As the rare director whose singular vision is buoyed by infinite artistic freedom, Christopher Nolan would be derelict if he didn’t take gargantuan risks. It’s good for us that he does. Interstellar, his sci-fi spectacularama helixed around a father-daughter love story, is a gamble like no other in his career. It’s his longest film, his headiest, his most personal. And, in its square-peg-in-a-round-wormhole stab at being the weepy motion-picture event of the year, it’s also his sappiest.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is Nolan’s holy grail, and Interstellar is crammed with references to it, including an homage to both the computer HAL and the black monolith in the form of a talking robot named TARS. But it’s 2001‘s scene of an astronaut warmly video-chatting with his little girl (played by Kubrick’s own 6-year-old) that acts as Nolan’s emotional keystone. In an unspecified future where Earth has been doomed to extinction, ex-pilot and widower Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is asked by a NASA scientist (Michael Caine) to lead a mission through a cosmic rip in our solar system to search for new planets. His adolescent daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy)—who’s been observing ghostly signs in her bedroom, including a Morse code message on her bookshelf that spells ”STAY”—pleads with her dad to do just that.
But in a film that runs almost three hours, Nolan devotes mere seconds to Cooper’s decision to abandon his family. (There’s also a son, underloved by both Cooper and Nolan, played by Timothée Chalamet.) Cooper comforts Murphy by saying that due to the space-time continuum, she might be the same age as he is if he makes it back alive. ”Imagine that,” he says tenderly. (Nolan is unafraid to go to dark places, but he dares not touch the plot’s tacit Freudian ”daddy” themes, even if his idol Kubrick would’ve found them irresistible.)
Using his IMAX camera like a GoPro, Nolan crosscuts Cooper’s truck speeding away from home with his spaceship liftoff. A female explorer, unsubtly named Amelia (Anne Hathaway), is a partner on the journey. They encounter an astronaut from a previous expedition called Dr. Mann, played by an A-list actor whose identity Nolan has kept secret. ”Mann can save us,” says Amelia, in one eye-roller of a double entendre. The comic-book dialogue is porcupined with exclamation points. ”Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” the poem that has been crooned by everyone from David Tennant on Doctor Who to Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School, is recited—twice—in hokey solemnity.
Yet Nolan, as ever, understands awe. In Inception, a city street folded onto itself. Here, in a set piece of terrifying grandeur, an ocean wave as perpendicular as a canyon wall hurtles forward. Later, in a little wink of a scene, kids play baseball in a neighborhood where the houses curl up and over the field.
In Inception, Nolan presented a puzzle-box concept of limbo, the lowest dream level where time stretches out for decades. Here, he ingeniously flips it inside out on a planet in which one hour equals seven Earth years. Hence the casting of Jessica Chastain as Cooper’s daughter, all grown up.
Chastain, Hathaway, and McConaughey are authentic, emotive performers, and they cry enough in Interstellar to irrigate cornfields. The waterworks are not contagious. Especially in the pathos-drenched final section, Nolan, backed by Hans Zimmer’s hysterical score, tugs strenuously at our heartstrings. But all we feel is the tugging. For a brief moment in galactic time, our most brilliantly cold and clinical filmmaker forgets how to go gentle into that good night. B-