Sometimes, science and scientific concepts make for great story hooks. Time Dilation – the idea that as you approach the speed of light, time slows down for you while moving normally for everyone else – is one of those concepts. One of the few high points of Flight of the Navigator was how it used time dilation to create pathos with the main character’s family having out-aged him. Makoto Shinkai’s Voices of a Distant Star did it with a couple being separated by not only distance, but time (a theme that would carry over to much of Shinkai’s other work). Interstellar does this with a parent and child.
The film explores this concept with two main plots. The first follows Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, a former NASA test pilot turned farmer on an Earth facing biological and ecological collapse after a bacteria known only as The Blight has begun killing all of the plants on Earth. The second follows Cooper’s daughter, Murphy, played by Mackenzie Foy as a child, and Jessica Chastain as an adult, as she rebels against her teachers by choosing to learn real Science, as opposed to the blatant lies (like moon landing denial) that are taught in school to keep the populace’s hope in check. Her rebellion is first on her own (with encouragement from her father) and then she’s taken under the wing of Professor Brand, played by Michael Caine.
Brand and the remnants of NASA have discovered a Wormhole that has appeared in orbit around Saturn, with the other side having a star system with 12 planets around it. 12 scientists have been sent through on a one-way trip to survey each of the worlds and to gather data on the gravitational anomaly for Brand’s gamble – to either evacuate humanity from Earth, or to drop a population bomb on a habitable planet to create a colony to keep Humanity alive elsewhere.
Time dilation comes in through shifting narrative perspectives – between Cooper on the mission to check out the three possible candidate worlds, and Murphy back on Earth working with Brand. For Cooper, his mission once he passes through the Wormhole, only takes a handful of days. For Murphy, we see her life over the 20 years since Cooper’s departure, before these two plot threads recombine back in the end through an act of science-fiction that I’d describe as director Christopher Nolan’s take on the 3rd part of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Interstellar, ultimately, has a lot in common with that film. It’s a fairly Hard Science Fiction travelogue film, one that represents the changes in Science Fiction, both in literature and in film, between the release of Kubrick and Clarke’s film and now. There is much more characterization in the film, and the film’s narrative is able to balance the science and the storytelling without letting either side suffer. It’s a very strong film, one that’s larger in scope than Gravity, while still having very strong storytelling and characterization.