Dir: Christopher Nolan. US. 2014. 166mins


An emotional powerhouse when it isn’t hokey - and a stunning spectacle when it doesn’t get bogged down in plot logistics - Interstellar is the clearest example yet of filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s desire to wow us with ambitious big-budget projects that balance cutting-edge effects and bold dramatic crescendos. Biting off far more than it can chew, this space-travelling sci-fi extravaganza works best in its sweeping brio, in its willingness (and ability) to pay homage to the jaw-dropping awe of the genre’s grandest entry, 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the film’s majesty is mitigated somewhat by a story that doesn’t seem nearly as visionary.

Perhaps it’s best to acknowledge that the movie’s strengths and weaknesses are profoundly bound up together, producing a riveting push-pull dynamic throughout. You watch the film lamenting its most recent slipup, only to be knocked sideways by its next extraordinary flourish. 

Opening across most of the planet by November 7, Interstellar will go a long way on the strength of Nolan’s connection to the Dark Knight trilogy, as well as Inception. (Those four films have grossed approximately $3.3bn worldwide.) The fall’s big event film before the arrival of the latest Hunger Games instalment in late November, the movie will also get a boost from a name cast led by Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain.

Grosses should be stellar, with plenty of tech nominations come award season a given. Paramount, which releases Interstellar Stateside, will also no doubt be hoping for Oscar consideration in major categories, especially after the success of last year’s sci-fi hit, Gravity.

Set in a near future in which Earth has suffered devastating environmental changes, Interstellar stars McConaughey as Cooper, a former astronaut and engineer who has reluctantly become a farmer now that the planet is more concerned with sustainability than exploring the cosmos. As a sign of how times have changed, history books have been rewritten to teach children that NASA’s Apollo missions to the moon were a hoax.

Thanks to a strange premonition from his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), Cooper ventures one day into an empty field in the middle of nowhere, which in fact is the headquarters of NASA. Continuing to work in secret even though Americans believed the program had been shuttered, NASA, led by Professor Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine), has made a terrible discovery: Earth will be uninhabitable in a generation or two.

The group’s only hope is a wormhole that has appeared near Saturn, offering the possibility to jump to another galaxy to find a hospitable planet. One concerning matter, though: the wormhole appears to have been created by an alien intelligence that’s perhaps monitoring our development.

The mission will take years, but Cooper must pilot a small team, including Brand’s scientist daughter Amelia (Hathaway), to the wormhole and make contact with an earlier group of astronauts that visited planets on the other side, determining if any of them found a world that could be humanity’s new home.

Interstellar’s life-or-death stakes assert themselves slowly, as Nolan and his co-writer brother Jonathan first establish the reality of their future world, where shrinking global populations and constant dirt storms paint a sobering portrait of everyday life. But once Cooper’s mission is presented to him, it proves to be both daunting and a blessing: This widower who has longed to explore space finally has his chance, albeit with the fate of his species hanging in the balance.

Nolan focuses on the difficulty of Cooper’s team’s task, specifically the fact that they’ll be in space for years with the possibility that they’ll never see Earth (and their families) again. Plus, there’s no guarantee that they’ll find anything of value once they enter the wormhole.

Interstellar gives the anxiety of their mission an impossibly beautiful grandeur, juxtaposing the fragile tininess of their craft against the punishing vastness of deep space. As in 2001, Interstellar portrays space as an airless, silent sea that’s both gorgeous and terrifying. This is but one allusion to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece: Interstellar also slyly references that film’s music and visual cues, and even a plot point.

As one might expect, Interstellar’s effects work is simply sensational, not just in outer space but on the planets Cooper and his crew explore. What the team uncovers shall not be revealed here, but suffice it to say that the filmmakers have crafted several excellent suspense sequences that are both visually resplendent and achingly tense.

Working with long-time editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer, Nolan wrings every last moment of disquiet from these set pieces, which are technical wonders that deliver an emotional wallop as well. Unfortunately, it also must be said that the Nolans’ script stumbles when concentrating on the plot segues that link the bravura sequences.

Despite McConaughey’s charm and Hathaway’s vulnerability, these actors aren’t playing particularly well-drawn characters. Cooper essentially is a grown-up Luke Skywalker or a slightly more responsible version of Richard Dreyfuss’s sky-watching dad from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, a big kid who dreams of a better life somewhere else.

Likewise, Hathaway’s Amelia is a badly underwritten character who, conveniently for the script, lets her emotions occasionally jeopardise the mission. There’s not much dramatic spark between them, which is problematic as their quest gets complicated by unexpected (and slightly predictable) twists.

The crew also has its own smart-ass robot sidekick, voiced by Bill Irwin. Presumably, this is Nolan’s cheeky way of tipping his cap to metallic forerunners like the ones in Lost In Space and Star Wars, but it’s not clever or resonant enough to leave much of an impression. And yet, the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the storytelling, as clunky as it is at times, can be partly forgiven by the thundering scope of Interstellar’s aspirations.

In an era of Hollywood blockbusters filled with sequels, reboots and comic-book films - and to be fair, Nolan is responsible for a few (admittedly, terrific) such movies himself - the mere existence of Interstellar is worth celebrating. This is a film that takes genuine risks, sometimes succumbs to its own self-indulgence - it’s perilously close to three hours long - but strives unceasingly to put on one hell of a show.

Even when his movies falter, Nolan is always working on several levels at once. In Inception, Nolan married a mind-bending plot to a trenchant study of love and grieving. With Interstellar, he continues to merge intellectual puzzles with a simple emotional tale. Once again, he focuses on family and loss, often striking at something primal in our need to protect those closest to us.

There’s a creakiness to Interstellar’s execution, Nolan desperately pulling out all the stops to deliver powerfully heartrending moments, sometimes to great effect and sometimes in ways that feel terribly manipulative. Chastain, playing Murph as an adult, is saddled with an impossible role that’s mostly meant to further an increasingly preposterous plot while simultaneously providing a few tear-jerking moments.

It’s easy - and necessary - to point out Interstellar’s failings, but the breadth of its daring shouldn’t be discounted, either. Perhaps it’s best to acknowledge that the movie’s strengths and weaknesses are profoundly bound up together, producing a riveting push-pull dynamic throughout. You watch the film lamenting its most recent slip-up, only to be knocked sideways by its next extraordinary flourish.  

Production companies: Legendary Pictures, Syncopy, Lynda Obst Productions

US distribution: Paramount Pictures, www.paramount.com

International distribution: Warner Bros. Pictures, www.warnerbros.com

Producers: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan, Lynda Obst 

Executive producers: Jordan Goldberg, Jake Myers, Kip Thorne, Thomas Tull 

Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan

Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema

Production design: Nathan Crowley

Editor: Lee Smith

Music: Hans Zimmer

Website: www.interstellarmovie.com

Main cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine