Christopher Nolan’s epic space opera 'Interstellar' delves deep in the cosmos in search of higher ground

Digable planet

UPDATED 12:12 a.m.

Interstellar / B+

It makes sense that Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan originally conceived Interstellar as a film for Steven Spielberg; it has the populist filmmaker's DNA embedded firmly and contradictorily within its uncomfortably ambitious mashup of science fiction plots. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker are obvious influences, but there's also shades of James Cameron's The Abyss and, more unfortunately, M. Night Shyamalan's Signs (which desperately cribbed from Spielberg's broken-family-in-peril blueprint). The result is a visually spectacular, gorgeously crafted, narratively ambitious film that seems at war with itself.

Nolan is a stark, humorless, and unsentimental filmmaker. He likes to inject narrative puzzles, intellectual conceits, and recursive themes into his big-budget blockbusters, but is often criticized for lacking emotional resonance. Cool he's got in spades; cuddly he ain't.

With Interstellar, Nolan seems to be answering that complaint, leveraging a father-daughter relationship as the human touchpoint in a story that uses the whole of the universe as its canvass. It's not an easy fit. Though his movie runs nearly three hours long, its attempt to deliver rousing space-opera thrills, cautionary messages about the fragility of mankind, cosmological wisdom, and emotional depth is a cinematic over-reach. Like all of his films, Interstellar seeks to confront the limits of human ambition in the face of personal weakness. And much as Nolan's characters often fail to reconcile their grandest desires, so, too, does Interstellar fall short, particularly in its trying-to-have-it-all finale. But, damn, if we shouldn't applaud Nolan for aiming big.

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut turned farmer, and widowed dad, who's raising his kids in a world damaged by an unnamed catastrophe (there are hints it was a world war). The populace has been decimated, and the natural world has been knocked out of balance. Dust storms strike with alarming frequency, and blight is killing off the plant life. Mankind's days are clearly numbered.

When Coop's precocious young daughter, Murph, claims that a ghost is knocking books off her shelves and leaving strange patterns in the dust, dad quickly discerns hidden codes in her discoveries. These lead him to find the last vestiges of NASA (which include Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, and David Gyasi), where a top-secret mission to find a new planet for humanity is underway. Aided by a mysterious wormhole that has appeared near Saturn, the scientists are about to launch their last expedition, and they want Coop to lead. But this means leaving his loved ones behind, with no guarantee that he'll ever return. His decision devastates Murph, prompting him to promise that he'll come back to her. It's a promise that'll prove tough to keep, given that the crew must confront a black hole, where time moves more slowly for those who enter its orbit (a few hours can mean decades back on Earth). The rest of the movie intercuts between Cooper's epic, time-bending space adventure and his earthbound children maturing into Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain (who are not equally compelling).

Will humanity find a second home? Will Coop see his kids before they die of old age? Will the audience understand Nolan's discussions of dimensional perception and Einstein’s theory of relativity? It's best if I leave Interstellar's explanations (and re-explanations) and plot twists for you to experience yourself. But it’s a film that takes its science-fiction roots seriously, asking questions like: What's out there? Where do we belong? And how will we shape the future?

Suffice to say that while the sometimes stilted dialogue can get a little tedious, Interstellar answers those questions with elegant, awe-inspiring imagery and pulse-pounding suspense. Under cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, it’s a stylistically bold and visually ravishing film that takes full advantage of it 70mm IMAX format. Trust me when I say it's worth the extra few bucks to watch the movie this way.

Nolan delivers a true sense of wonder to space exploration, but oddly not through his characters. For the most part, they are serious, can-do cyphers delivering exposition-filled dialogue with little sense of enthusiasm for the miracles they behold. Luckily, McConaughey, an innately affecting actor, brings with him the right mix of courage and vulnerability. He's a man committed to his mission, but all-too aware of the personal damage it exacts, underlining Interstellar's premise that however far we travel into the cosmos, both our strengths and weaknesses travel with us.

Only in Interstellar's final scenes does the film seem at a loss as to what to do with him. Nolan's reach for family-style sentimentality undermines the implications of his headier conceits and unforgivably presents the fate of a major character as a footnote. For all the lovely grandeur on display, his movie stops more than ends, delivering a dramatic sigh instead of a thematic bang.

Interstellar is rated PG-13 and has a run time of 169 minutes.