Gravity 5-D: Nolan's "Interstellar" by turns breathtaking and ponderous

Interstellar (2014)
169 min., rated PG-13.

When one Christopher Nolan puts out a new film, it is considered an event that moviegoers are bound to take notice. Though it doesn't make or break him, he has never been a warm filmmaker, what with his realistically bleak revisionist take on Batman (2005's "Batman Begins," 2008's "The Dark Knight" and 2012's "The Dark Knight Rises") and the cerebral side of his sci-fi heist picture (2010's "Inception") existing in a dream world winning out over its cold, mechanical heart. With "Interstellar," Nolan's latest juggernaut, he is at his most emotive, balancing the mindful ideas with a human component, but the brainy elements are presented in such clunky, overexplanatory stretches that more ambiguity wouldn't have been such a bad thing. Those buying a ticket for "Interstellar" and expecting to get a commercial space adventure might exit the theater angry, disappointed with what they didn't get. However, that's more of a matter of expectations than what the film actually attempts to accomplish. A lofty, much-discussed thinking-man's movie is always preferable over a dumbed-down one, but laymen might feel a little lost in space nonetheless. 

In the distant future, Earth is in environmental collapse with blight and dust bowls that threaten to wipe out the planet's remaining crop, that being corn. Schools force-feed their students with revised history textbooks that claim the Apollo space missions were faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union. After losing his wife to brain cancer, NASA engineer-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) lives with 15-year-old son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy)—poor girl was named after Murphy's Law—and father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), and he's worried his children will be the last of their generation who survive on the planet. Murph claiming her bedroom is haunted by a "ghost" who keeps knocking books off her shelf leads to Cooper being recruited by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) who reveals to him that a wormhole has formed in the solar system near Saturn. In hopes of saving humanity and piloting a space craft to find a habitable planet with three other scientists, including Brand's daughter Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi), and robots TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart), Cooper must leave his family, much to the devastation of Murph. During his time-critical mission, whatever can happen will happen.

Hefty in both its challenging ideas and visual grandeur but awfully flawed in their execution, "Interstellar" is ambitious to a fault. It is dense and weighty and probably well-researched (in no small part to the help of physicist Kip Thorne), with scientific jargon and blather that is mostly exposition-heavy gobbledygook, which the actors all sell with oh-so-serious credence. At its core, however, this is a story of human sacrifice and loss and scientific exploration—and black holes, the theory of relativity, gravitational anomalies, and the fifth dimension. There is the implicit notion that, beyond cold, hard logic, love is the basis of our reality within time and space. Co-written by director Christopher Nolan and his frequent collaborator and brother, Jonathan Nolan, the film reminds of 1997's "Contact" (which also co-starred Matthew McConaughey), in which a father-daughter relationship becomes key to the emotional through-line. While we all know Nolan always brings his A game in terms of ambition and originality, the film is far from lazy, but it makes the mistake of explaining too much with explicable hand-holding and yet simplifying other plot elements. Paying off what they set up in the first act, the Nolan brothers jump through one mind-blowing hoop that's part of the film's entire design and what is revealed is staggeringly visualized. That's all well and good, but so much attention turns to the exhausting smoke-and-mirrors trick of the narrative construction and the final scene strikes a dishonest note that diminishes the film's courage of its own convictions in its theme of sacrifice and makes even less emotional sense. Had the Nolans ended on an earlier scene, it might have made a more satisfying landing.

Lest we forget, "Interstellar" looks spectacular. Whether or not that is surprising, coming from the director of "Inception," the congruently impressive technical aspects of the film are reminders that we are spoiled and shouldn't take special effects for granted. The robots, TARS and CASE, are impeccably designed and fresh with convincing (and minimal) CG work, and Nolan luckily insisted on not using green-screen mattes and opted to shoot on-location. Mostly shot on celluloid in 70mm IMAX rather than digital projection, Hoyte van Hoytema's (2013's "Her") cinematography is gorgeous and tactile, from the dust sweeping Cooper's Depression-era farm and cornfields, to the tidal waves on an uninhabitable planet and the snow-covered vicinity of another. Hans Zimmer's epic, rumbling score often sounds like a church organ, but Nolan makes more powerful use of silence.

Matthew McConaughey continues his winning streak after rejuvenating his career and excels in his compelling performance as Cooper. We immediately pull for him, and some of the film's most potent moments involve McConaughey shedding naked emotion and tears of regret during his viewing of twenty-three years' worth of video messages from his adult children. Within a half hour, he and a wonderfully raw Mackenzie Foy, as the bright young Murph, create such an intimate bond that their separation strikes a poignant chord. Believably growing into Murph, Jessica Chastain is stirringly note-perfect in conveying abandonment and bereavement, while Casey Affleck is a one-note afterthought as the stubborn Tom whose motivations are sketchy at best. The part of Amelia is steely and thin, but no fault of Anne Hathaway, she touchingly conveys her past love and the betrayal of her father. Around the halfway point, a household name makes an unbilled appearance and it should be powerful, but because of the stunt casting, the moment is distracting and falls flat. 

Whereas "Gravity" was simple and invariably riveting, "Interstellar" is complex and ponderous. It is filled with visionary greatness, moments arousing an awe-inspiring high for any movie lover, but Nolan swings for the stars and only attains partial success in bringing it all home. For a nearly three-hour odyssey where twenty-three years pass when our astronauts enter a black hole, it very much feels like three hours, too. If anything, the film counts as Nolan's most emotionally minded work and it warrants deeper, more analytical discussion than even "Inception" and that spinning top. It's not the overwhelmingly brilliant opus we were clamoring for, but a frustrating synthesis of emotion and spectacle that's easy to admire but hard to embrace.

Grade: C +