The spirit of 2001: A Space Odyssey surrounds Interstellar like a cloud.
Director Christopher Nolan, who made dreams real in Inception and nightmares come to life in The Dark Knight, has acknowledged in interviews his debt to Stanley Kubrick’s 46-year-old science-fiction classic about man propelled to the distant reaches of the universe. Yet whereas 2001 is enigmatic and ethereal, a film that demands to be seen more than once, Interstellar is far more prosaic and pedestrian over its near three-hour run time.
Still, it has moments of bombastic brilliance, an often moving performance from Matthew McConaughey, and, boy, at its best, is it something to look at.
Set on a near-future Earth where nitrogen is spiking in the atmosphere while oxygen is declining, McConaughey is Cooper, a former pilot turned farmer who’s tilling tough soil. A global crop failure has left mankind with only one vegetable — corn — that is sure to grow but that certainly won’t last much longer. Huge dust storms are a regular occurrence and it’s obvious that time is ticking down for our form of life on this planet.
Even though science has been discredited in this future age — the world needs more farmers and fewer engineers, we’re told — NASA has been maintaining a secret bunker with the idea of sending a mission through a recently discovered black hole near Saturn to explore the idea of airlifting mankind to a galaxy far, far away.
Heading up what’s left of NASA are Professor Brand (Michael Caine), his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and scientist Romilly (David Gyasi), and all they need is a good pilot to get them there. That’s where Cooper comes in, but he’s reluctant to leave his daughter (Mackenzie Foy) and son (Timothée Chalamet) until he’s convinced it’s the only way to save them.
Interstellar feels decidedly Earthbound early on — it picks up once the crew is in space. When McConaughey awakes from hibernation to see the theory of relativity at work — though he hasn’t aged at all, he has years worth of video messages from his children and he watches them grow into adults (played by Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck) right before his eyes — it’s one of Interstellar’s magical moments. The only special effect is that of a father realizing how much he has missed his children.
Written by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, with a special assist from theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, Interstellar deals in heady scientific theories that are difficult to comprehend. This is compounded by the sound mix, where conversations are sometimes submerged. But that doesn’t get in the way of comprehending Interstellar’s ultimate, rather simplistic point, which is that love is really all we need.
The lackluster dialog throws into stark relief the use of Dylan Thomas’ passionate poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, as spoken by Professor Brand, as an anthem for mankind’s refusal to surrender to certain death (“Rage, rage against the dying of the light”). That bit of poetry is echoed in the visual effects — whether it’s a ship breaking up in space, a monster wave on a planet of water or Cooper plummeting into a black hole — that are often head-spinning and dazzling.
Hans Zimmer’s haunting score adds to the sense of wonder and grace. And the physical depiction of robotics — these robots are far cries from both HAL and R2-D2 — is unique and ingenious. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema ( Her) has rendered this world in strokes both bold and beautiful. If life is about the journey and not the destination, then Interstellar is one heck of a trip.
Yet, no matter the adventures, all travels do end somewhere. It’s just unfortunate that Interstellar terminates somewhere near the greeting-card aisle of the universe.
But, oh, what things we have seen along the way.
* * * (out of five)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
Rated: PG-13 (intense perilous action, brief strong language)
Running time: 169 min.