Old and new collide in Interstellar, along with time and space, and love and death. The film is hugely ambitious, the brainchild of the Nolan brothers. And for all its ambition, Interstellar is inarguably breathtaking. Like Gravity last year, it creates the reality of outer space, but its imagination is far greater. Director Christopher Nolan takes us through wormholes and to far reaches of the universe where planets boast waves the size of Everest and clouds made of ice. Nolan's vision is awe-inspiring at its best, but the film has major flaws. In attempting to resolve the story's ideas, and the unanswerable questions it posits, Nolan's reach exceeds his grasp
Interstellar may be the M. Night Shyamalan of Christopher Nolan movies. I can't decide if the director deserves credit for trying to explain the theoretical physics of the film, or if he should be harpooned for not allowing the mystery to leave us reeling. Either way, the ending will polarize audiences.
It's the future. Earth is a dust bowl and farmers are revered as food grows more and more scarce. Science has been ostracized for not being able to solve the problem. In schools, they even teach the Apollo missions were staged (Nolan's wink to Kubrick). And NASA is holed up underground at a NORAD base trying to find a new planet so we can hit the reset button and try again.
Conveniently close by, ex-pilot Coop (Matthew McConaughey) is single dadding it with a tough son, Tom, and a spitfire daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy). She's got a "ghost" in her room, a gravitational anomaly we learn, that spells out coordinates in morse code. A major dust storm allows Coop and Murph to see it. So they drive to the spot on the map and find NORAD where Professor Brand (Michael Caine) promptly recruits the ex-flyboy to pilot a mission with his daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), through a wormhole in space that was "put there" by fifth dimensional beings so humans could save themselves by finding a new planet to ruin. One catch: He'll never see Murph again probably since, you know, relativity and all. An hour on one planet is like seven years back on Earth.
These opening sequences are drenched in melodrama. Coop and Murph cry their eyes out over the decision to leave and the script's overuse of exposition hinders its emotional core. Nolan doesn't show any more of the Earth than what's immediate to the characters and before we know it, Coop and Amelia are strapped in and headed off into oblivion.
Rushed or not, the rest of the film happens in space. The visuals are astounding, a fantastic mixture of deep space imagery (Saturn's close-up is a stand out), archival launch footage, meticulously constructed models of the ships and space stations, and surreal representations of spacetime that will blow you away. Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography is breathless.
Then there's the human element. Inside the shuttle, Coop, Amelia, two co-pilots, and two wiseass robots who look like Tetris pieces carry out the mission. They head through the wormhole to one water-covered planet, then an ice-covered one where they find Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), part of the first mission, who seemingly has the data needed to prove human life can exist on this new world.
Nolan's intricate story details are legion and Interstellar builds on the steepest incline in film this year. It's absorbing filmmaking, but as the story draws to a close, the wheels start to fall off. Starting with a goofy fight between astronauts that makes little sense, the mission changes into something different. Fuel becomes a major issue (isn't it always) and "plan B" comes into effect. Data must be gleaned from the black hole to discover what can transcend spacetime and that means someone's gotta go in there.
All the while, Nolan transitions back to the pale blue dot where Murph (Jessica Chastain) is now an adult working with Professor Brand. She has all but given up on her father, and her brother (Casey Affleck) is living out the hours on the old farm while his family's health declines. But it's back on the farm where the film's big questions lie, and Nolan connects both worlds at the finish to explain everything.
Interstellar presents a future where daughters love their fathers and that bond may save us all. The movie is unabashedly sentimental. (You'll get used to all the dolly zoom close-ups and quivering lips.) But you'll likely be too caught up to care. The cast is heroic, their mission pure, and the connections between the characters feel real. There's a lot to care about and to like. But the film overwhelms us with emotional beats as well. Hans Zimmer's fantastic restrained score disappears during the third act and morphs into his familiar sonic tones mixed with a distinct horror element, like Inception meets Halloween.
For all of its dreaming and imagination, Interstellar wraps itself up too neatly and the result is underwhelming anyway. Nolan is known for his killer endings and he's created some of the best in film in the past 20 years, but Interstellar's is not one of them. The wonderful enigma the movie presents is done little justice. Nolan has always found a way to combine questions and answers with his films' conclusions and this one has too much of the latter. The movie is far from a failure, however. Part of its problem is it's too smart for its own good.