Referring to the distinction between time spent on Earth and during intergalactic travel, a NASA scientist in "Interstellar" cracks (with no apologies to Porky Pig), "That's relativity, folks!" The same could well be said of audience reactions to the latest from Christopher Nolan. Your space-time mileage may vary.
The darling of Warner Bros. Pictures since shepherding a trilogy of hugely popular Batman films, Nolan has won himself carte blanche as a director and co-writer (with brother Jonathan) of big-budget mainstream fare. Nolan expends his post-Batman cachet on this apparently mega-expensive space epic.
Die-hard Nolan fans should definitely plan a day-trip to San Francisco's authentic IMAX screen at the Metreon, but the unconvinced may wish to avoid "Interstellar" entirely. Even the former group may stumble out wondering if their emperor has no clothes or, at least, fewer than once assumed. For the admittedly eye-popping "Interstellar" proves heady and hokey in something close to equal measure as the Nolan brothers nakedly attempt a foolhardy hybrid of "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and Nolan's own "Inception."
Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed former NASA pilot and engineer who now works as a farmer in a near-apocalyptic America. Earth's ability to sustain life is rapidly waning, so when Cooper stumbles into a secret NASA program to save humanity by relocating it elsewhere in the universe, he has little choice but to submit to the overtures of astrophysicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine). The Hobson's choice means leaving behind his own family to play nice in space with Brand's daughter, also a Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway).
In the early going, "Interstellar" compellingly posits what life could look like in the last days of the American Empire, and how, if we're lucky, a space program could provide hope. But when Hathaway shows up in her designer pixie cut, it's the first in a series of false notes that tediously erode "Interstellar"'s proud scientific verisimilitude and capacity for wonder. Shortly thereafter, Nolan stages a scene in which Cooper's agonized goodbye includes the line, "Once you're a parent, you're the ghost of your children's future." Yeah, that's exactly the kind of comforting sentiment that trips right off a father's tongue in a moment of emotional duress.
Unfortunately, the female characters are even more poorly written than the male ones (Hathaway gets the gloppier end of an absurd philosophical discussion of love), and Nolan seems less desirous of a coherent thematic point than that critics and audiences will believe, at last, that he's not modern cinema's heartless Tin Man.
Technically speaking, Nolan swings for the fences here, and his ambition is to be applauded. Yet his blithering message for humanity stands poised somewhere between Dylan Thomas and the Beatles: go ahead and "rage, rage against the dying of the light," but in the end, "all you need is love." There you have it, folks: Love is what's really between the stars.
Rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language. Two hours, 49 minutes.