Movie review: ‘Interstellar’ and Matthew McConaughey

Ann Hornaday (c) 2014, The Washington Post.  

Say this much for “Interstellar”: It takes muchness to a new level.

Ask a handful of viewers what they think of Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction adventure story — starring a perfectly cast Matthew McConaughey as a space cowboy blessed with equal parts swagger and shamanistic depth — and they will rightfully wonder which movie you’re referring to: The outer-space epic that tries mightily to give such precursors as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Gravity” a run for their O-rings in sheer scale and ambition? The provocative, sometimes ponderous, meditation on environmental ruin, intellectual freedom and the demise of manifest destiny? The mawkish daddy-needs-to-save-the-world-now melodrama? The pulverizing, near-constant sonic boom of the sound design modulated by periods of haunting, airless silence?

“Interstellar” is all these things — and more, when you throw in a couple of goofy exercises in stunt casting. Nolan, who brought such grandiosity and sanctimonious self-seriousness to the “Batman” franchise and whose densely layered metaphysical puzzle “Inception” is surely still being debated in living rooms throughout the world, once again has made a movie that wants to be taken more seriously than mere spectacle or sensory mind-body trip. He’s out to overwhelm, crush and otherwise immobilize an audience already saturated with 3-D extravaganzas and narcotized by computer-generated hoo-hah.

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True to his artistic convictions, Nolan has filmed “Interstellar” on IMAX film stock, proudly planting the flag once more for a format that, like the Earth at the center of the story, is careening toward extinction. It’s a praiseworthy mission and there are moments of genuine awe and majesty in “Interstellar,” but there are just as many passages that play as if Nolan is less interested in value for the viewers than proving a point, whether about the arcana of quantum physics, his technical prowess or the enduring power of love.

Which isn’t to say there’s not much to value in a film that begins in the wide open spaces of a modern-day Dust Bowl and ventures to galaxies far, far away. In an Andrew Wyeth-inspired farmhouse in the middle of a vast corn field, a former test pilot named Cooper (McConaughey) lives in the not-too-distant future with his two kids and father-in-law (John Lithgow), the world outside rapidly shriveling into agricultural collapse. With food so scarce, all social and economic resources have turned from technological innovation and space exploration in favor of farming.

“We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars,” Coop says mournfully over his beer bottle. “Now, we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt.”

That changes when Coop and his beloved daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) discover a mysterious code that leads to equally mysterious coordinates out in the countryside. Soon enough, Coop has been enlisted on a top-secret, probably-deadly mission to find a habitable planet outside the solar system, and he’s cramming into a craft alongside three other astronauts willing to risk their lives to save humanity.

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One of those scientists is played by Anne Hathaway, whose molten-brown eyes seem always on the verge of tears as the crew rattles its way through black holes and worm holes and star stuff (oh my!). Nolan stages their journey with impressive, even thrilling verisimilitude, juxtaposing the deafening rattle and thrum inside the rocket with the eerily quiet world just outside. And he brings just as much imaginative vision to the places they eventually discover, from the enormous, terrifying wave that threatens to engulf them on one watery planet to the tundra-like expanse of another.

Oddly enough, when the end of the world is near, only the developed West will see fit to respond: “Interstellar” is a remarkably monocultural affair, up to and including the British accents of co-stars David Gyasi and Michael Caine, who intones Dylan Thomas with wearying obviousness throughout the production.

With his Chuck Yeager-worthy drawl and reflectiveness well honed from his Lincoln commercials, McConaughey makes for a compelling, even believable hero who is saddled with guilt over leaving his kids at home, perhaps never to return. (He breaks down with particularly convincing abandon when he receives a pivotal video missive from home.) But too often, the father-daughter dynamics that propel “Interstellar” — which Nolan co-wrote with his brother, Jonathan — feel shrewdly calculated, the emotionalism ginned up to a hysterically maudlin pitch.

Once Cooper and his colleagues cross back and forth between the space-time continuum, “Interstellar” falls into the talky trap, with the filmmaker trying to overcome plodding, drearily explanatory passages with Hans Zimmer’s basso profundo organ-music score and pummeling sound effects. (One of “Interstellar’s” producers is the theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, whose research undergirds many of the film’s most fascinating ideas about time and gravity.)

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With the exception of a sympathetic computer named TARS — wittily voiced by Bill Irwin — there’s precious little humor in “Interstellar,” unless you count a surprise cameo that conjures visions of the Hollywood satire “The Player” in its absurd bid for an entirely different brand of star stuff.

By the time Cooper realizes his rightful place in the grand cosmic soup — with the help of a scientist back home played by Jessica Chastain — the endgame becomes a protracted demand for tears that, for many viewers, will feel like distant Earth-bound artifacts themselves. “Interstellar” tries so hard to be so many things that it winds up shrinking into itself, much like one of the collapsed stars Coop hurtles past on his way to new worlds. For a movie about transcending all manner of dimensions, “Interstellar” ultimately falls surprisingly flat.

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Two stars

(168 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong profanity.