TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The big sci-fi adventure film of the fall season, "Interstellar," opens today in IMAX theaters and on Friday across the country. It stars Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut who takes a ship through a wormhole to another galaxy in an attempt to find a new home for Earth's inhabitants. "Interstellar" was directed by Christopher Nolan, who also made the blockbusters "The Dark Knight" and "Inception." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In "Interstellar," the ever-ambitious Christopher Nolan sets out to make a sci-fi film as mind-bending as Stanley Kubrick's "2001," but with heart. He wrote this space extravaganza with his brother, Jonathan, and their blend of advanced astrophysics and operatic emotion, in which love transcends the laws of gravity and relativity, is genuinely awe-inspiring. I was largely in awe of how dumb it was, but, hey, I take my pleasures where I find them. And I found it hugely entertaining.
Matthew McConaughey plays a pilot-turned-farmer-turned-astronaut named Coop, and the core of this mammoth film is his bond with his brainy, redheaded daughter, Murph, played by Mackenzie Foy as a girl and Jessica Castain grown-up. They live in the near-distant future, a terrible time. No cause is given for ecocatastrophe, but the imagery recalls the Dust Bowl. Earth is parched, barren, unsalvageable. It's like "The Grapes Of Wrath" except the Okies need to pack up and drive to another planet. And there's the rub - Americans have lost faith in science and technology.
Early on, the Nolans introduce a key theme. Coop thinks science is defined by what's measurable, while young Murph argues for forces that are real, but can't yet be explained. Among them, she says, a poltergeist in her book-lined bedroom. She sure is sending coded messages. Whatever is in her room leads Coop and Murph to a secret NASA facility overseen by Professor Brand, played by Michael Caine, who not only knows Coop, but enlists him to pilot a ship through a wormhole next to Saturn, put there, he thinks, by five-dimensional beings. Mankind was born on Earth - Caine intones in one of the many banner lines - it was never meant to die here. Then he recites Dylan Thomas - do not go gentle into that good night.
The odd thing about "Interstellar" is that the prospect of humanity perishing seems abstract beside the agony of leaving Murph. In space, Coop is aging more slowly than his daughter, especially when he and fellow astronauts land on a gargantuan planet in which every hour equals seven years on earth. If Coop gets stuck there three lousy hours, he and his kid will be the same age.
I doubt Stephen Hawking could make sense of the space-time loop-de-loops to come, though I should note that at one point in the movie's development, Hawing was going to be a character. Maybe he could have sorted it out. But any little kid will get the emotional stakes. On Earth, Murph is furious at Coop for leaving. In space, Brand's daughter and Coop's copilot, played by Anne Hathaway, doesn't care for him either.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INTERSTELLAR")
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) It's hard leaving everything - my kids, your father.
ANNE HATHAWAY: (As Amelia) We're going to be spending a lot of time together.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) We should learn to talk.
HATHAWAY: (As Amelia) And when not to. Just being honest.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) I don't think you need to be that honest.
EDELSTEIN: It's unclear what's bugging her about Coop, but they'll eventually tussle over the power of love to alter the known laws of the universe - a pretty fundamental difference if you ask me. What you'll want to ask more is, is the movie cool? Definitely. The effects are as convincing as in any NASA documentary and gorgeous, especially the ringed mothership that spins in space like a segmented wheel. McConaughey is a good sci-fi hero, his stoner-cowboy drawl making even his clunkiest lines seem flaky. And if Hathaway looks like a drama-camp kid eager to prove herself, her gumption is likable. Foy and Chastain make an excellent tag-team Murph, and an unbilled star turns up on an ice planet probably, biting his lip from breaking into the amazing McConaughey impersonation he does on talk shows.
The last hour, though, is just goofy. Nolan is wedded to complexity for complexity's sake, and my hunch is that given his clout, no one was allowed to examine this script for - in sci-fi speak - massive narrative anomalies. But the incoherence might be paradoxically a key to Nolan's rabid Internet fan base, as was the case with his film "Inception." Trillions of words will be devoted to filling in this movie's gaps - fun for some.
I don't know how Nolan worshipers - Nolanoids I call them - will respond to the corny-ness of "Interstellar." Early reactions have been mixed. This non-Nolanoid had a blast, though. It's a good, old-fashioned chunk of sci-fi silliness on a scale that would make even Kubrick salute.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can follow our blog on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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