There is a movie opening this weekend that passionately engages the questions of space, time and their relationship to each other that Stephen Hawking has dedicated his life to studying. Unfortunately, it’s not the biography of Stephen Hawking. “The Theory of Everything,” which was adapted by Anthony McCarten from a book by Hawking’s ex-wife, Jane, goes down easy, as pre-chewed nourishment tends to, and Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones make the most of the thin material they’re given. But if you watch it in tandem with “A Brief History of Time,” which Errol Morris adapted from Hawking’s own book, it’s impossible not to be struck by how thoroughly “Theory” cheapens and dilutes Hawking’s life and work. In “Brief History,” which deftly shuttles between the story of Hawking’s life and an exploration of his cosmological theories, a childhood friend recalls visiting Hawking’s childhood home for dinner and finding every member of his family with their nose in a book — all except Stephen, who was, at least by contrast, the family’s most gregarious and outgoing member. In the movie, as in every other Hollywood story of a budding genius’s eccentric childhood, Stephen’s family is bright and bubbly, and he’s the awkward, shy one.
The movie that does Hawking proud? That would be Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” which sends a group of astronauts lead by Matthew McConaughey into deep space to seek out a replacement for humanity’s dying home. Those worlds, accessed through a wormhole that appears near Saturn, turn out to be located near the event horizon of a black hole, whose effect on the passage of time — basically, the stronger the gravitational pull, the more quickly time passes relative to the rest of the universe — threatens to have a devastating effect on the astronauts’ time-critical mission.
“Interstellar” isn’t preoccupied with theory, although particle physicist Kip Thorne did serve as an advisor and influenced the nature of several key scenes, but it has science in its bones. More importantly, it’s infused with the sense of wonder that first led humans to gaze up at the stars and wonder how they got there — a childlike quality that apparently survived the film’s passage from Steven Spielberg’s hands into Nolan’s. Many critics have given “Interstellar” a drubbing for its supposed sentimentality: There are two forces, we are told, that are able to transcend the laws of space-time; one is gravity, and the other is love. But that notion is no more adolescent, and a good deal less tiresome, than the authoritarian fantasies of Nolan’s Batman movies, which (too) few critics raised any objection to.
Look over recent movies about space travel, like “The Last Days on Mars” or “Europa Report,” and you get a picture of a universe that is not just indifferent but actively hostile to humanity’s existence. It’s what you might expect from a country still gripped by post-9/11 xenophobia, and a nation that’s cut NASA’s budget in half over the last 20 years. (It’s no accident that one of “Interstellar’s” first shots is a model space shuttle covered in dust.) But in “Interstellar,” the cosmos is a place of possibility — the only place, in fact, given that the last of Earth’s blighted crops are nearly extinction, and humanity is certain to follow shortly thereafter. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who also shot the narcotized dystopia of Spike Jonze’s “Her,” captures frequently breathtaking vistas of gas giants and ice planets, which in IMAX formats flood beyond the borders of the screen to enhance the wow factor. (See it on the biggest and best screen you can find.) That they were accomplished largely via practical means with minimal CGI makes them all the more tactile and enveloping. For a three-hour epic about space exploration, “Interstellar’s” credits are shockingly brief; there are no small armies of digital animators to thank.
“Interstellar” falters a bit in its closing minutes, largely because there are no commanding visuals to offset Nolan and brother Jonathan’s sometimes schematic script. But by then, it had cast such a magnificent spell that those objections registered only as dim echoes, drowned out by the scale and scope of “Interstellar’s” vision. (At this point, colleagues who find the movie a load of hooey may start to back away slowly; all I can say is I went to SpaceCamp. Twice.) “Interstellar’s” physics may not be worked out as intricately as “Memento’s” mystery or “The Prestige’s” tricks, but the movie doesn’t rest on being solvable in the same way. It nods, ultimately, at how little we fundamentally understand the universe in which we live, how much remains beyond our literal and metaphorical grasp. Watching “A Brief History of Time” — which, by the way, is on Hulu — was an alternately entrancing and agonizing experience, the latter because it drives home the likely insurmountable limits of human knowledge. “Interstellar” fills that void, not with understanding, but with hope.