Director Christopher Nolan's new space movie Interstellar is a film you really need to see to disbelieve. It's a 169-minute time-travelling, space-jumping, father-daughter love story that takes a wormhole journey across the galaxies and all the way from awesome to awful. While it's technically eye-popping and intricately structured, Interstellar is at its most fascinating when it struggles hard to communicate those things we human beings call "emotions". Instead, we get something like a freeze-dried approximation of Steven Spielberg at his most sentimental.
It's no surprise that Nolan, arguably the leading blockbuster filmmaker of the century, delivers complication and monumentality. And food for thought: He has made some ingenious head-game movies (Memento, The Prestige, Inception). He has also turned comic books into Wagnerian myth in a trio of oppressively grim and hugely popular Dark Knight movies. Interstellar is something new: a movie that's personal and precious and loopy, like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life or Darren Aronofsky's much ridiculed The Fountain. Think Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey by way of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs and you'll get an inkling of how wildly uneven Interstellar is.
A lot is generically familiar: Time travel and aging at different rates, cheeky robots, dying planets – all ideas that reach across the entire space-time continuum of sci-fi movies. The biggest claim for originality is in the elaborate visual modelling. The visualizations of black holes, wormholes (a theoretically possible tunnel between a sucking black hole and a spewing white hole) represented by silver and black spheres and discs with orange aureolas and swirling funnels. These images (we are told) possess unprecedented scientific accuracy, thanks to the guidance of producer-adviser astrophysicist Kip Thorne, who also worked on the movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan's novel.
No doubt, quibblers will quibble. In a recent Facebook post, French astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet says Thorne conceded he cheated in the symmetry of the accretion disc of matter around the black hole because asymmetry "was much harder for a mass audience to grasp." Stupid mass audiences and their stupid need for symmetry.
Graspable symmetry may also explain why the plot involves two troubled father-daughter relationships, two foreign planets and two talking robots. As with Nolan's previous films, his structures feel compulsively complicated.
The opening of the film is set in the future, or rather the far future, looking back at our near future – I'll stop now. Old men and women (as in Warren Beatty's Reds) are seen talking in direct-to-camera interviews (one of them is Ellen Burstyn) about the bad old days of the Dust Bowl when everyone was a farmer. That's not the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but a similar one in our future when the Earth is on the verge of running out of resources.
A weather-beaten wooden house appears onscreen amid a corn field (The Wizard of Oz? Superman?). The resident farmer is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a widowed former test pilot for NASA who lives with his father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow), mostly ignored teen son, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and doted-on daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy). There are computers and even some old drones flying about, but in the new curiously technophobic present, the government keeps everyone in the dark. The schools teach that the Apollo missions were all faked, a way of bankrupting the Soviet Union with a propaganda program.
Cooper grumbles: "We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars, now we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt."
His adorable and bright daughter Murph still believes in the moon landing and (here's the part where it gets all M. Night Shyamalan) also believes she has a ghost in her book-lined bedroom. One night, some apparently supernatural activity results in dust marks on her bedroom floor which Cooper recognizes as map co-ordinates. He finds a location where the old NASA has a secret hideout under the auspices of Professor Brand (Michael Caine) who is working on a plans to relocate Earth's endangered population to another, hospitable planet. A wormhole has opened up near Saturn, possibly engineered by some superior beings from another galaxy. Several astronauts have already been sent ahead on a scouting mission and have sent back reports of new potential habitats.
"Mankind was born on Earth," Brand declares. "It was never meant to die here." (Huh?)
Brand wants Cooper to pilot a new mission to save humanity, and Cooper readily agrees. His son, Tom, wants to know if he can have the truck, but Murph takes the news hard. She is devastated by her father's decision to leave, but at the movie's half-hour point, Cooper's rocket docks with a spaceship called Endurance (after Sir Ernest Shackleton's doomed Antarctic craft).
The crew includes Brand's scientist daughter, the bob-haired Amelia (Anne Hathaway, named after Amelia Earhart), a brittle, know-it-all who shows some sparks of antagonistic attraction toward Cooper. Later, Amelia mentions another astronaut named "Mann" who has gone before them. (She actually utters the line: "Mann can save us.") Amelia also offers an unscientific soliloquy about how "love" may solve this whole space-time gravity issue that she wasted her career worrying about. For a tremulous moment, I thought she was going to break into I Dreamed A Dream from Les Misérables.
There are a couple of other barely sketched characters, an astrophysicist Romilly (David Gyasi) and co-pilot Doyle (Wes Bentley), and one of those standard-issue smart-alecky computers named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin). Throughout, Hans Zimmer's music throbs obtrusively, occasionally fighting with the dialogue for our attention.
McConaughey's good ol' boy, stoner-philosopher persona is the one performance that really works here, even when he's speaking in mouthfuls of techno-babble or declaring lines like "Impossible, but necessary!" before hitting the throttle. Strange misadventures, revelations and precarious escapes follow in succession, but the overall design becomes increasingly allegorical.
Mann pops up, played by a famous star who I'm not supposed to name (no, it's not George Clooney), but who shows us that Mann alone cannot save us. Otherwise, the takeaway is that time takes our children and parents away from us faster than we think. When the crew visits a grimly inhospitable planet for three hours, 23 years pass back on Earth, and Cooper's daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) has morphed into a woman in her 30s still sending angry messages to her deadbeat dad through the wormhole. Though her character is emotionally arrested, she too has become a brilliant physicist (the movie is thick with them) and is working for the aged Brand, who constantly likes intoning Dylan Thomas's poem for his dying father, Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night to emphasize the inextinguishable flame of human hope.
Apart from a few blessed moments when Zimmer's music shuts up and we get to see those spacey images, there's little sublime, witty, joyous or vivacious about Interstellar. To his credit, though, Nolan never plays it safe, creating a movie that grows more eccentric and absurd as it rolls along, ending in some manic cross-cutting between space and Earth, and wrapping up with a couple of pointedly poignant symmetrical codas. By the closing credits, it seems possible that Nolan himself hails from another planet, and while he has tried diligently to show humanity in a flattering light, he lacks enough inside information to get it right.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified the astronaut Mann as Amelia's love interest.