Interstellar

The white knight rises: Christopher Nolan's space odyssey boldly blends the cosmic and the intimate

Anne Hathaway in 'Interstellar.' Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount and Warner Bros.

It's damn near three hours long. There's that. Also, Interstellar is a space odyssey with no UFOs, no blue-skinned creatures from another planet, no alien bursting from the chest of star Matthew McConaughey. It reveals a hopeful side of filmmaker Christopher Nolan that will piss off Dark Knight doomsayers. And, hey, didn't Alfonso Cuarón just win an Oscar for directing Gravity? How long are audiences expected to get high on rocket fumes?

Blah, blah, blah. Bitch, bitch, bitch. What the neg-heads are missing about Interstellar is how enthralling it is, how gracefully it blends the cosmic and the intimate, how deftly it explores the infinite in the smallest human details.

Of course, Nolan has never been the cold technician of his reputation. Watch Memento again, or The Prestige, or the undervalued Insomnia. The sticking point here is that Interstellar finds Nolan wearing his heart on his sleeve. Nothing like emotion to hold a cool dude up to ridicule. But even when Nolan strains to verbalize feelings, and the script he wrote with his brother Jonathan turns clunky, it's hard not to root for a visionary who's reaching for the stars.

Which brings us to a plot full of deepening surprises I'm not going to spoil. The poster for Interstellar presents McConaughey surveying a wasteland. It's meant to be Saturn, but it could just as well be Earth, where environmental recklessness has morphed the planet into a Dirt Bowl starving and choking its citizens.

Nolan spends the first third of the film in the American farm belt of the near future, introducing us to widower Cooper (McConaughey), a former test pilot, who depends on his father-in-law (John Lithgow) to help him raise 15-year-old son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and 10-year-old daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, superb). Like her dad, Murph is a rebel who refuses to buy into her school's official dictum that the Apollo space program was a lie.

It's when dad and daughter find the remnants of NASA, headed up by Cooper's old boss Professor Brand (Michael Caine), that the story gains momentum. Cooper heads into space to find a new world to colonize, leaving behind two kids who may never forgive him.

The physics lessons (Cal-tech's Kip Thorne consulted) kick in when Coop captains the Endurance mother ship with a science team made up of Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Brand's daughter; Romilly (David Gyasi); and Doyle (Wes Bentley). And don't forget R2-D2 and C-3PO. Not really. The ex-military robots of Interstellar are called CASE and TARS. The great Bill Irwin voices TARS, a chatty monolith that looks like something out of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and sounds like that film's HAL. (Note to viewers: Kubrick's 1968 landmark and George Lucas' Star Wars franchise are part of Nolan's DNA. React accordingly.)

Next comes the wow factor that makes Interstellar nirvana for movie lovers. A high-tension docking maneuver. A surprise visitor. A battle on the frozen tundra. A tidal wave the size of a mountain. Cheers to Nolan and his team, led by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and VFX supervisor Paul J. Franklin (Inception). See Interstellar in IMAX, with the thrilling images oomphed by Hans Zimmer's score, and you'll get the meaning of "rock the house."

And yet it's the final, quieter hour of Interstellar that gives the film resonance and lasting value. All the talk of black holes, wormholes and the space-time continuum take root in Coop when he realizes his two years in space have occupied 23 years on Earth. His children, the now-adult Tom (Casey Affleck) and Murphy (Jessica Chastain), spill out decades of joys and resentments in video messages that Coop watches in stunned silence. McConaughey nails every nuance without underlining a single one of them. He's a virtuoso, his face a road map to the life he's missed as his children bombard him with a Rorschach test of emotions.

In case you haven't noticed, McConaughey is on a roll. And he partners beautifully with the sublime Chastain, who infuses Murph with amazing grit and grace. Familial love is the topic here, not the romantic or sexual kind. How does that figure into space exploration? Nolan gives Hathaway a monologue about it. But dialogue is no match for the flinty eloquence shining from the eyes of McConaughey and Chastain. They are the bruised heart of Interstellar, a film that trips up only when it tries to make love a science with rules to be applied. In 2001, Kubrick saw a future that was out of our hands. For Nolan, our reliance on one another is all we've got. That's more the stuff of provocation than a Hallmark e-card. Nolan believes it's better to think through a movie than to just sit through it. If that makes him a white knight, Godspeed.