InterstellarThrough the first half of its 169-minute runtime, Interstellar soars. Christopher Nolan launches this massive undertaking with equal parts skill and guile, and while the early going may be more “aw, shucks” than awesome, the narrative captures the spirit of optimism and possibility that the NASA space program provided in the 1960’s. Every American boy growing up in that decade wanted to become an astronaut, and the laying out of the mission and the launching of the rocket in Interstellar refires those feelings. For one and a half hours, Nolan appears on the brink of completing an even more daunting task than identifying another planet suitable for human inhabitation – making a 21st century blockbuster from original material that qualifies as family entertainment without any of the usual pejorative undertones that accompany that phrase.

Then Anne Hathaway delivers a monologue about love.

Even as she speaks, the movie abruptly depressurizes, with oxygen and good sense hissing out of the script. Ballast shifts, the GPS is broken, the computers glitch, and the film spins out of control until it crash lands into a nonsensical morass on Planet Crap. Seldom can a turning point be so clearly identified, but it is as if a different director working from a different script completed the film. The tone turns dark, and the science becomes silly. Make no mistake: the failure of this film is due to pilot error. Nolan, either through simple misjudgment or hubris, does not settle for creating wonderful entertainment. Instead, he pursues a grander vision in the vein of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but does not come close to accomplishing this feat. (To be fair, there is a hilarious reference to Kubrick’s masterpiece made by the artificial intelligence aboard the spacecraft in Interstellar.)

The earth is dying at the beginning of the film. John Lithgow in a juiceless performance as the family grandpa explains it as six billion people all wanting the latest gadget. While the theory of the new iPhone causing a return of the dust bowl and mass starvation is intriguing, perhaps Christopher Nolan and his screenwriting partner, brother Jonathan, would have been better served by just laying it at the feet of climate change and leaving it at that. Lithgow’s son-in-law is the former flight jockey turned farmer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who watches one crop after another turn to dust, as he raises children Tom (Timothée Chalamet)  and Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Murph is like her old man, an engineer and scientists at heart, while Tom is the future farmer. Murph named after Murphy’s Law (cue the groans) notices certain natural anomalies occurring in her bedroom which lead her and Coop to NASA headquarters, the space agency having become a secret agency after the government publically discredited the moon landings to keep the country’s attentions on the problems here on planet earth.

Michael Caine, in an entirely predictable performance as Dr. Brand, the chief scientist for the program, convinces Coop that he must go on the flight that will save all mankind either through Plan A, finding a new world in a nice neighborhood with a low security deposit where everyone can move, or Plan B, using the fertilized eggs stored on board the spaceship to start over. Caine sends his daughter (Hathaway) and two others along with Coop toward a wormhole that has conveniently appeared just past Saturn. The willing suspension of disbelief during this stretch of the film is accomplished through superior pacing and a sweetly innocent approach to storytelling. That extends to the onboard robot TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), which features both humor and truth settings, and is smart enough to capture all the best lines.

The crew follows 12 individuals who previously went through the wormhole to explore 12 different planets, but the Endurance only has enough gas in the tank to check out three of them. Time is another expendable fuel here, and relativity is more than a theory. Each hour on the first planet to be explored is the equivalent of seven years on earth. Spend too long sightseeing, and there will be no one left to save back home. The trip to the surface of the first planet is a dramatic and visual highpoint of the film. Unfortunately, the Hathaway monologue comes immediately thereafter. By the time they get to Matt Damon’s planet, the story has become a black hole, sucking all logic into an event horizon from which nothing plausible can escape.

Hathaway is strangely flat, and her haircut is so unflattering it looks as if she lost a bet. Damon has the thankless task of portraying the all too human person frozen behind a myth. McConaughey fares better, although his folksiness fades in and out like an accent that has not been fully mastered. The surprise powerful performance in Interstellar belongs to Jessica Chastain as the grown-up Murph, who must solve Dr. Brand’s equation and her missing father’s motivation. It’s left to her to save the world even as the movie goes down the tubes. Interstellar has several opportunities to finish with a flourish, although the potential power of each ending diminishes as the film grinds on. No pocket of sentimentality is left unexplored before this one finally fades to black, no matter how far into the time-space continuum we have to unwillingly journey.

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