Christopher Nolan wants us to think big. As in big ideas on a big screen.
In “Interstellar,” the director exhorts humanity to aim for the stars — literally. And he makes his sales pitch for investing in wonder with a spectacular presentation that would be wasted on a TV, tablet or smartphone. This is epic cinema that begs to be compared to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But unlike Stanley Kubrick’s psychedelic joyride, this journey is powered by a human heart.
The heart belongs to Matthew McConaughey. Making a rare detour into dad mode, he plays Cooper, a former astronaut who is now a farmer and the widowed father of two kids. Although the setting seems like the present day in the Midwest, we surmise that the U.S. has suffered some kind of calamity that has shrunk the population and left the landscape parched with dust.
The heavy-handed officials at his kids’ school deem that college-eligible Tom (Timothée Chalamet) would be more useful to society as a farmer than an engineer, and they chide 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, outstanding) for her impractical interest in space flight.
But Murph feels that forces are pulling her skyward, and when she insists that the dust in the house is a kind of code, Cooper deciphers it as binary directions to a secret facility.
Behind tight security, the last of NASA’s true believers are planning a mission to find a new home for the human race. Professor Brand (Michael Caine, natch) believes that Cooper has the right stuff to pilot the spacecraft on a decades-long trek to infinity and beyond.
Because of relativity, Cooper knows that even if he returns safely, his daughter may grow older than him. His tearful goodbye with resentful Murph frames the philosophical question that will be repeated throughout the film: whether personal loyalties outweigh the communal good.
Cooper rockets into deep space with a crew that includes Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and a blocky robot called TARS that is dubiously programmed with a human personality (voice of Bill Irwin). Ahead of them is a wormhole that leads to either a nearby planet that can be touted to the Earthlings or a distant planet where Cooper will run out of fuel and hatch a cargo of embryos.
From the script to the acting to the production design, “Interstellar” is so airtight that when co-pilot Amelia advises Cooper to be guided by love, it sounds plausible.
Notwithstanding the cosmological conundrums (and the occasional allusions to “The Wizard of Oz”), this is a crackerjack action movie. It’s a rare space opera that includes both a killer wave (where the one-vs.-many dilemma is played out) and a frozen cloud (where an uncredited Famous Actor tries to derail the mission).
Meanwhile, Murph grows into an adult scientist (played by Jessica Chastain) who works with Professor Brand to interpret the data coming back from space for signs that her father is still alive.
Like “2001,” “Interstellar” hits the reverse thrusters when it tries to literalize concepts such as extra-dimensional time travel, which allows Cooper to peek into Murph’s life from behind a bookshelf. But the sheer, audacious scale of the film and its ideas overwhelm any reservations about taking the long trip. Because most movie buffs will never travel into space, “Interstellar” is our ticket to heaven.
What “Interstellar” • Three and a half stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 2:49 • Content Some intense perilous action and brief strong language
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