In theaters Friday, Nov. 5
3 stars (out of 4 stars)
It's not easy to pick at an original film that tries mightily to reach for the stars.
But Christopher Nolan's big-budget cosmic epic — while compelling and truly magnificent in scope — is ultimately weighed down by its own ambition. Still, what a thrilling ride it is. You thought Gravity was an immersive lost-in-space experience? Just you wait.
We start in a chilling not-so-distant future, when dust storms have ravaged Earth. Food is at a premium. Science and medicine are practically defunct, as most boys and girls aspire to be farmers. Even the New York Yankees only draw a smattering of fans at their games.
A sliver of hope rests with Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, a superb space cowboy), a former NASA pilot and devoted single father of two. After stumbling upon his former stomping grounds — don't try to make sense of this — he finds his former mentor (Michael Caine) and immediately gets tasked with heading up a space mission. (Three others, including Caine's daughter, an engineer played by Anne Hathaway, are also along for the ride). All Coop has to do to save mankind is zoom through a wormhole to another galaxy and find a habitable planet.
It's a one-way ticket. Time is elastic in space, and in a blink, Cooper's bright 10-year-old daughter is a brilliant adult (Jessica Chastain) still bitter that her beloved dad deserted her. The pair's deep emotional bond — notably illustrated in a touching, teary-eyed scene in which Cooper watches dated messages from Chastain and his now-grown son (Casey Affleck) — help humanize a convoluted and occasionally plodding story.
Indeed, only an expert in quantum physics might fully understand the nuances of Cooper's out-of-this-world journey. Inside the vessel, the astronauts speak of the powers of gravity and the space-time continuum in a clinical manner befitting of a college classroom. McConaughey and Hathaway's lack of chemistry doesn't help matters. Apparently, once you leave Earth, you become immune to the actor's charms.
Nolan (who wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan) poses grand themes here, ranging from science vs. reason to man vs. nature. But the heavy-handed cerebral exposition — that culminates in a far-out and way-too-tidy climax — may just leave audiences wondering about the basic plot holes over the wormholes. What was that about the wristwatch and the fifth dimension? (No, really. This development alone requires multiple viewings.)
Still, you can't say that Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception) doesn't keep things interesting over a three-hour period. A cinematic visionary, he deserves accolades for his ability to create striking images such as the rings of Saturn and an ice cloud. A mile-high tidal wave that greets the crew after they touch down on one water-logged planet is absolutely breathtaking. In that moment, the astronomy is irrelevant; all that matters is that the crew needs to escape to survive. Immediately.
That kind of gripping action makes this film a standout. So perhaps it's best to just let the mind go free here and simply behold the dazzling spectacle.