Astrophysics and everyday action movie tropes don't necessarily go together, but they work well enough during the first couple of hours of "Interstellar," a film about astronauts sent across the universe to find new planets to colonize.
The problem is that the movie isn't a couple of hours. It's three. And that third hour: wow. That might not be solar wind you feel in the packed Imax theater, but the breeze from dozens of eyeballs rolling back in their heads while the movie reaches its climax.
Nolan's latest non-Batman film is at its best telling the story of an engineer-turned-farmer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who's eking out an existence with his family among what's left of humanity in a near future that's an interesting twist on the post-apocalypse. Maybe there was a brief period of panic and bloodshed, but because of shifting priorities and resources, the world settled for subsistence living amid crop failures and dust storms reminiscent of the Great Depression.
The early scenes blast off into what begins as good science fiction about traversing the universe in search of habitable worlds. Sure, the scenes are a little hokey and hackneyed Michael Caine pleads with Cooper to join the mission because he's their best pilot. But they're visually stunning enough to overlook their faults.
I love the way Nolan cuts and builds the action during these early scenes, eschewing exposition for images whenever possible, carefully balancing his score by Hans Zimmer with crescendos of sound roaring out of silence and vice versa. The film looks and sounds amazing, eventually putting the viewer in space even more convincingly and purposefully than last year's "Gravity."
This trip into the wormhole of sci-fi starts off as a "Nova"-lover's dream movie, always on the edge of believability. And for those able to suspend their disbelief a little and get on the ride, the movie keeps up a nice pace as McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, as a rather weepy scientist, and a handful of other explorers both human and not struggle to complete their mission.
But complications arise, including problematic ones for the film itself. Like the mission, the story gets out of hand quickly right around the beginning of the third act, which includes a cameo so jarring it might inspire unintentional laughter. Up to that third act, "Interstellar" is Nolan's most coherent, narratively pleasing film since "Batman Begins." But it might not surprise anyone that he's pre-coded it to bend back on itself, á la "Inception," explaining and resolving everything.
Nolan always has been a better showman than storyteller, and that tendency eventually undermines him. Like a red giant, the movie grows too big for its own good. Science and sentimentality collide like unworkable equations. Hurried lines about gravitational energy are argued against true love. The film pushes into realms so far-fetched they look ridiculous. It hinges on the relationship between Cooper and his daughter, Murph (Jessica Chastain), and one key late sequence comes across more like a super-serious version of "Ghost Dad" than any of the film's makers (brother Jonathan Nolan co-wrote) could possibly have intended.
It's been widely reported that noted theoretical physicist Kip Thorne served as a technical adviser on the film (and executive producer), helping the visual effects team render the movie's black holes so they would look close to how they're mathematically theorized. Who knows if they succeeded, but it looks like they did. Nolan's film is nothing if not spectacular spectacle, with boffo audio to boot: the bigger the screen and surround sound, the bigger the payoff.
Unfortunately those big screens and sound systems also magnify a different kind of space: the absence of any overall concept beyond some saving-the-world guff that turns preposterous trying to be something more. "Interstellar" is "Contact" with hysterical aspirations to be the next "2001: A Space Odyssey." And the disparity between Nolan's talent and the creative genius required to fill the void is all too obvious on the big screen. (PG-13) 169 min. S