Melinda Sue Gordon
Jeff Jensen
August 15, 2014 AT 04:00 AM EDT


Current Status
In Season
169 minutes
Wide Release Date
Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Matthew McConaughey
Christopher Nolan
Paramount Pictures

We gave it a B-

Like most children of the ’70s, Christopher Nolan first became enamored with the movies thanks to a certain space opera set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But the filmmaker cites another sci-fi milestone as a major influence. ”I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey when it was rereleased in England in the wake of Star Wars‘ success and the craze for science fiction,” says Nolan, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Britain. ”I was 7 years old, so I couldn’t claim to have understood the film. I just felt this extraordinary experience of being taken to another world. It had a larger-than-life quality.”

Now the director who made Batman soar to arty heights and turned Leonardo DiCaprio into a top-spinning dream thief is launching his own cinematic space odyssey. As with every Nolan production, Interstellar is shrouded in secrecy that is either alluring or irritating, depending on your perspective. The story is set in a near future when Earth can no longer produce enough food to support the population. Matthew McConaughey is Cooper, a widower and engineer who leaves his two young kids to join a group of spacefaring scientists (including Anne Hathaway) to travel to planets beyond the solar system in search of solutions, if not a new home for humankind.

”It’s a thrilling interaction between grand spectacle and intimate, intense relationships,” says John Lithgow, who plays Cooper’s father-in-law. (The star-studded cast also includes Jessica Chastain, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, and possibly even Matt Damon in a cameo.) ”More so than many films of this genre, Chris found a way to make fantastic drama out of cosmic ideas and current human anxieties.”

The first seeds of Interstellar were planted in 2006, when renowned physicist Kip Thorne tried to develop a movie that played with theoretical astrophysics — how grooves in the fabric of space-time known as wormholes might be used to traverse the universe. He partnered with producer Lynda Obst (who’d helped bring Carl Sagan’s Contact to the screen) and sold a pitch to Steven Spielberg, who in turn hired screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (Memento) to pen a script.

The project evolved and stalled over several years until Jonathan’s brother Christopher asked to take a crack at it. Christopher reworked the story to incorporate some sci-fi ideas he’d been nursing since he was a Star Wars-dreamy, 2001-gobsmacked kid. (He declines to elaborate precisely which ideas those were, for fear of revealing spoilers.)

During last year’s four-month shoot, Nolan continued to shun CGI for visceral verisimilitude and practical world making: Alberta, Canada, doubled as imperiled Earth. The wastelands of Iceland became a watery planet. And on the same vast L.A. soundstages where he’d built the Batcave, Nolan assembled fully enclosed spacecraft inspired by NASA designs. The actors didn’t have to pretend to see space when they looked out the windows: Nolan projected black holes and the dizzying spin of stars onto massive screens that surrounded the sets.

Hathaway, who’d trained for months to play Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, didn’t trust Nolan’s assurance that she wouldn’t have to prep so rigorously for Interstellar. After testing out the 40-pound space suits before production, she found a Navy SEAL to get her in shape. It didn’t always help. While shooting a zero-gravity scene, Hathaway got increasingly lightheaded as the tight-fitting harness cut off her circulation. She managed to soldier through the scene — ”I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t be a wimp, Hathaway!”’ she says — but looked green by the end. ”Chris felt terrible, and he was blowing on the back of my neck to cool me down,” she says. ”But I was proud I did not faint and finished the scene, because you never want to disappoint Christopher Nolan.” She adds: ”Matthew never had a problem with it, of course. He was reciting poetry the entire time.”

Nolan says he appreciated his cast’s Right Stuff commitment because it embodies the tone of a movie that resists the usual cynicism of modern sci-fi dystopias. ”We have spirited actors playing spirited characters who are trying to make the best of a bad situation and doing a rather good job at it,” Nolan says. And so Interstellar boldly goes to a place where few sci-fi epics dare to trek: optimism.

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