Anyone bemoaning the dearth of original scripts in a movie marketplace dominated by adaptations, remakes, and sequels should in theory be thrilled by Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a sprawling metaphysical science-fiction epic that’s nothing if not original. Interstellar does engage in its share of homages and borrowings from film history: We open on a car chase through a cornfield that’s a drone-era update of the climactic chase in North by Northwest. The plot, about a group of astronauts sent into space to investigate a mysterious anomaly, explicitly recalls that of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The use of special effects to communicate radical perceptual shifts comes courtesy of The Matrix. But for better or worse, Interstellar stubbornly remains its own whacked-out, inimitable self: a century-spanning family soap opera that’s simultaneously a cowboy space opera. Oh, and a serious philosophical treatise on both human mortality and the concept of time. And possibly, if unsatisfyingly, also a dystopian environmental parable of some kind or other?
There might be a few more genres that would comfortably fit into the roomy 169-minute running time of Interstellar, a movie I snickered at more than once but never stopped staring at in wonder. This isn’t Nolan’s best film by any stretch, but it abounds in the qualities that are among his strengths: evoking a sense of visual awe, crafting balletically sleek large-scale action sequences (remember the somersaulting semi in The Dark Knight?), and casting actors (especially male ones) who deliver fierce and memorable performances, even in roles that are less than fully fleshed out. Unfortunately, Interstellar also showcases some of Nolan’s persistent weaknesses: dialogue (written by Nolan and his brother and frequent writing partner Jonathan) that lays out the film’s big ideas and themes with the assiduity of a new employee at a whiteboard. Female characters who spend most of their screen time, however much they’re given, as either helpmates or victims. And a tendency toward intellectual and auditory bombast: Here, it’s Michael Caine bellowing quite a bit of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” as a spacecraft launches deafeningly into the stratosphere, Hans Zimmer’s booming music jockeying for a place in the mix.
I actually watched the entirety of Interstellar wearing foam earplugs brought along for that purpose, because Chris Nolan movies, like death-metal concerts, are best attended wearing some sonic safety gear (especially if the film is being screened in IMAX, as Interstellar will be in some theaters when it opens Nov. 7). The earplugs came in handy right away in that gorgeously shot opening cornfield sequence, in which equally gorgeous single dad Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his children, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy), chase a descending drone until it crashes in a field, then toss it into the back of their truck to take it apart for salvage.
The exact nature of the futuristic dystopia Cooper and his kids inhabit takes a while to establish itself, and in fact never fully emerges into relief. We’re given no explanatory date-stamps or backstory-furnishing voiceovers, and the world Cooper, his children, and his gentle father (John Lithgow) live in looks externally fairly similar to our own—there are cars and computers, functioning schools and governments, even organized games of what appears to be minor-league baseball. But gradually we learn that some time ago the earth’s soil stopped supporting any crop but corn and okra—and the last extant okra field is about to die out. Dust storms, kicked up by the erosion of topsoil due to worldwide blight, periodically ravage the land. The human population is on a mathematically chartable course toward extinction; as another character grimly observes to Cooper at one point, their children’s generation is likely to be the last to survive.
Cooper, who was once a crack spaceship pilot, gets recruited (or, depending how you look at it, coerced) into a top-secret exploratory mission organized by what remains of NASA—an institution that’s had to go underground in an era in which, for some reason, official ideology insists that the moon landing was faked. (Better not let Buzz Aldrin hear you say that, dystopian future!) After an accumulation of seemingly supernatural coincidences that would be too spoilery to reveal even if I could understand them, Cooper agrees to take the job, though it will mean leaving his children behind on a rapidly failing planet. He’s assured by NASA chief Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) that somewhere near Saturn, scientists have located a disturbance in space-time; it may be the human race’s only hope of skipping through a wormhole and locating a habitable planet in an otherwise impossibly distant galaxy.
Get used to hearing about that wormhole, because it becomes the Piccadilly Circus of Interstellar, the intergalactic traffic hub around which the film’s various plotlines whip in intersecting circles. After agonizingly tearing himself away from his family, Cooper sets out for Saturn, aware that because the effect of relativity on the passage of time, he may not find his way back through the wormhole to Earth before his children’s lifespans are long over, if he survives the trip at all. “Time is a resource, like oxygen or food,” he explains to his crew, pressing on them the importance of quickly gathering data on the three possible planets they’re investigating as replacement Earths. Meanwhile, back on the regular earth, Tom and Murph grow into adults played by Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain. For many years, the siblings maintain the hope that their father will return, but eventually Tom’s video messages—which take years to be relayed remotely to Cooper in deep space and to which he can’t respond—trickle to a despairing halt. As for Murph, she can’t forgive her dad for abandoning his own children, even if it’s to serve the human race.
Cooper’s fellow crew on the Endurance consists of planetary scientist Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), astrophysicist Romilly (David Gyasi), and co-pilot Doyle (Wes Bentley). There’s also a pair of affable monolith-shaped robots, CASE and TARS—both hydraulic puppets operated by the actor and clown Bill Irwin. What happens on the ship is far less dramatically interesting than it ought to be, given the mind-bending experiences these four humans and two machines go through together. (At one point, a pair of explorers return from what seems like an afternoon’s worth of adventure to find their crewmates unfathomably transformed.) Still, the movie’s middle third is visually and technically breathtaking, with two back-to-back planetary exploration sequences of staggering beauty and scale. One world has water—overwhelming amounts of it, periodically rising up in tidal waves the size of mountains. Another is all jagged, frigidly cold rock faces, with one surprising sign of life.
McConaughey makes for a rakish existential hero, weighing his duty to humanity against his devotion to his kids while taking time to assure his crewmates in that Robert Mitchum drawl of his that he has the piloting chops to “swing around that neutron star and decelerate.” The rest of the cast, including the vastly overqualified Chastain in a one-note role as the resentful wronged daughter, swings around the neutron star that is McConaughey himself—no one gives a bad performance, but the cast never coalesces into an ensemble. Hathaway’s character in particular seems indistinctly imagined, with hints at a painful past love story that’s never fully explored.
The protracted last act of Interstellar (which contains at least three discrete moments that could easily have been endings but aren’t) ties the outer-space plot up with the meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch one via a development that’s at once metaphysical and sort-of-seemingly scientific. (The theoretical physicist Kip Thorne was a consultant.) How you feel about the movie may hang on your reaction to this scene—about which I’ll say only that, like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it takes place in a space that seems to exist in between the familiar world we know and some strange alternate dimension. Going back over and over this crucial moment with a fellow critic on the train home, I could make no sense of it—where was the encounter meant to be taking place? What laws of the universe, or of human relationships, did it purport to disclose? But the sense of visual and spatial wonder this scene evoked in me lingered long after, accompanied by a begrudging respect for the Nolans’ sheer commitment to their own peculiar brand of visionary hokum.