Christopher Nolan is a hugely gifted filmmaker and it’s difficult to imagine him making a truly bad movie. The guy simply has too much filmmaking talent. While I would hesitate to call him the best director of our generation like some people have, I’ve enjoyed every single one of his films and several of his films rank as some of the best of the 21st century to date. Nolan’s winning streak continues this week with the release of Interstellar, a huge sci-fi epic that has just as much heart as it does brains. Comparisons to last year’s Gravity are bound to happen, but Nolan’s film is actually much more similar to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is a film that’s much more interested in raising ideas and thought-provoking questions than it is in delivering nonstop thrills. It’s a very dense film that may be filled with too much ambition, but one simply can’t ignore the beautiful visuals and the touching emotional core at its center.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a former pilot who is now working as a farmer in Texas. The film opens on an unspecified year in the future, where humanity is running out of natural resources and food to survive. Cooper and his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) stumble upon NASA’s hidden headquarters and learn that they are planning to launch an expedition into space, in the hopes that they will be able to find another hospitable planet. The brain behind the operation is Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and he wants Cooper to join his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) on their expedition into space. Their goal is to travel through a wormhole near Saturn and hope that when they exit through the other side they will find a planet suitable for human life. Cooper agrees to go on this expedition to save humanity, knowing full well that it may be years before he’s able to see his family again.

If you’re planning on seeing Interstellar at all, you should try to see it on the largest screen possible. This is a true theater experience and I’m not sure how well it will hold up on home viewings. Nolan is able to make viewers feel a true sense of wonder and discovery as we bear witness to foreign planets and galaxies. Some of the visuals in the film are truly stunning, thanks in large part to the gorgeous cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema. This is his first collaboration with Nolan and his outer space visuals are so beautiful that you’ll be moving your eyes over every inch of the frame. Also aiding the film’s beauty is the great visual effects work. Nolan is a huge proponent for practical effects over CGI and the real sets, costumes and locations make the special effects feel more genuine than a computer ever could.

Nolan is known for making films with long runtimes and Interstellar is his longest film yet, clocking in at nearly three hours in length. But, like his previous efforts, the film never seems to drag or become dull. The 169 minutes coast by at an excellent pace. This is partly due to some great editing from Lee Smith, but it’s Nolan’s ability to truly wrap viewers up in the moment that allows his films to justify their runtimes. This certainly isn’t an action oriented film, so the fact that he can keep viewers so enraptured is a true compliment. But when the action does hit, it hits hard. Take, for instance, a sequence on a planet that appears to be covered in water. It starts simple, but a single discovery turns the entire mission upside down and leads to a truly suspenseful escape attempt.

But this is a science-fiction film that cares less about action and more about ideas. It’s difficult to say how most audience members will feel about this, but I loved how Nolan chose to take his time in developing the story. In the film’s 45 minutes, he’s able to create a future that feels truly unique and raise some timely issues, without ever becoming preachy. It’s hard to ignore the environmental message at the center of the film, but it’s worked so well into the main story that it never becomes distracting or over the top. What if our planet begins to run out of resources? What will we do when Earth is no longer our home? How do we survive on a planet that is dying faster than we are? These are just a few of the questions that are raised in the film’s script, written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. It’s also interesting that we’re never given an exact year that the film takes place and it’s up to the audience to infer how far into the future we really are. This is a society that encourages people to become farmers, believes the moon landings were faked and thrives on corn and little else. Learning about this strange society is one of the things that make the film’s first act so intriguing and effective.

One of the biggest criticisms that Nolan has faced is his inability to develop truly interesting characters. This weakness carries into his most recent film; aside from Cooper and Murph, all of the major characters are pretty uninspired, but solid performances from the entire cast prevent this from being a huge issue. What makes Cooper and Murph great characters is their relationship between one another. Murph is truly devastated when she finds out that her father will be leaving her and watching Cooper attempt to say goodbye is nothing short of heartbreaking. A scene where Cooper finally receives several messages from his family back on Earth is also tough to watch and McConaughey nails his scenes. Cooper uses his tough exterior to try to mask what he’s really feeling, but he can’t hold it in forever and when he finally breaks down, McConaughey shows a true sense of vulnerability. Also great is Mackenzie Foy as his young daughter Murph. Child actors tend to stand out as weak compared to their adult counterparts, but Foy successfully develops her character into someone that we can care about and her relationship with McConaughey is one of the highlights of the film. Also adding emotion to the film is the fantastic score by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer uses less heavy strings than he’s become accustomed to and opts for a more subtle score with a gentle touch. It may not sound as exciting as his invigorating work on Inception and The Dark Knight, but it’s equally as effective.

Nolan’s always been a better writer than director and Interstellar’s script has just enough problems to hold the film back from true greatness. Oftentimes there’s so much going on that the script resorts to exposition to explain things and even then it’s still confusing. This problem will likely lessen on a rewatch, but on an initial viewing, the film feels way too dense. And despite the fantastic setup, Cooper’s discovery of NASA’s headquarters feels far too convenient and his decision to join the expedition happens too quickly. I also thought that some of the reveals in the film’s third act were slightly predictable, even though the way that they were revealed was extremely interesting.

Similar to the final act of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the climactic moments of this film transport viewers to unforeseen and transcendental locations. And while the film’s setup and conclusion may be fantastic, some of the initial space scenes lack the interesting ideas of the previous scenes and the excitement of the later scenes. But in spite of all the flaws, Nolan once again delivers a truly engrossing and exhilarating movie-going experience. What’s most impressive is that even though the script is filled to the brim with scientific dialogue, it never loses sight of the heart and emotion that make these characters worth rooting for. Interstellar may be a flawed ride, but oh what a ride it is.

Interstellar receives 3.5/4

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