I know this much about Interstellar: Christopher Nolan wants to make a big, ambitious fantasy thriller for the popcorn crowd like he usually does but one that vibrates with love, hope, and optimism the same way that his Batman movies were shot through with dread, doom, and despair. It’s hard to blame him for wanting to create something joyful and positive. Trouble is, he turns this space opera into a bloated, overlong, fuzzy mess, even as he occasionally leaves you slack-jawed in wonder.
The movie starts on a future Earth where crop blight and giant dust storms are fast making the planet uninhabitable. Fighter pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) picks up some mysterious signals in the bedroom of his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and ends up stumbling on the secret location of what’s left of NASA near his farm. There, a physicist (Michael Caine) explains what they’re doing and offers Cooper a mission: Fly a small team of astronauts through a wormhole located near Saturn that will take them to three far-off planets that might serve as a new home for the human race.
Nolan has always been interested in using the power of film to bend the fabric of space-time, especially in Inception but even as far back as Memento. Here he’s working in a story that has time running differently for the astronauts than it does for the people on Earth. A late shot during a baseball game pretty much seals Nolan’s status as an M.C. Escher fan. The story developments are grounded in the theories of celebrated physicist Kip Thorne, who serves as an executive producer on the film. Due to an appalling lapse on my part, I don’t have enough background in theoretical physics to critique his ideas. As a storytelling device, though, they lead Nolan into a place where he was better off not going.
You see, the movie is weakest when dealing with the grown-up version of Murph (Jessica Chastain). It’s not just that Murph disappears from the movie for so long that it’s awkward when she reappears. The theme of parents separated from their children has been a recurring motif in Nolan’s films in the last few years, but charting the effects of Cooper’s absence from his family requires a filmmaker with a refined understanding of domestic relations, and that’s not what Nolan is. We’re supposed to feel Cooper’s pain of watching his daughter grow up only through grainy video transmissions, but that comes out as so much sentimental treacle, especially when the talk turns to love as a force of physics similar to time and gravity. The scenes between Murph and her older brother (Casey Affleck) are particularly tinny. The principal actors — including Anne Hathaway as a fellow astronaut — work hard, and composer Hans Zimmer lays on lots of organ music for a quasi-religious effect, but their hyperventilating efforts come to little. A movie that wants to be as transcendently uplifting as an Andrei Tarkovsky film remains stubbornly unmoving.
And yet, just look at this thing. Awesomely named cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema does great with the fine dust particles that get everywhere on Earth (like the snow he photographed in Let the Right One In), and production designer Nathan Crowley comes up with two shipboard robots (voiced by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart) that look like giant walking metal Kit Kat bars. The best sequences are in space, with the astronauts traveling through the galaxy in a ship shaped like a centrifuge and spinning to simulate gravity inside. Nolan conjures up a world with ocean waves that are so huge that the astronauts initially mistake them for mountains. Later, when they traverse the edge of a black hole, we see energy pouring into the hole so fast it looks like a lava flow. The scenes with their spaceship negotiating the hazards of space are the best action sequences Nolan has ever done, and they cry out to be seen in an IMAX theater with the sound cranked up so that you can feel the engine rumbling in your seat. Interstellar may be a failure on a story level, but Nolan’s visual virtuosity is still enough to take your breath away and root you to your chair.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Rated PG-13.