Referring to the distinction between time spent on Earth and during intergalactic travel, a NASA scientist in the space opera Interstellar cracks (with no apologies to Porky Pig), "That's relativity, folks!" The same can most assuredly be said of the movie audience's inevitably divided reactions to the latest from Christopher Nolan. Your space-time mileage may vary.
The darling of Warner Brothers pictures since shepherding a trilogy of hugely popular Batman films, Nolan has won himself carte blanche as a director and co-writer (typically, as here, with brother Jonathan) of expensive mainstream fare. Nolan expends his post-Batman cachet on an apparently mega-expensive space epic getting prestige play in 70MM IMAX presentations while also gobbling up cineplex screens. Die-hard Nolan fans should definitely plan a day-trip to San Francisco's authentic IMAX screen at the Metreon, but the unconvinced may wish to avoid entirely this visually arresting but tongue-tied and bloated movie. Even the former group may stumble out wondering if their Emperor has no clothes or, at least, fewer than once assumed. For the admittedly eye-popping Interstellar proves heady and hokey in something close to equal measure as the Nolans nakedly attempt a foolhardy hybrid of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Nolan's own Inception.
Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed former NASA pilot and engineer who now operates as a farmer in a near-apocalyptic America. Earth's ability to sustain life is rapidly waning, so when Cooper stumbles into a secret NASA program to save humanity by relocating it elsewhere in the universe, he has little choice but to submit to the overtures of astrophysicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine). The Hobson's choice means leaving behind his ten-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), fifteen-year-old-son Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) to play nice in space with Brand's daughter, also a Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway).
In the early going, Interstellar compellingly posits what life could look like in the last days of the American Empire, and how, if we're lucky, a space program could provide last hopes. But when Hathaway shows up in her designer pixie cut, it's the first in a series of false notes that tediously erode Interstellar's proud scientific verisimilitude and capacity for wonder. Shortly thereafter, Nolan stages a scene in which Cooper's agonized goodbye to Murph includes the line "Once you're a parent, you're the ghost of your children's future." Yeah, that's exactly the kind of comforting sentiment that just trips right off of a father's tongue in a moment of emotional duress.
In some ways, especially the technical ones, Nolan swings for the fences here, and his ambition is to be applauded (it's already been rewarded by the participation not only of top behind-the-camera talent like cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley, but also actors like Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn and an unbilled star who turns up in a substantial role). Unfortunately, the female characters are even more poorly written than the male ones (Hathaway gets the gloppier end of an absurd philosophical discussion of love), and Nolan seems less desirous of a coherent thematic point to it all than that critics and audiences will believe, at last, that he's not modern cinema's heartless Tin Man. Nolan's blithering message for humanity stands poised between Dylan Thomas and the Beatles: go ahead and use Science to "rage, rage against the dying of the light," but for a North Star, "All you need is love." Love is what's really between the stars, y'all. Or something.