coop resists that end, as he and a crew of super smart researchers head for a set of alternative planets located past Saturn and through a wormhole, the movie galumphs into an epicky space exploration saga, in which Murph remains home, angry at her father’s abandonment, and he remains hopeful, believing he will come home to his girl and he will save her, and oh yes, the rest of Earth’s population, too.
The man who invents the mission, one Dr. Brand (Michael Cain), sends forth his own progeny with Coop, a brilliant daughter also named Brand (Anne Hathaway). These two Batman veterans remind you that Nolan is reworking his favorite themes, reframing daddies and daughters dreamscapes and expanding dimensions. Here, the mumbo jumbo has to do with time and space, the desire (and desperation) to flee mortal coils, to end-run around death, to imagine behind what you can see. Such imagining is surely the best sort of mission for a visionary cinema, for an art that pushes beyond commercial, material, and even imaxian vistas, to posit options not quite visible.
Still, as Interstellar must make these options visible, being a movie, it falls back on conventions that hardly need be repeated. Fathers and daughters reconcile, evil lurks despite and because of a universal vacuum, and love stretches across time and space (as does fear or vengeance, in other movies). Movie imagery must accommodate such limits. Even as the film lurches toward an Inception-ish crosscutting climax, as times and places don’t quite become one another but suggest they might circle or stack back to do so, the rush is not so thrilling as the corn. The film adapts too well to the familiar.