If you choose to see “Interstellar” at one of the many IMAX theaters in which it’s playing, one of the first things you’ll hear — feel is more like it — is a rumbling that seems to emanate from God’s own subwoofer before proceeding up your spinal column to rearrange your synapses. Ostensibly this is the noise a fighter jet makes as it’s going down. In reality, it’s the sound of Christopher Nolan’s ambition.
The movie is “Gravity” cubed, an epic of space travel and human destiny that swings by Saturn, slingshots through a wormhole, and pinballs across a handful of planets on its way to a rendezvous with infinity, conveniently located inside a black hole. On its way there, “Interstellar” reveals the genetic fingerprints of the many movies that have preceded it. The DNA of “2001: A Space Odyssey” is here, along with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “Signs,” “Solaris” (the Soderbergh remake more than the Tarkovsky original), and a host of lesser efforts. Like Kubrick, Nolan and his co-writer and brother Jonathan want us to break out of our tiny monkey brains and contemplate vaster perspectives. Like Spielberg (and John Lennon), they also want to remind us that all we need is love.
But there’s only so much you can pile on the pie plate before it starts spilling rhubarb on the floor. The parts of “Interstellar” that don’t work — a third act (out of four) that descends into suspense-movie silliness, an increasing reliance on mystical mumbo-jumbo — struggle against the many parts that do. Nolan is one of the few working filmmakers with the skill set to take us far beyond our normal moviegoing orbit, but his vision keeps coming up against the curves of the known pop universe. He’s the showman who fancies himself a philosopher.
That said, “Interstellar” is quite a show. We’re a few decades in the future and Earth is dying; What’s left of society lives a doubtful and dusty agrarian existence. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a widower and former astronaut, impatiently fritters his days away on a heartland farm with teenage son Tom (Timothée Chalamet), father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), and adoring young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy).
NASA is down to about 25 people in a desert bunker, and the father is drafted by his old mentor, Prof. Brand (Michael Caine), to go aloft in a rocket for a reconnaissance mission. Some larger intelligence — there’s much discussion of who — has placed a handy wormhole next to Saturn, a trap door for mankind to explore the far-flung corners of space. Three astronauts dispatched a decade ago have sent word they’ve found habitable planets. Cooper, along with Brand’s scientist daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and her colleagues (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi), has to pick one to be our new home.
That’s Plan A. Plan B is basically artificial insemination on
a planetary level. There is no Plan C.
The science and the hardware in “Interstellar” feel real and thought-out: The spaceship’s robot, a chunk of moveable zirconium named TARS, can be programmed with various levels of irony and speaks in the wry voice of Bill Irwin; he/it is a welcome presence who evolves into a full character by the final scenes. Even the wormhole, which resembles a galactic disco ball when glimpsed from afar, becomes a trippy roller coaster ride on the inside. The origami reality games that Nolan pioneered in “Inception” get a reprise here when you least expect them, in the form of a tsunami big enough to swallow clouds and a climactic tesseract that nods to both the finale of “2001” and the classic novel “A Wrinkle in Time.”
Yet before we get there, “Interstellar” touches down on a frozen planet inhabited by a Special Unbilled Guest Star and the movie slowly descends into thriller-diller territory, ending in a thoroughly ridiculous wrestling match amid shouted declamations. The film’s woozy supernatural streak — little Murph was visited by a ghost who spoke to her in binary code — carries through to later scenes, in which the grown Murph (Jessica Chastain) is a brilliant theoretical physicist plowing through knots of equations on a blackboard.
It all gets very busy, editor Lee Smith intercutting between father and daughter as Einstein’s theory of relativity brings their ages into alignment, Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score cranking up a ball field organ the size of the Van Allen Belt, dust storms coming, singularities beckoning, and the compacted star at the center of it all, apparently, is Nolan’s discovery that becoming a parent changes everything. Well, yeah, that does tend to rearrange time and space. Especially once they become teenagers.
Throughout, McConaughey is understated and magnificent, exactly the man you want leading this mission and this movie. “Interstellar” eventually coughs up an explanation of sorts, but it’s one of those conceptual Moebius strips that dents your head with circular logic; the more you think about it, the less it scans. Yet the movie deserves to be seen, and on the largest screen possible if not in one of the 70mm film prints available in many cities but not Boston (it seems we don’t rate). Nolan remains committed to working on the grandest imaginable scale, in terms of visuals, production quality, distance traveled, and emotions plumbed. If “Interstellar” never manages to put them all together at the same time, the effort has a gravitational pull that, at its best, evokes awe and something close to gratitude.
Watch the trailer:
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.