A lot like his 2010 film “Inception”, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” deals in multiple layers of time and space. In the not-too-distant future, Earth is close to running out of natural resources; corn is the last remnant of agriculture, and massive dust storms occur on a regular basis. After a gravitational anomaly leads him to a secret NASA outpost, ex-pilot/engineer/farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) finds the fate of humanity resting on his shoulders when a professor (Michael Caine) taps him to lead an expedition into a wormhole that has mysteriously appeared near Saturn with potentially habitable worlds on the other side. (“We’re not meant to save Earth. We’re meant to leave it”, argues the professor). But the central story occurs in Cooper’s own personal universe: Back on the farm, precocious daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and reliable son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) grow into adults (Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck) while awaiting his return, as Earth years are equivalent to mere hours in the distant galaxy to which Cooper ventures — making time as much of an issue as food and fuel. He’s later told that he might need to choose between saving the human race or seeing his kids again — but the plan won’t work at all if everyone’s dead by the time they make it back.
Nolan has finally made a film where his ambition exceeds the finished product, and though the visuals are nothing short of spectacular, “Interstellar” becomes a noisy, distended exercise in obscurity and overindulgence that lacks the discipline that kept “Inception” so consistently engaging. It’s sometimes tough to discern a narrative amidst all the theorizing and hypothesizing and such, and at some point, I got the feeling that my intellect would have been better served catching up on episodes of “Cosmos”. McConaughey dazzles, of course, and a few tearjerker moments break up the tedium as the dialogue sometimes sounds like it was pulled from “The Big Bang Theory” and stripped of its humor, but even the “Dallas Buyers Club” actor is not quite strong enough to resist the drag of its weighty premise and super-highbrow posturing.
On Earth, the strongest performances come from Foy, who powerfully portrays a willful young girl left embittered by the absence of her father, and Chastain as the brilliant but cynical woman who Murph eventually becomes. In space, McConaughey’s crew are far less compelling, not very promising company for years stuck in a tin can (and for us, nearly three hours in the theater — there were a few times when I wished I’d been in cryosleep). As the daughter of Caine’s professor, returning Nolan-ite Anne Hathaway’s Amelia Brand is torn between logic and love (a sidebar that contributes little more than cliché to their existential conundrum), but only the former trait is believable from this astrophysicist who is only slightly less chilly than her “Dark Knight Rises” Catwoman. Wes Bentley and David Oyelowo play the other two astronauts, who are too involved in calculating time differentials (7 years per Earth hour makes for some serious jet lag) to develop much personality but are well-suited to the roles nonetheless; Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart lend their voices respectively to the ship’s onboard computer and a droid that looks like a walking Rubik’s Cube (which also serves as the comic relief).
There are elements of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” here, but mostly it feels like Nolan is just trying to outdo himself again. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s (“Her”) magnificent panoramas are made more intense by Hans Zimmer’s ceaseless crescendo, but the film is most haunting in fleeting silences where we’re able to ponder the vastness and infinite mystery of the universe. Moments like this — a distant view of their tiny ship passing close by a planet, for example — remind us of how immersive shooting in IMAX can be, but an increasingly convoluted script (by Nolan and brother Jonathan) tends to get in the way of our ability to retain the majesty of such vistas for too long. The film’s most ambitious and jaw-dropping setpiece comes in its midsection, where thousand-foot waves thwart a data recovery mission on a water-covered world, and you’ll undoubtedly be glued to your seat as McConaughey and crew quickly realize that they’re not as prepared as they may have thought. These broad visuals are abundant, as you’d expect from Nolan, but some of the scenes within feel desperate to suddenly please a broader demographic (an icy tundra provides the setting for a superfluous fight sequence that borders on silly) who otherwise might feel like they need to take a course in astrophysics in order not to get lost in the scientific mumbo-jumbo.
I’ve typically been a fan of Nolan’s elaborate conceptualizations, and “Interstellar” has its merits as a visionary piece of artistry as well as a potential awards-grabber/blockbuster, but the film also marks the first true lapse in the filmmaker’s proclivity for successfully combining the palpable and the utterly abstract, the precise and the vague, as it painstakingly builds a set of rules in order to upend them altogether, only to deliver a very elementary message while leaving us in the dark about how it got there. A half hour could easily have been excised to minimize inconsistencies, and “Dark Knight” trilogy editor Lee Smith’s curiously abrupt cutting often makes for a bumpy ride. With a filmmaker as influential on contemporary cinema as Nolan, it’s hard not to simply compare Nolan to Nolan — no one else out there is quite like him. But even icons like Scorsese and Spielberg have their missteps; maybe “Interstellar” will bring the great Nolan back down to Earth for a while.