I have a soft spot for Christopher Nolan. He may not be a director's director, but he is a writer's director: the kind who believes with utter sincerity that he can use blockbuster action flicks as epic vehicles for ideas. Granted, the ideas aren't always new, the epic plots don't always cohere, and the product can be as heavy-handed as a Wagner opera. But, not unlike the Ring cycle, the collision of Nolan's overweening ambition with Hollywood's money-minded conservatism is a sight to see.
And it's a big, noisy spectacle in Interstellar — well, except the parts that take place in the silence of space. Scripted by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, the movie plays like an effort to update Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind — which found a rapturous sweet spot between science and mysticism — to an age of climate change and waning NASA budgets. It's a doomed endeavor, but fascinating to witness.
Space exploration isn't an adventure for Matthew McConaughey's Cooper; it's a necessity. In the film's unspecified near future, a blight has ravaged crops worldwide, leaving humanity struggling with dust storms and famine. The U.S. government has been shuttered, and widower Cooper, formerly an astronaut, now spends his time tending his family farm. He's told that his is an Earth-bound "caretaker generation," but Coop and his precocious daughter (Mackenzie Foy) remain mesmerized by the stars.
Through a series of unnecessarily complicated events, our hero regains contact with his former mentor (Michael Caine), a NASA scientist organizing a secret mission to seek refuge from the dying Earth in another galaxy. A wormhole in space-time has conveniently appeared near Saturn, opening up the possibilities of both alien life and interstellar travel. This could be Coop's chance to get off the Earth and save humanity. But can he abandon his beloved, perpetually teary offspring for what might be a suicide mission?
In Close Encounters, that wasn't even a question; Richard Dreyfuss' character, father of three, hopped on the alien spaceship without a glance back. In Interstellar, it's the crux of the whole plot: Is love an obstacle to humanity's survival, or our best guide? The question sticks with Coop as he zips through the wormhole, the heavy special effects come out, and the film shifts into wonder-and-terror-of-space gear.
After an unwieldy start on Earth, Interstellar hits its stride Out There, where Coop and his fellow astronauts (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) encounter enough perils to fill several movies. Nolan presents the mission with just enough scientific accuracy to make the void feel genuinely terrifying, but not enough to keep black holes from acting as handy plot devices. Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain steps in to play the adult version of the daughter Coop left behind, whose teariness has turned to rage.
Viewers with a low tolerance for schmaltz won't lack for eye-roll moments during Interstellar. Characters tend to speechify rather than talk, and even McConaughey's mellow-dude cadences can't redeem some of his lines. Nolan tips his hand on the love question in an unfortunate monologue in which Hathaway announces that love is actually the key to everything, "the one thing that transcends time and space."
Yet there's something weirdly touching about the movie's corny proclamations, because they contrast so sharply with the hell scapes Nolan keeps showing us. The whole mess works — almost — because Interstellar does capture the dread of a dying planet, the dangers of setting sail into the unknown, and the fierceness of our need to convince ourselves that little things like family bonds matter in the face of a vast and indifferent universe. The movie is wish fulfillment and magical thinking on an operatic scale, with Hans Zimmer's score often swelling appropriately to drown out the characters' dialogue. And damned if it didn't sweep me away, just for a moment or two.