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'Interstellar' is ambitious, flawed and inspiring

Interstellar is a movie with a lot of bright ideas, and a few dim ones. At 3 hours, it's an epic that harkens back to heady, cerebral science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris, where asking big picture questions about the nature of life and the universe is paramount.

This review contains mild spoilers for Interstellar.

Interstellar melds that approach with a touch of family drama, a dollop of social commentary, and a pinch of apocalyptic paranoia, all of which serve to heighten the stakes throughout the movie. It doesn't make good on all of its ambitions, but it does a hell of a job trying.

It doesn't make good on all of its ambitions, but it does a hell of a job trying.

The film centers on Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ex-astronaut living in a dreary near-future where there's no need for astronauts. About all there is to do is farm, since an environmental disaster called "the blight" has been eating up most of the world's resources.

Cooper isn't happy with the lot he's drawn in life. He loves his family — his budding genius daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), crotchety but down-to-earth father in Law, Donald (John Lithgow) and son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) — but the anti-science rhetoric in his small town has him furious, and being grounded is stifling for him.

He gets by by indulging Murphy's fascination with science and engineering, tracks the odd errant drone and catches the a baseball game every now and then. But the movie heats up when his and Murphy's explorations uncover a massive secret that leads to Cooper's second chance at space exploration, with a mission to a nearby galaxy to save humanity. No big deal.

There are bumps along the way, naturally. Cooper, along with Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Dr. Romilly (David Gyasi), Dr. Doyle (Wes Bently) and robot companions TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart) have to travel unimaginable distances in order to find another habitable planet. They face off against dramatic environmental phenomena, crazy technology and the nastier side of human nature on their journey.

It's a commendable film that attempts to explore tricky, unanswerable questions earnestly.

It's a commendable film that attempts to explore tricky, unanswerable questions earnestly. But in its quest to explore big-picture questions, Interstellar stumbles over itself. Some scenes miss the mark, and some characters are better drawn than others. Cooper is a quick-thinking badass with a big heart. Dr. Brand is hero material as well, a scientist with a cool head and dedication to her mission. Unfortunately, they both battle clunky dialogue and weird chemistry as much as any other obstacle. They fare light-years better than Dr. Romilly and Dr. Doyle, whom the script never really gives a chance to break out of the stock "brainy scientist" mold.

Interstellar doesn't go completely off the rails, but it did lose me a couple of times. It was never hard to understand the science or the technobabble, but on a couple of occasions, I didn't have the foggiest notion what the characters' motivations were. On more than one occasion, a major character's death was treated without the necessary gravity or breathing space. These are writing flaws — I didn't need Interstellar to explain the finer points of relativity to me, but I did need to care about these people and understand what they were doing. Referencing Dylan Thomas' immortal poem Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night more than three times doesn't count as smart, profound writing.

interstellar jessica chastain

The actors do a fine job with their material, even if, in the case of Romilly and Doyle, they aren't given much to work with. Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain, as the younger and older Murph, respectively, bring the best performances of the film, and I constantly found myself wishing more of the movie focused more on Murph, the woman who has the gall and the faith to try to save earth from itself. The story indicates that Murph is an incredibly important character with a key role in the business of saving humanity, but Interstellar gives her far less screen time than her father.

What Interstellar gets right is an incredible sense of scale and awe.

What Interstellar gets right is an incredible sense of scale and awe. Space travel is treated like a dangerous but grand undertaking, and the final frontier is presented imaginatively. There were scenes in Interstellar that I watched on the edge of my seat, mouth agape, taking in the starry scenery. It's very well paced for such a long movie, with plenty of action and harrowing escapes that break up the more ponderous scenes.

The movie is smart in the way it presents a depressed, environmentally bankrupt earth. The world has turned into a literal dustbowl, conjuring strong associations with the great depression. Cooper's early battles with narrow-minded schoolteachers reflect much of what we deal with today, in an education system that often fails to serve its students, particularly in struggling communities.

There are not-so-subtle hints that human greed and climate change are the culprit — that humanity's folly creates the responsibility to do something to fix this mess. It works well, and further serves to underscore Murph's vital importance to the world of Interstellar.

This is a movie about big ideas, and it wants badly to also be a movie about small moments and family ties. It's flawed, certainly, but its vision is undeniably appealing and ultimately the film's saving grace. I will always prefer a movie (or game, or book) that overreaches with ambition and inspiration over a safer, more polished product. Interstellar is that movie, a little unsteady at the stick, but with bolder ideas than almost any other film in 2014.