Epic "Interstellar" Brims With Heart, Imagination

Overlong, padded blockbusters have become the norm in Hollywood, yet “Interstellar” – and all of its 170 minutes – absolutely bursts at the seams with ideas. Its sprawling, intergalactic narrative is the biggest that filmmaker Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight,” “Inception”) has tackled to date, but it’s also, remarkably, his most intimate. Co-scripted with brother Jonathan Nolan (“Memento”), “Interstellar” sees the duo spike to creative career highs, led by a dynamic left-right combo of spectacle and heart that efficiently covers over the screenplay’s various cracks and crevices.

Much has been made of “Interstellar” as a love letter from Christopher Nolan to his daughter, Rory. And it’s exactly that, above all else. Beyond the celestial travel, the speculative technology, and the sociopolitical implications of its premise, the film is an impassioned essay on the joys and terrors of fatherhood and the the transcendental power of love. Space travel is a mere echo chamber for these ideas, and echo they do – loudly and permanently through space and time. The execution ranges from hokey to spine tingling, but it’s never less than genuine – all from a filmmaker whose previous work has been criticized as cold and unemotional.

Recent Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”) headlines as Cooper, a widower and former NASA test pilot who’s seen humanity’s battle to keep Earth viable overpower the call for space exploration. It’s the near future and our planet has devolved into a dust bowl, rife with dangerous dust storms and dying crops. Cooper bristles at the notion of space travel sitting on the national backburner. All the same, he’s settled into life as a successful farmer and, more essentially, affectionate father to Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothee Chalamet).

With the help of his live-in father-in-law (John Lithgow, “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes”), Cooper tirelessly imbues his children with the same spark for knowledge and exploration that informed his own upbringing.

Once Coop stumbles his way into the makeshift headquarters of an assumedly disassembled NASA – the film’s most overly convenient plot point – a professor (Michael Caine) tasks him with piloting a ship to explore distant planets with the potential to support human life. Much to the understandable chagrin of his daughter, Cooper accepts, without the overblown fanfare we’ve come to expect from $100 million blockbusters. There are no training montages, no drawn out goodbyes, only Coop reassuring a hysterical Murph that he’ll see her again. He drives off in his dusty pick-up truck, eyes welling. Cue launch countdown.

The recent discovery of a wormhole – a shortcut through spacetime – has afforded the crew access to distant galaxies in a mere two years worth of travel. But their biggest obstacle lies in time dilation, where 1 hour spent on the surface of any given planet can amount to years back home. Thusly, Cooper and his fellow astronauts – Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi) – are forced to juggle their personal lives with the fate of the species.

With the exception of Amelia, Cooper’s shipmates aren’t well-rounded characters. But a sarcastic, Rubik’s Cube-esque robot named TARS (Bill Irwin) lends some life to the journey and McConaughey’s performance packs an emotional wallop, enough for the entire group. His warm Texas drawl has never felt more at home, his soft blue eyes aching gracefully.

In and out of hypersleep, Cooper and company receive transmissions from their rapidly aging family members. It’s here that the beauty and the gravity of the metaphor sinks in, developing into a perfect snapshot of the fleeting nature of time. As Coop and crew barrel forward to parts unknown and beyond, they stare down their own mortality and that of those they love, as stark and barren as the planetoids they’re exploring. By making time a calculable recourse, the Nolans have found perhaps their greatest hook to date, McConaughey remaining forty-something as his children age in front of him.

Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”) plays Murph as an adult – now the same age as her father – with Casey Affleck (“Gone Baby Gone”) in the decidedly smaller part of grown-up Tom. Both do good work, regrettably saddled with some of the film’s clumsier passages. Its low point comes when Cooper finds himself an unlikely foe in outer space and Nolan decides to cross cut against earthbound drama. This does neither any favors, slowing both stories to molasses in favor of a poorly realized chase scene. But it’s capped off with a historically great spaceship docking sequence, briskly sweeping the preceding lows under the carpet.

The visual splendor of “Interstellar” is refreshingly real, done largely with models, practical effects, and elaborate projection systems. It’s felt in the characters’ reactions, the immediacy of the narrative, and even in Hans Zimmer’s epic score, equally doused in nostalgia. In fact, much of the music is shamelessly cribbed from Philip Glass’ legendary “Koyaanisqatsi” score. At least he’s borrowed from the best, his delicate organ melodies both contemplative and far-reaching.

As a work that begins as speculative fiction, the film becomes surprisingly abstract in its third act. Each plot point serves a greater purpose, pushing the Nolan brothers’ usual style to a new extreme. It’s a journey of human reflection, if not outright self-actualization, that builds beautifully in its attempt to quantify the unquantifiable. The climax’s hallucinogenic visuals will alienate some viewers, but it’s a logical attempt to expand on the mind-bending philosophical bent of past genre classics. The pic’s implications of interconnectedness are equal parts daunting and soothing, foreign and familiar, and never less than visually stunning.

Watchful viewers will note that the premise – that there’s never time enough, that a lifetime and an eye-blink are relatively close in duration – is cleverly mirrored by the film itself. The rushed, precise pace reinforces that its characters – that all of us – are short on time but limitless in our potential. It’s as warm as it is immense, and few filmmakers could pull off what Nolan does here.

To answer such lofty questions of spirituality, philosophy, and more – all drenched in meaning – are heights no movie could hope to reach. But “Interstellar” comes incomprehensibly close.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: November 7, 2014
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenwriter: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Mackenzie Foy, Topher Grace, David Gyasi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some intense perilous action and brief strong language)