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Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is a preposterous mess that somehow kinda works

Matthew McConaughey plays a man who heads to another galaxy to save humanity in Interstellar.
Matthew McConaughey plays a man who heads to another galaxy to save humanity in Interstellar.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Interstellar, the new sci-fi weepie from director Christopher Nolan, might as well be a silent film. The primary memory one has after watching it is of Nolan's camera closing in on the faces of his actors as they cry beautifully and over-emote at whatever it is they happen to be looking at. Cut out the soundtrack entirely, and you'd still have a rough idea of what was going on in this movie, just from the way Matthew McConaughey or Anne Hathaway wrench up their faces into tight little balls when they cry.

That's both complaint and compliment. Interstellar is often an astonishing visual storytelling experience, one that casts a spell that takes a long while to dissipate after leaving the theater (especially in IMAX). But it rarely knows when to hold back. It's always all-in. It constantly bludgeons viewers, making sure they understand the point of every scene, until it's been underlined, highlighted, and followed by 50 exclamation marks.

McConaughey weeps. Nolan's camera pushes in. Hans Zimmer's bombastic score blasts away. The seats shake. The movie wants so badly to move you, but it too often forgets to move forward.

A mid-apocalyptic Bruce Springsteen album

Interstellar breaks down into three roughly recognizable acts. The first might as well be called "A Mid-Apocalyptic Bruce Springsteen Album," since it nods toward so many iconic American images, from pickup trucks barreling through corn fields to a good old-fashioned baseball game.

The film begins on a future Earth where humanity is scrabbling an existence out of the dirt — just barely. Cooper (McConaughey) is a hard-luck farmer who was once a pilot for NASA, before people decided to pretend they'd never been to the stars and were, instead, fated to try to make life on Earth better. (The politics, as in all Nolan films, are hugely confused.)

Through a series of unlikely events, Cooper and his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) find themselves presented with a choice by Cooper's old mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine, in his standard "wise old man in a Christopher Nolan film" turn). Cooper can head up a mission into interstellar space to attempt to find a better home for humanity, or he can stay on Earth and wait for everybody to die.

Of course, this is a movie, so heading off into space — with a handful of other humans and a sassy robot voiced by the great Bill Irwin — is the only choice. (Interstellar is far from subtle. Even its big twist is easily guessable within the first few minutes of the film.) But interstellar travel necessarily means that Cooper will be aging at a much slower rate than his children, introducing a fairly novel ticking clock — can he get back to Earth before his daughter dies? And will she (played by Jessica Chastain as an adult) ever forgive him for abandoning her?

Nolan has always been a fan of the manipulation of time. One needs only revisit the elaborate cutting between different dream levels in Inception to be reminded of how well he can play with these ideas. And in its elaborate second act — which could be called "How About Some Special Effects?" — Interstellar has fun with some of these ideas, with the ways that time can bend and warp in the presence of a black hole, or with how decades in solitude might rot away the human mind.

Men trying to right wrongs

Many of Nolan's best films take as their centerpiece a man's desperate attempts to fix something that went wrong in his relationship with a woman. In prior films, that's usually been a wife or lover, but in Interstellar, it's something that's gone wrong in his relationship with his daughter. McConaughey and Foy construct a believable father-daughter bond in that long, long first act, but it ultimately proves too flimsy to hang an entire movie upon.

As Interstellar gets deeper into that second act and the situation proves progressively more dire, then, the film casts about for other angles. As Amelia, Dr. Brand's daughter, Anne Hathaway is here mostly to anchor the screen when McConaughey or Chastain can't be around and to babble at length about the secret power of love (which is apparently a force that can transcend space and time, she hypothesizes).

This marks Interstellar as the kind of sentimental hogwash that a lot of people will reject as soon as they realize what they're in for, but, to be honest, it mostly works, resulting in a third act ("Christopher Nolan Has Some Thoughts on Fatherhood") that largely redeems a movie that has grown listless during a second act that introduces a lot of ideas without a great deal of followthrough.

Or, put another way, Nolan has always been a director who loves big, big ideas, but one occasionally gets the sense that he would almost rather make a movie of the characters explaining those ideas to one another with flow charts and diagrams. That worked beautifully in Inception, but it often threatens to gobble Interstellar whole. The script Nolan wrote with his brother, Jonathan, works overtime to make sure you understand every single tenet of physics explored in the film, but it too often leaves the emotional throughline of the film adrift.

There are whole scenes here where it's possible to completely and thoroughly understand the complicated, underlying physics of what's up on screen, while still being baffled as to why the characters behave the way they do (outside of moving the story forward). That's not a good place for a film that hinges entirely on one relationship to be in.

On the other hand, the images, aided by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, are gracefully terrifying, a reminder of the vastness of space and time and our insignificance in the face of all of it. A giant wave decimates a planet's surface. Light bends and arcs around a black hole. Dust settles onto a bookcase. The visuals are exquisite, seemingly promising a movie other than the one we've got.

A religious story

And yet Interstellar works. It jerks tears. It tugs heartstrings. It pays off.

It all has to do with that third act, which is so ridiculous that it earns admiration almost entirely because of how it just goes for it and never looks back. After keeping Cooper and Murph separated for much of the film, the story circles back to the two of them, even as they are separated by space and time itself, and McConaughey and Chastain are lovely in their ability to over-commit to make sure everything is sold.

But just as much of this is to do with the fact that Interstellar is ultimately, on some level, a religious story. That's evident from Zimmer's score, which sounds like Johann Sebastian Bach chained to a pipe organ and jettisoned into a black hole. (This will either be so overwhelming that it works for you, or completely turn you off. I fall into the former camp.) It's a story about faith in humanity's potential, above and beyond pessimism over our constant failings. And it's a film where people speak beatifically of "they," the unknown hyperdimensional beings that placed a wormhole into orbit around Saturn and made interstellar space travel possible.

This is fitting. Genre fiction — fantasy, science fiction, and horror — is where a lot of the tropes we used to turn to religious fiction for have turned up, and Interstellar has a winning belief in hard science's (and, okay, love's) ability to do anything. It's a movie about characters who let go and pray, not to God, necessarily, but to the idea of some underlying order in the chaos, to the idea of the numbers that will catch them and guide them home.

And if that sounds like some physicists trying their hand at poetry for the very first time, well, it's meant to a little bit. But there's a childlike hope to the film that makes it impossible to entirely hate. Interstellar believes in humanity's ability to do anything it sets its mind to, so long as it just believes.

The light beams down from the heavens, but it's not a deus ex machina. It's a bunch of really gifted special effects technicians, a very good director (possibly in over his head), and a terrific cinematographer. It is, in other words, science, and it's come to save the day.

Interstellar debuts in theaters showing it in IMAX, 70mm, or 35mm formats tomorrow. It will debut in theaters showing it via digital projection Friday.

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