Great filmmakers know the truthfulness of Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto,” none more so than director Christopher Nolan: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Nolan shoots for the cinematic stars, both literally and figuratively, in “Interstellar.” His most ambitious movie ends up in the least satisfying way of his nine features, but the ride up to that point has taken us to a more interesting destination than four-fifths of the pictures coming out this year.
Let’s cover obvious ground first: The visual effects snatch your breath, the sound seeps into your bones (especially in an IMAX theater), and Hoyle van Hoytema’s cinematography puts a stranglehold on an Oscar. Nolan, who wrote the script with younger brother Jonathan, knows how to use effects and when: He cuts from a horribly loud explosion inside a spaceship to an exterior view of the blast, which takes place in the scary silence of outer space.
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What makes “Interstellar” different for the Nolans is the emotional vein that runs through it: Not the phony sentiment that tacked a ludicrous coda onto “The Dark Knight Rises” but a serious exploration of the love that binds families and makes us willing to risk everything for spouses or kids. That theme leads the movie toward a conclusion that plunges the story into metaphysical gobbledygook, but it also binds us to the characters until then.
The plot takes place in some near future where blight has ruined crop after crop, depleting Earth’s food supply. Scientists and engineers have abandoned technology that doesn’t increase production, so aerospace pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) has become a corn farmer. He stumbles upon a secret NASA project run by Brant (Michael Caine), who has already sent 12 ships through a wormhole in space that projected them to other galaxies.
Three planets transmit signals that suggest life may be possible for humans. Brant’s daughter, Alicia (Anne Hathaway), plans to visit all three with frozen eggs and sperm, so she can start a colony on the likeliest spot. Cooper agrees to fly her and a crew there, knowing the relativity of time means he may never see his children again – and everyone on our dying Earth may perish while he’s away.
We learn early on that a mysterious force seems to be aiding humankind, leaving clues that lead toward survival. “Interstellar” doesn’t explain how humankind has ruined this planet (there’s a slight hint about climate change) or ask whether our lamentable stewardship of Earth entitles us to land somewhere else and start over again.
“We’ve forgotten who we are at home,” laments the grounded Cooper. “We’re explorers, pioneers, not caretakers.” He might have said “conquerors,” as the survival of humankind takes precedent in this film over all other considerations. Cooper’s daughter, a genius physicist (Jessica Chastain) who has grown up while he’s been gone, remains below, convinced she can find a way to get humanity aloft.
The Nolans stumble over sloppy science and improbable plotting. Unanchored fragments of a smashed plane float near each other on a water planet, though they’re battered for years by 100-foot waves. NASA has supposedly gone broke – indeed, the populace has turned against it – yet it conducts an undiscovered billion-dollar project near Cooper’s farm. (Hmmm: An underground cavern full of sophisticated equipment, concealed from the world and operated by Michael Caine. It’s the Batcave!)
But the strong performances, smart editing (often cutting back and forth from Earth to the cosmos) and gorgeously shot space sequences sustain the story over all hurdles but the last. Then the Nolans write themselves into a corner from which they can’t escape while still providing an ending they think people want.
I didn’t want it. I didn’t even understand it. I’m not sure the Nolans could explain it satisfactorily themselves. But their daring up to that finale lifts “Interstellar” above the timid, repetitive fluff that chokes multiplexes these days.