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Movie Review: Surprises fuel Nolan’s vast ‘Interstellar’

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway go through a wormhole in “Interstellar,” directed by Christopher Nolan.
Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway go through a wormhole in “Interstellar,” directed by Christopher Nolan. Paramount Pictures

Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending, non-Batman movies never make complete sense.

But the space-set “Interstellar,” like “Memento” and “Inception” before it, is a powerful piece of cinema. It meets the criteria for big, ambitious science-fiction films by immersing viewers in its distinctive world – or worlds, in this case – and offering genuine surprises.

You never know what’s coming in “Interstellar.” It stokes and maintains a sense of anticipation often missing in Hollywood blockbusters intent on being formulaic and thus global audience-friendly. In between Nolan movies, it’s hard to remember that anticipation should be a key factor in big-budget action films.

Because this film’s surprises are the reason to see it, none will be revealed here. At least beyond the wormhole, which is too essential to omit.

The film starts in a near-future Midwest, where dust is choking residents and an obtusely referenced environmental “blight” has killed every crop but corn. (Just as high-fructose corn syrup opponents suspected.)

Coop (Matthew McConaughey) was trained as an astronaut and engineer, but now grows corn, because the people left on Earth need food, not space exploration.

But Coop and his hyper-bright daughter (a vivid, affecting Mackenzie Foy), following a clue revealed by a gravitational hiccup, discover that NASA, led by Coop’s old instructor Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), still exists covertly.

Coop does not seem hyper-bright. McConaughey speaks in the trailing-off way he does when he plays dummies. But as “Interstellar” progresses, the actor will show he has not reverted to McConaughey 1.0 after his recent artistic breakthroughs.

He shows this by exuding authority once Coop, recruited by Dr. Brand for a mission, settles into the pilot seat, and at moments when Coop feels anguish. McConaughey is an anguish ace.

Dr. Brand – played by Caine with a lack of oomph suggesting he might not be on board with his frequent collaborator Nolan’s new material – enlists Coop and a crew that includes Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway, also a Nolan vet) for a trip through a wormhole near Saturn to a different galaxy that might hold inhabitable planets.

Other astronauts already took the trip, and three sent back signals of possibly viable planets. Humankind needs options, because Earth’s air is decreasing in oxygen.

Speaking of suffocating, Hans Zimmer’s classical score chokes “Interstellar.” Zimmer seems to want to outdo the “2001: A Space Odyssey” soundtrack. But “2001’s” stunning music did not intrude on its story as Zimmer’s score does.

The score is so omnipresent that even when it stops for a breather, it takes time for one’s senses to recover and return to what is happening on screen. And it rarely stops for a breather, sometimes stepping on dialogue as it swells.

The film’s more expository dialogue, already complex in its discussion of wormholes, relativity and a fifth dimension, does not benefit from such distractions. But who can say it would be clearer without music? I don’t remember the score from “Inception,” but I recall its screenplay, written by Nolan, as being convoluted. “Interstellar,” written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, shares that trait.

But the basics of “Interstellar” are easy enough to grasp, and its flawless special effects often compensate for any confusion.

Tension only exists in a sci-fi film as deadly serious as this one if it seems realistic enough to outweigh the more preposterous elements. “Interstellar” almost always maintains a realism.

The ride through the “wormhole,” shown from the point of view of the astronauts, offers stomach-dropping thrills. A talking, seemingly sentient robot moves its metal Gumby limbs with the same ease as the astronauts do their own. The landscapes the crew encounter post-takeoff appear as real as the Midwest farmland.

Nolan captures the silence and stillness of space as well as Alfonso Cuarón did in “Gravity,” just not for as long. Much more is happening here. “Interstellar” is nearly twice as long as the more elegant “Gravity,” and not coincidentally, three-quarters as satisfying.

Nolan’s visual sophistication and exploration of big ideas do not jibe with this film’s sometimes banal dialogue and themes. People talk of love as the only thing that can transcend time and space – a pat sentiment considering the scope of the astronauts’ journey. Nolan also makes extensive use of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” as if it is somehow revelatory and not instantly recognizable.

The robot and music are obvious nods to “2001,” but this film’s lack of humor is not. Hathaway comes off as too peppy, but it’s not her fault. With all the green-screen distraction, perhaps she did not know her cast mates were going dark-bordering-on-black-hole.

Nolan and the tragedienne Jessica Chastain mix better. Chastain appears well into the film, as a character tied to a spoiler (you could check the Internet, but please don’t, for your own filmgoing sake).

Chastain radiates intelligence, anger and need. With this film and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” Chastain establishes herself as an appealing screen presence and not just the accomplished technician she appeared to be when she was in that bunch of films a few years ago.

She delivers the Nolans’ bad dialogue with such conviction that its lack of quality slides right off her. She makes acting in the pressure chamber that is a flawed, big-budget Nolan sci-fi film look as easy as breathing.

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

INTERSTELLAR

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy

Director: Christopher Nolan

169 minutes

Rated PG-13 (for some intense perilous action and brief strong language)

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