2014 - 169 minutes

Rated: PG-13

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Written by: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, Mackenzie Foy, David Gyasi, Casey Affleck

Interstellar takes us on a journey beyond the known universe only to discover things that have been discovered numerous times in numerous other sci-fi films.  It’s not that this film should be held to a higher standard of innovation, and it is somewhat successful in communicating the touchstone of scientific exploration as metaphor for the human condition, but it feels like a trifling consideration of grand themes. The science will no doubt be debated by many people who are much more qualified than me to discuss its merits, but as a layman most everything makes sense in the moment. The bigger problem is with the fiction in a narrative that spoon-feeds us exposition and fails to scratch much deeper than the easily digestible loop of sentimentality.

The information dump begins early with documentary footage of elderly folks recounting stories of the Earth’s blight from their youth. We can only assume they’re referring to the dusty, food deprived world in which Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is struggling to grow crops while feeding and raising his children Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). Cooper is a former NASA test pilot turned farmer out of necessity as the Earth’s food supply dwindles. Most crops won’t grow and corn, the final remaining yield, isn’t going to last much longer. The documentary footage undercuts the looming dread, making us assume that the global crisis is managed somehow. It is left ambiguous as to whom and where these people are, but one of them is Ellen Burstyn, so she’s probably important.

Following a borderline hokey contrivance of a clue, Cooper and Murphy discover a clandestine NASA base. Cooper’s former associate, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), convinces him to pilot a mission into a wormhole that “they” (not NASA, but an unknown “they”) placed near Saturn. Through the wormhole are a few planets that could potentially sustain life.  Thrown together with Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi), and walking, talking mini-robot versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s monoliths, Cooper makes the difficult decision to leave his family and attempt to save humanity.

Cooper is able to navigate deep space with seemingly no training – in his own words “never leaving the stratosphere” – and only understands the science when the script requires him to debate with his crewmen or get out of jam. The screenplay from director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan favors these speeches and visual aids to communicate plot over character.

The solid cast does what they can, McConaghey stretching at times to add emotional depth to every proclamation and every pregnant pause. Cain is essentially the nurturer he’s been in every Nolan-created universe, this time with the added bonus or repeating a Dylan Thomas poem on multiple (multiple) occasions. Hathaway is gifted the opportunity to show some range, from wise scientist to enthusiastic explorer, but isn’t done any favors when Amelia becomes defined and guided by her pesky female emotions. An Earth-bound scientist portrayed by Jessica Chastain, who shows up in the second act and has a deep personal connection to the mission, benefits from more complex passions. But, then again, at one point she tosses a stack of papers in air and shouts “Eureka!” in a particularly silly moment.

Much like the characters, the technical gifts of Interstellar are far better than its affect. Space environs are felt, from the vast expanses to the cramped quarters of the high-tech yet elemental craft exploring them. The score from Hans Zimmer is appropriately grand and spiritual, even if it is reminiscent of 2001. Punctuated with the silence of space and accompanying a few stirring action set pieces (including an amazing ship docking sequence), the sound design and stunning visuals are the star of the show.

At nearly three hours in length, Interstellar builds and builds, and continues building until most of the pieces are put together and any profundity is lost. Exploration gives way explanation as we move from planet to planet and to a conclusion that is more Shyamalan melodrama than space opera.

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