A few years back, Christopher Nolan took us on a thrill ride called “Inception,” a deliciously mysterious journey through dream logic, time and subconsciousness. Though it wasn’t always clear precisely what was going on, it was great fun trying to follow — and, along the way, experiencing moments of genuine beauty and emotion rare for a big-budget blockbuster. Now, having finished his Batman trilogy, Nolan’s back with “Interstellar,” and it’s in some ways reminiscent of “Inception”: a story of time, space and human connection, this time told with a generous helping of quantum physics, rocket science and reflections on love. While it’s often achingly beautiful, “Interstellar” doesn’t bring the viewer the same thrill as “Inception” and many of Nolan’s others; it may be that this one’s just too long, too ambitious and too mystifying.
But let’s remember what dimension we’re in, here on Earth: the Hollywood blockbuster, where ambition and smarts are too often in short supply. A not-his-best Nolan movie is still head and shoulders above much of what’s out there: it’s artful, thoughtful, different, maybe not for everyone — and thank goodness he’s able to have such an enormous canvas on which to play out his visions. (Speaking of enormous, I saw “Interstellar” in 70mm IMAX at the Boeing IMAX Theater at Pacific Science Center, and I suggest you see it that way, too, if you can; part of the thrill of “Interstellar” is getting lost in the vastness of the images.)
At the center of the story, which begins a few decades into the future, we have Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot now widowed farmer who lives with his two children (Timothée Chalamet, Mackenzie Foy) and father-in-law (John Lithgow) on the prairie. A blight has destroyed crops; dust storms ravage the country like blizzards, and Cooper finds himself, unexpectedly, at the remote offices of NASA, asked to accept a mission to find another galaxy where humanity can thrive.
And that’s the jumping-off point for a plot that, quite frankly, often doesn’t make much sense, particularly in its final third. But you don’t go to “Interstellar” for sense, or for a straightforward space-exploration tale: You go for an image of a gracefully ringed Saturn, as if drawn by paint strokes, while a delicate piano solo plays (the majestic if occasionally overwhelming score is by Hans Zimmer); for the way that silence, in space, feels like something you could hold in your hand; for Nolan’s knack for finding, in the midst of an insanely expensive spectacle, moments of human connection that can take your breath away. The vivid scenes between McConaughey and Foy remind us that movies so rarely look at the bond between fathers and daughters. You believe that this smart, fiery little girl is kin to this laconic dreamer; their parting, when he can’t promise when he’ll return home again, is devastating.
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Perhaps “Interstellar” has too many moments in which the characters speak in earnest generalities; perhaps its running time of close to three hours is just a bit too leisurely; perhaps having Michael Caine intone Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” not once but twice was a bit much; perhaps Nolan, in creating his space odyssey (though Zimmer’s music sometimes turns it, enchantingly, into a space ballet), became just a little too caught up in the wonder of it all. But it’s hard to blame a filmmaker for falling in love with his material, or a movie for having too many ideas. “Interstellar” may not be Nolan at his best, but it’s still Nolan, and there’s much to be said for that.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org