Christopher Nolan is a latter-day master of the head-trip blockbuster. But Interstellar, his latest (and, at nearly three hours, longest) film, is oddly earthbound. Especially for its first half hour, in which we see that our planet has been reduced to a parched and choking dustbowl, the movie is burdened by the exigencies of plot-setup. And even later, when it breaks free into outer space (and some glorious visual effects), its dialogue and characters keep pulling us Earthward. The picture is ambitiously brainy and technically meticulous; but like Nolan's earlier Inception, it leaves us (well, some of us) wondering if all the mind-knotting complexities really add up.
In a cornfield farmhouse buffeted by dust storms, a former NASA test pilot named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to make a go of it with his son, Tom (Timothée Chalamet), his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), and his dead wife's father, Donald (John Lithgow). Here, in the twilight of the planet, humanity has given up its dreams of space exploration (schools teach kids that the 1969 moon landing was faked), and are forced to focus on growing food. Unfortunately, only one crop remains: corn (a pretty monotonous diet, but at least it's not broccoli). It's a forlorn existence. "We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars," Coop says. "Now, we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt."
The movie sprawls quite a bit in this opening section, but eventually we learn that Murph believes there's a ghost in her bedroom, and that it's been sending her messages, possibly in Morse Code. Coop comes to think that there may be something to this, and soon he and Murph are drawn to a secret spaceship base—a NASA remnant—run by Coop's onetime mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine). Brand explains that the planet is doomed, and that the only hope is to transport its populace to a new world. As it happens, this may be possible. A wormhole—a shortcut to other galaxies—has mysteriously appeared in the vicinity of Saturn. Three exploratory missions have been dispatched over the past decade, and chances seem good. Now Brand wants Coop to lead a fourth expedition, accompanied by his daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and two other scientists (David Gyasi and Wes Bentley), plus a pair of helpful robots, the most talkative of which is called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin, who's no HAL 9000).
Nolan maintains an admirable concentration on the story's human elements, and McConaughey gives a moving portrayal of a father deciding to leave his children behind to embark on a years-long journey that could eventually salvage their lives (or, alternatively, end his own). When he informs his father-in-law about this decision, Donald is disgusted: "The world was never enough for you, was it?" he says. (Donald isn't a big-picture guy: he believes that the Earth's current terminal condition is the result of "six billion people all trying to have it all," or, as his daughter puts it, "the population bomb"—a shout-out to the long-discredited pop-sci author Paul Ehrlich).
The movie blossoms after Cooper and company rocket up past the stratosphere. Nolan's imagery—especially his rendering of many-ringed Saturn and the enigmatic wormhole itself—is gorgeous, especially in IMAX projection (2D only, thank you). And his back-and-forth contrast between the cramped bustle inside Cooper's ship and the vast starry silence without convey the wonder of the universe with a poetic force. (Also spectacular is the movie's audacious sound design, which is often wall-shakingly thunderous.) As impressive as Nolan's effects are, though, they don't really add a lot to the outer-space visual vocabulary established by Stanley Kubrick nearly 50 years ago. (Nolan acknowledges the inspiration he took from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.)
The director also stages some memorable action scenes. When the ship touches down on a bleak water world, it's greeted by a mountainous tidal wave (an impressive effect, although not as imaginatively gripping as the roll-up streets in Inception). And on a barren ice planet, the story takes a new tack with the introduction of one of the previous astronauts, Dr. Mann, who's played by Matt Damon. (I know Damon's presence in this movie is supposed to be some kind of secret, but that's a false tease: Damon himself has discussed it in more than one interview over the past year.)
Meanwhile, back on Earth, where seven years have been passing for every one of Cooper's space hours, his kids have grown up to be Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck, with whom Nolan relentlessly keeps checking in. This is because Chastain's Murph is edging ever closer to the story's real substance. Who was that ghost in her childhood bedroom, and what was the message it was trying to communicate? The answer is supplied with the help of theoretical astrophysicist Kip Thorne, a specialist in gravitational mysteries and Einsteinian relativity (and an executive producer on the film). The premise he has constructed is certainly intriguing, but also a little hazy, and it's tricky to grasp while at the same time trying to keep track of the bifurcated story.
I think we can assume that Thorne had nothing to do with the film's tiresome repetitions of some Dylan Thomas lines ("Rage, rage against the dying of the light"); and I suspect he bears no responsibility for the head-slapping scene in which Amelia, asked to choose between two courses of action, opts for the more difficult one because it might reunite her with her boyfriend—her rationale being that, for all we know, the hard facts of interstellar science could be surpassed by the power of love.
Chicks—what're you gonna do?