Christopher Nolan's movies are usually cold and clever in equal doses, but "Interstellar" shakes up that pattern: A genuinely moving spectacle about the perils of discovery and survival, Nolan's science fiction odyssey applies the same degree of intellect to its borderline corny plot as it does to the physics-heavy backdrop. The result is a two-pronged blockbuster comprised of smarts and sentimentalism like nothing else out there — not perfect, but expertly crafted and wholly satisfying unlike so many movies made a similar scale today.
Despite narrative details that might require a science degree for full comprehension, the actual premise of "Interstellar" is relatively straightforward: In a near future where Earth's ecosystem steadily falls apart, the planet's farmers find their crops steadily dying out, hinting at the possibility of global famine and ultimately the extinction of mankind. It's during this period that former NASA pilot-turned-agriculturist Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) finds himself recruited by a coy astrophysicist (Michael Caine, sage-like and sleepy-eyed, per usual) to pilot a craft through some newly discovered wormhole—possibly put there by some mysterious form of life—to another part of the universe where potentially habitable planets await.
NASA previously sent other expeditions to scope out the planets, so Cooper takes off with plenty of data to set the journey in motion, and several intrepid explorers join him. Among them, the professor's feisty daughter Brand (Anne Hathaway) continually challenges Cooper's confidence, while a low key physicist (David Gyasi) helps explain each new event. Rounding out the group, smart-alecky robot TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin)—basically a giant, talking iPad with legs—marks the rare instance of levity in Nolan's oeuvre, even when Cooper tries to dial down his irreverent companion's humor setting. There's no mistaking any of these characters for being anything but the bit players in a formula, but they've been neatly calibrated to serve a plot that makes its more familiar ingredients count for something.
Leaving his family behind, Cooper is torn between completing the mission as they veer from one dangerous planet to the next and considering the prospects of going home. Untold light years away, his science-obsessed daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) grows up resenting her father while continuing his work and steadily getting drawn into its significance. These ingredients require no deep understanding of equations to follow, and it's their underlying simplicity that give the more sophisticated developments a sense of purpose.
A Big Bag of Tricks
Of course, this being a Christopher Nolan movie, it's never really that simple. Ever since his non-linear sophomore effort "Memento," Nolan has excelled at a labyrinthine approach to filmmaking in which seemingly every narrative ingredient forms one piece of a tantalizing puzzle. While his three Batman movies obscured that talent, "Interstellar" allows it to shine where it belongs — in a narrative practically designed for tricky logic. Even as the story barrels ahead into extrasolar environments made of ice, giant waves, the pratfalls of wormholes and gravitational singularities, "Interstellar" bolsters its plot to genuine character motivation and the continuing impression that everything adds up to…something.
And it does. Co-written with his brother Jonathan and consultation from theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, "Interstellar" eventually finds Cooper and his colleagues in a distant solar system on the brink of a black hole, which means that time gets funky: Visiting one planet, they lose decades of Earth time over the course of a disastrous three-hour trip — which means that, once back on the ship, Cooper must get caught up on years of messages from his family back home.
Cross-cutting between deep space and increasingly dire events on Earth, Nolan embraces a strategy akin to "Inception," in which one layer of events regularly comments on the other to absorbing effect. The difference is that while the structure of "Inception" spoke to the layers of consciousness at the center of its plot, it serves a more affecting purpose. While Murph and her brother Tom (Casey Affleck) struggle to make peace with their father's absence over the course of decades, Cooper experiences a single, challenging operation in much less time, never quite certain if anything productive will come of it. The result is a movie at once dense with information and rich with feeling, a rare combo in the blockbuster arena that merges its technical achievements with a tenderness.
Aided by Hans Zimmer's energizing score — a far more colorful effort than the intentionally abrasive ones found in earlier Nolan collaborations—"Interstellar" is Nolan's most well-rounded movie to date. Its three-hour running time never drags. After some 45 minutes of exposition, the journey through the wormhole doesn't disappoint, and there's much more to come: When Matt Damon surfaces around the two-hour mark as another interplanetary explorer with information that takes the plot in further unexpected directions, there are numerous twists just around the corner. But their appeal owes less to the surprise factor than the director's nimble ability to fit them in with the movie's galvanizing themes of human survival against the threat of extinction.
More Traditional Than Meets the Eye
Though its sweeping vision of the cosmos invites comparisons to "2001: A Space Odyssey," the legacy of Stanley Kubrick's mind-bending achievement remains secure. Despite its epic scope, "Interstellar" delivers a traditional payoff. Considering its basic set of events, one could easily envision a more straightforward version of the movie guided to fruition by the likes of Steven Spielberg—or Robert Zemeckis, whose "Contact" is the blatant antecedent of the soul-searching hard science combo on display here.
However, the Nolans have never shown the same mastery of characters that they have for situations. Much of the blunt dialogue strains from simple melodrama (including a prolonged monologue about love) and incredulous exclamations about outrageous plot that might sound more at home on an episode of "Star Trek." In one outrageous moment, the physicist uses a pen and paper to explain the dynamics of a wormhole to Cooper moments before he flies them into it — as if the briefing session never happened once in the two years it took for them to get there. For a movie with such a spectacular plot, "Interstellar" strains from such elementary moments (look out for the hints of a romantic subplot that never goes anywhere, maybe because the filmmakers just lost interest after a while).
But these are minor concerns in a movie so visually masterful and rich with ideas. "Interstellar" eventually derives its emotional undertones from the way it uses the passage of time. It's as much a movie about time travel as space travel, though anyone with a working knowledge of the theory of relativity should understand that those ingredients are always connected. Nolan has done his homework, applying realistic ingredients to an exciting and profound outcome.
A Grand Scale
Outside of those virtues, "Interstellar" still delivers in purely visceral terms, with Nolan's attention to scale always in play. While staging action has never been his strong suit, here the director crafts a number of extraordinarily thrilling sequences in which otherworldly ingredients take on palpable menace: His renderings of giant interplanetary waves and frozen clouds create a real sense of being lost in ominous environments beyond the realm of expectations. Cinematographer Hoyt Van Hoytema and effects company Double Negative imbue these scenes with a rich, expansive quality that speaks to the range of space being covered. The scenes in space never muster the same level of sheer excitement found in last year's "Gravity," but when objects explode without sound or spin rapidly out of control, it's clear that Nolan's working hard to render events as they might actually happen. The "wow" factor comes equipped with brains.
Still, "Interstellar" is held together by McConaughey's credible turn, which has more in common with his subdued role on "True Detective" than his usual snarky routine. Hathaway's strong-willed character lacks the same dimensionality, but she does her best with the material. However, it's Chastain who really delivers, as a woman at once furious with her father and inexplicably drawn to help him from across the universe. Their formidable performances ground "Interstellar" in a plot that, without such credible elements in play, might seem more at home on "The Twilight Zone."
Instead, "Interstellar" makes its far-reaching concept utterly believable, right down to an outrageous climax that stretches across time and space with bursts of psychedelic imagery that still winds up making sense. In its final scenes, "Interstellar" struggles to bring every piece in play to a tidy conclusion, but it's comforting to watch Nolan give it a shot.
Many Movies at Once
The timing of "Interstellar" caps a great period of science fiction cinema. The past 12 months have seen the release of not only "Gravity" but also the hard science travelogue "The Europa Report" (which in retrospect plays like "Interstellar"-lite) as well as the multidimensional dinner party comedy "Coherence," which also uses real physics in the service of outrageous entertainment. "Interstellar" consolidates the appeal of all these movies into a singularly engaging package. It's a movie engineered to advertise its genre's innate appeal.
That Nolan can do so much with such a grand canvas and studio money shows the extent to which he has managed to carve out a niche in the industry. Brainy and exciting at the same time, "Interstellar" invalidates the need for mindless Hollywood product. No matter its shortcomings, the movie achieves an impressive balancing act. It turns the mysteries of the universe into a cinematic playground, but for every profound or visually arresting moment, it also encourages you to to think.
"Interstellar" opens nationwide on November 5.