Interstellar is an emotional spectacle that suspends logic

At one point while watching Interstellar, my friend turned to me and said, “Mike, I’m crying.”  I laughed and asked him why, but he could not give me an answer.  The onslaught of emotions, mind-warping scientific concepts, logical breaks, and powerful imagery had simply gotten to him, and he was overwhelmed, bewildered and glued to the screen, all at the same time.  Such is the condition in which the clunky, yet undeniably breathtaking, Interstellar will leave you.

Interstellar, the new sci-fi epic from popular director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception, Memento), has had to live up to some lofty expectations.  The film was shrouded in secrecy during its marketing campaign, only some plot points being given away to tantalize audiences.

The film follows Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA pilot with an incredible love for his daughter, Murph (Jessica Chastain).  The Earth that they live on is dying—crops are failing and dust storms are ravaging the countryside in a condition similar to the 1930’s Dust Bowl.  The only hope for humanity is a mission to find a habitable planet in another galaxy via a wormhole, for which Professor Brand (Michael Caine) chooses Cooper as the mission’s leader.

The film follows Cooper as he deals with the consequences of not only leaving his family to embark on a perilous journey but also the effects of relativity and the irrational nature of mankind.

For a film that touts its scientific accuracy as its highest achievement, the performances in this movie are spectacular.  Nolan knows how to direct a drama.  He understands the nuances of human emotion and how to build up to that singular climactic, cathartic moment audiences crave.  McConaughey gives one of the best performances of his career as Cooper, the logical scientist who never once denies his humanity; he makes raw a character whose emotions could have easily rung false.

Chastain and Anne Hathaway, who plays Brand’s daughter, ground the movie with their extremely human performances, presenting rationality always in conflict with irrationality, and logic always in conflict with instinct.  Even Mackenzie Foy, who plays a young  Murph, is great. The chemistry between Cooper and her feels real and true, and when they are separated, the audience experiences a devastating loss.

Nolan also leaves his trademark touch on the film’s visuals, which are almost all composed of practical effects.  The minimal use of CGI and the jaw-dropping space imagery make for a potent experience comparable to Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); the haunting silence of space, the fully realized planets, the most scientifically accurate black hole put on film to date—these all suck the audience in and never let them go.

The action is high-stakes, edge-of-your-seat type stuff, even if it is completely implausible at times.  These contrasts between scientific accuracy and implausibility can take you out of the experience, but if you can suspend your disbelief, you are along for a breathtaking ride.

Unfortunately, the film has dangling threads—many of them.  And if you pull at any of them, the film unravels.  There are plenty of logical breaks—character decisions that do not add up, character epiphanies that do not make sense, and an awfully convenient final act that feels sloppy coming from Nolan.  The themes are also incredibly heavy-handed.  The overarching theme, that “love is the one thing that transcends time and space,” feels forced, and Nolan’s criticisms of the nature of mankind and his support for environmentalism are all too clear.  At times, subtlety is simply lost in a befuddling mix of pure emotion and scatterbrained science.  It is an overwhelming mix that can obviously drive some people, like my friend, to tears.

But if you can suspend your disbelief and turn off that nagging voice in your head, the movie truly is the most awe-inspiring experience at the theater this year.  The film thinks it is smarter than it really is, and definitely does not reward viewers looking for a movie with a logical narrative path.  However, if you are looking for moving, thought-provoking cinema that will fuel passionate debates for the car ride home, experience Interstellar.  Just try not to cry.