It has always been director Christopher Nolan’s gift to take cinematic ideas with widespread commercial appeal and infuse them with his idiosyncratic vision. As evidenced by his “Dark Knight” trilogy, and the dream caper “Inception,” his films are bombastic and intimate, products and poetry. His latest film is no different. A space-travel, sci-fi epic about humankind’s search for a habitable planet to replace a dying Earth, “Interstellar” is the best kind of blockbuster: it offers sights, sounds and some feeling too.
Co-written by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, the film is set in the not-too-distant future in which an ecological disaster has devastated most of Earth’s agriculture. Crop fires are rampant and dust storms so commonplace that when the latter interrupts a baseball game mid-inning, it’s not a surprise so much as an inconvenience. The scene is an amusingly efficient piece of world-building — What good is life without baseball, anyway? — quickly establishing an environment that can’t be saved, only deserted for hopefully greener, but likely stranger pastures.
Facing extinction, NASA, or what’s left of it, recruits Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a widowed father, farmer and former pilot and engineer, to lead a small team of explorers on a perilous journey in search of a place hospitable to human life. Initially reluctant to leave behind his family for an indefinite period of time, Cooper later accepts the mission, causing his young daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), much pain.
That relationship gives “Interstellar” most of its emotional heft. As Cooper works to save the world, his absence as his children grow into adults weighs on him. Because of the principles of relativity, time seems to pass more slowly for the travelers depending on where they are, while Earth’s inhabitants age at the normal rate. An hour on one planet equates to seven years on Earth. This provides for one jarring, devastating sequence in which video messages sent to the crew from Earth reveal things aren’t as they once were.
“Interstellar” uses time as a theme and as a plot device to tell a story of parental obligation and regret. In the film, and in life, time’s passage and its effects are observed only in retrospect, a conceit that works to Nolan’s style — extravagant, yet economical when it counts. Rather than portray the passage of time, he cuts to its brutal aftermath.
But for a movie about time, it doesn’t quite unfold with the clockwork precision of Nolan’s tightly wound “Inception,” or “The Dark Knight.” Instead, it shares the big, unwieldy structure of his exuberant Batman finale, “The Dark Knight Rises,” which was partly influenced by a 19th-century novel, one of the “loose, baggy monsters” Henry James so famously referred to. Like “Rises,” “Interstellar” contains scenes of quiet grandeur, moments of loud and profound silliness, as well as hectic visual splendor in no particular order. It is messy and confident — a film to be reckoned with.
“Interstellar” also is Nolan’s gravest and sappiest film yet, sometimes to its detriment. Several dialogue-heavy scenes are overly, and clumsily sentimental, but since Nolan is a montage filmmaker, this film, like all the rest, is more than the sum of its parts. The borderline-insufferable speechifying on love and science never gets the chance to cripple the movie because it is ultimately defined by a reckless and ambitious optimism. In fact, there’s something screwy and madcap about the whole thing, but McConaughey, at his best, absorbs and contains those sentiments before they become problematic and distills them into giddy pathos. So the film’s flaws — the graceless exposition and erratic pacing — pale in comparison to its rousing gestalt.
During the more viscerally exciting moments, such as when spacecraft whirl out of control against a planetary spectacle like some sort of cosmic ballet, the film captures the essential paradox of outer space: its beauty and its formidable capacity to inspire dread. This is a big picture movie, and its setting provides Nolan the biggest possible canvas to depict the humdrum as well as the harrowing.
In one scene, a life-or-death fistfight between two characters feels utterly consequential, until the camera cuts to a bird’s-eye view for an unsettling length of time, pulling out further and further to reveal a petty squabble amidst a desolation. Compounding the powerful images are the anxious, pulsating swells of the soundtrack that set the stakes even before the plot, or the characters, take off.
Where they end up is not as philosophically ambiguous as the movie’s key influence, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but Nolan still successfully taps into the inherent mysteries of the extraterrestrial — an ineffable essence that, when evoked, is cinematic gold. Its presence, earned through genuine human ambition and folly, distinguishes great science fiction from the trash. “Interstellar” belongs to the former.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on Nov. 13, 2014.