Warning: There will be light spoilers.
Interstellar is the ultimate 'beer goggles' movie—just replace the cold brews with phenomenal visual effects, and that suddenly undesirable partner in your bed with a messy buzzkill of a script.
Nearly three hours of cinematic overload, director Christopher Nolan’s latest thinking-man’s blockbuster is undoubtedly next-level. It unsubtly mines inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, but its $165 million budget sends the space imagery into another stratosphere. By comparison, last year’s Oscar-winning Gravity—which is basically one 90-minute action sequence—feels like a short film. But as Interstellar’s narrative reach keeps expanding over 169 minutes, Nolan and his brother/co-writer Jonathan Nolan gorge themselves too much. By the end, you’re left simultaneously admiring them and shaking your head.
Stripped down to its essentials, Interstellar isn’t unlike Michael Bay’s Armageddon: widowed engineer-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) must leave his kids—10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and 15-year-old son Tom (Timothée Chalamet)—to pilot a spaceship into the stars in order to save humanity. The threat this time is a catastrophic combination of worldwide crop failure and overpowering dust storms, signaling eventual doom for all life unless Cooper and his small crew of NASA specialists—the soulful optimist Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), the business-first Doyle (Wes Bentley), and token black guy Romilly (David Gyasi)—can locate a planet in the galaxy on which mankind can restart. On their ship, the Endurance, the quartet of space explorers travel through wormholes, set down on distant planets, and trade sarcastic barbs with HAL 9000 by way of Groot. And cry. A lot.
Interstellar’s scenes of NASA banter aboard the Endurance oscillate between oblique and straight-up gobbledygook. The conversation topics cover singularity, relativity, alternate dimensions, and black holes; the dialogue stems from the Nolan brothers’ research into the advanced theories of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, as well as theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne, acting as Interstellar’s adviser and executive producer. Supposedly, it's all rooted in hard science, but their convos are jargon-heavy and, especially when heard in IMAX, barely audible. Key moments of exposition are incomprehensible.
Largely to blame: esteemed composer Hans Zimmer’s blaring, at times overwhelming score, which often sounds like an epic mix of Goblin’s Suspiria music and '80s John Carpenter. Zimmer's music get louder as the characters start hammering home their philosophical meanderings with raised voices, as if they too are competing against the sound.
Interstellar’s storytelling flaws, however, are trumped by Christopher Nolan’s ability to stage breathtaking action set-pieces. Seconds after Cooper rattles off unclearly delivered Kip Thorne Science Facts, there’s a brilliantly staged stretch of suspense on a water-covered planet, where a mountain-tall tidal wave approaches Brand and Doyle like lava overtaking Pompeii. It's impossible to not hold your breath, despite having no clue where they are and how they got there exactly.
But then the film disappoints with its worst storytelling component: a lone survivor who’s, surprise, homicidal (and played by a stunt-cast Matt Damon). As (kinda) fun as it to see Damon and McConaughey tussle in spacesuits like MMA grapplers, the introduction of a third-act villain is a B-movie trope lamely employed by an A-list filmmaker who should know better.
While Nolan’s films are regularly attacked for being cold, calculated exercises in technical grandiosity over human emotion—just try re-watching The Dark Knight—throughout Interstellar, the director tugs at heartstrings. Sometimes, though, the sappiness overwhelms the Endurance’s crew in melodramatic goo, with the actors doing their best to sell musings better suited for a Hallmark store on Saturn. ("Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends time and space," says Hathaway in her big monologue.)
Yet other times the film’s emotional sledgehammer directly hits its target. McConaughey’s best piece of acting comes when Cooper watches video messages from his now-adult children, who’ve aged 23 years while he’s only evolved by a few hours. As grown-up Tom (Casey Affleck) and Murph (Jessica Chastain) say their goodbyes, Cooper’s crying game turns strong, and Nolan simply holds the camera on McConaughey’s face and lets the recent Academy Award winner, aided by Zimmer’s orchestral devastation, crush your heart.
In that shattering breakdown, McConaughey’s Cooper doesn’t need to regurgitate any Hawking or Thorne, nor does Nolan have to put Alfonso Cuarón and Stanley Kubrick’s big-screen interpretations of space to shame with his astounding FX work. McConaughey's cry-a-thon is a powerful interlude away from all of the amazing, monumental spectacle. It’s the rare moment where Nolan and his audience are completely in sync and the goggles come off.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who hopes Christopher Nolan gives IMAX a breather and goes back to his smaller-scaled Memento/The Prestige steez. He tweets here.