(Rest assured, ye wary of spoilers, there will be no specific spoilers in this review, shy of vague and ambiguous comments about the effect the final leg of the movie has on the whole.)
Interstellar is bound to draw comparisons to other movies, be they to Gravity, Sunshine, or Matthew McConaughey’s own Contact. Oddly enough, though, the movie it might remind you most of is Signs. And a good barometer for how you’ll feel about Christopher Nolan’s latest cinematic spectacle may well depend on how willing you were to accept the third-act developments in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 thriller.
Fresh off his Oscar win, McConaughey returns to the big screen as Coop, a former test pilot for NASA who — in the near future, when most technology doesn’t work and food has ran scarce — now farms for a living, while raising his son, Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy).
Murph believes ghosts are communicating to her in her room, through Morse code patterns in her bookshelf and binary patterns in piles of dust on her floor. The patterns lead Coop and Murph to a secret NASA base run by Coop’s former boss, Brant (Michael Caine). Serendipitously, Coop has trespassed a day before a last-ditch space mission to save humanity. And wouldn’t you know it: they’re still looking for an experienced pilot to lead the mission.
It turns out, Brant explains, life on Earth only has about 40 years left. Fortunately, a wormhole has been secretly discovered, near Saturn. Astronauts flew to the twelve plants in the system on the other side of the wormhole, three of whom reported back that their planets were capable of supporting human life. The mission is to go through the wormhole and confirm the viability of the three planets, in time to save humanity.
Brant is on the verge of a breakthrough equation which will allow for breaking the physical laws of gravity, thus making it a snap to transport everyone on Earth out to their new home; he assures Coop that by the time they finish their mission, Brant will have solved the equation’s riddle. Hours later, Coop is flying into space, alongside Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romily (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and two robots that somehow pay tribute to both 2001: A Space Odyssey’s stark monoliths and HAL-9000.
All of that is just Interstellar’s setup. To say that a lot happens over the course of the movie would be an understatement. Nolan has shown over and over how fond he is of large movies, with his last three all clocking in at two-and-a-half hours or more. At 169 minutes, Interstellar is his biggest movie yet, but that somewhat works against it.
Several planets are visited during course of the movie, and much more of it takes place in space. In addition to McConaughey’s plot, large segments of Interstellar are also devoted to the grown-up Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Casey Affleck), struggling to survive in an even harsher future than the one they grew up in. While most of Murph’s scenes are germane to the larger story, much of Tom’s subplot adds up to nothing and slows down the movie at times when it should be picking up speed.
That one issue aside, Interstellar is an unforgettable thrill ride, with visuals on par with Gravity and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan visualizes worlds with an artist’s eye and frames many of his shots like stunning photographs. Some of the most intense action sequences to take place in a sci-fi movie are within these 169 minutes and they’re a sight to behold. All in all, this is truly excellent filmmaking.
But then there’s that pesky, third-act turn in the plot. The movie takes such a bold veer in its last act that it’s bound to turn off some audience members who just aren’t able to suspend the necessary amount of disbelief. Moreover, while one or two leaps of faith are expected, the number required for the final hour is just a bit too high.
This critic, for one, loved Signs — extreme twists, grand meaning, and all. When the filmmaking is well enough done, most questionable choices in the script or other parts of a movie can be overlooked. The same can be said for Nolan’s work here. Even though the final act requires a bit too much suspension of disbelief than is really fair for it to expect, Interstellar creates enough powerful visuals and leaves enough strong memories to make up for it.