To paraphrase Christopher Nolan‘s “The Dark Knight,” we don’t get the prestige filmmakers we need, we get the ones we deserve. And one of the ones we seemingly deserve is Nolan himself, a filmmaker with a keen visual sense but also one who undercuts the big, challenging ideas of his movies with unnecessarily tidy resolutions.
In that respect, “Interstellar” may represent an apotheosis of sorts, as it illustrates the very best and the very worst of Nolan as a writer-director. On the plus side, there’s a stunning portrayal of how far-reaching space travel might work, a glimpse at an apocalyptic near-future that’s both brilliantly written (no year is mentioned, and we’re left to glean together important bits of information that zip by in conversation) and designed (the clothes, the cars, and the tech are almost entirely late-20th century), and a vision of robots like nothing I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Weighing against that, without getting into spoilers, is a third act of staggering wrongheadedness, along with female characters whose intellect takes a backseat to their exploding emotionalism and rage. Nolan is, presumably, among a handful of filmmakers who gets to do whatever he wants with minimal studio intrusion, but the resolution of “Interstellar” feels so inorganic that you’d swear it was concocted by a Glendale focus group.
That ending feels like such a betrayal because so much of what comes before it manages to be truly stunning, particularly in the 70mm IMAX version, thanks to the art department, the visual effects team, and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Her”). We open with interviews with elderly Midwesterners remembering crop failure and wind storms, and they would appear to be talking about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s until we see a table being set, where someone dusts off a plate, a glass — and a laptop computer.
In this retro-future, we meet Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), one of the last pilots to work at NASA before the agency was dissolved, since the lack of food on Earth took priority over reaching the stars. The widowed Coop runs a family farm with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), son Tom (Timothée Chalamet, “Men, Women and Children”), and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, “The Conjuring”).
The latter is convinced that there are ghosts in her room, knocking objects off shelves and sending her messages via Morse code. Coop is skeptical until he realizes that lines of dust left on her floor after a windstorm are actually binary code, giving the coordinates to what turns out to be the very last NASA base, where Coop’s old mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is overseeing a launch to track down three previous missions that were intended to find a new home for the human race.
Coop must leave behind his family, including a very upset Murph, for the mission, accompanied by Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway), two other astronauts, and the sarcastic and boxy (but surprisingly versatile) android TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin).
All the setup is fascinating, as is the space travel, particularly when they journey to planets near a black hole, meaning that for every hour that the landing party spends on the surface, seven years will elapse for the crew member orbiting in the spacecraft. Cliffhanger sequences involving slow, giant tidal waves and docking with an out-of-control ship demonstrate the director’s (and editor Lee Smith’s) proficiency. For much of the film, Nolan (who co-wrote with his brother Jonathan) seems to be unafraid to allow this big-budget extravaganza to tell a story that’s about pain and loss and melancholy and sacrifice.
Until it’s not that anymore, and “Interstellar” becomes thuddingly prosaic. Worse, Hathaway and Jessica Chastain (as adult Murphy) both get saddled playing brilliant women who are nonetheless ruled by their, you know, lady feelings, before ultimately capitulating to the men around them, even though the men aren’t that stable themselves. (A movie about traveling to the ends of the universe only to find daddy issues? Didn’t McConaughey already make that movie, and wasn’t it called “Contact”?)
Nolan also seemingly can’t help himself from drowning out many of the dialogue scenes with ribcage-jiggling bass notes from pipe organs and string sections, which basically try to do for “Interstellar” what “bwaaaaahhh” did for “Inception.”
“Interstellar” is a film that isn’t afraid to brush up against the edges of infinity; it’s just too bad it has no idea how to navigate the voyage back.