Visual dazzle, sombre mood amid the stars
Sci-fi drama/169 minutes/Opens today
Once a Nasa pilot, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) now grows corn, the only thing that will grow after a blight has wiped out most of the planet's other crops.
But the sense of an ending is palpable. Cooper is recruited for a secret Nasa mission to search for a habitable new planet and is joined by Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) and a wry robot (Bill Irwin).
But time moves differently for those in space and on Earth. While Cooper doesn't really age, his folks, and daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain), back home do.
LIKE the great space epics of the past, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar distils terrestrial anxieties and aspirations into a potent pop parable, a mirror of the mood here on Earth.
Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey blended the technological awe of the Apollo era with the trippy hopes and terrors of the Age of Aquarius.
Interstellar, full of visual dazzle, thematic ambition, geek bait and corn, is a sweeping, futuristic adventure driven by grief, dread and regret.
Trying to jot down notes by the light of the Imax screen, on which lustrous images flickered, I lost count of how many times the phrase "I'm sorry" was uttered: by parents to children, children to parents, sisters to brothers, scientists to astronauts and astronauts to one another.
The whole movie can be seen as a plea for forgiveness on behalf of our foolish, dreamy species. We messed everything up, and we feel really bad about it. Can you please give us another chance?
The possibility that such a "you" might be out there, in a position to grant clemency, is one of the movie's tantalising puzzles. Some kind of message seems to be coming across the emptiness of space and along the kinks in the fabric of time, offering a twinkle of hope amid humanity's rapidly darkening prospects.
For most of Interstellar, the working hypothesis is that a benevolent alien race, dwelling somewhere on the far side of a wormhole near one of the moons of Saturn, is sending data across the universe, encrypted advice that just may save us if we can decode it fast enough.
Nolan wrote the screenplay with his brother, Jonathan, and they cleverly conflate scientific denialism with technophobia, imagining a fatalistic society that has traded large ambition for small-scale problem-solving and ultimate resignation.
But Nolan, even in his earlier, more modestly budgeted films, has never been content with the small-scale. His imagination is large; his eye seeks out wide, sweeping vistas; and if he believes in anything, it is ambition.
The first section of the movie is the richest and most haunting, establishing a delicately emotional tone and clear moral and dramatic stakes for the planet-hopping to follow.
Cooper is devoted to his children, in particular his daughter, Murph.
When her father is recruited for the secret Nasa mission to search for a habitable new planet, Murph is devastated by his departure. Her subsequent scientific career is both a tribute to his memory and a way of getting even.
The Nolans are fond of doubled characters and mirrored plots, and so Interstellar is built around twinned father-daughter stories.
The father of Cooper's female spaceship colleague, Amelia Brand, remains on the ground with Murph, crunching the numbers and growing older in the usual earthly way, while Cooper and the younger Brand, thanks to relativity, stay pretty much the same age.
The two pairs of daughters and dads perform variations on the theme of paternal and filial love, finding delicate and moving passages of loyalty, rebellion, disillusionment and acceptance.
A lot of other stuff happens but Interstellar is a terrifically entertaining science-fiction movie, giving fresh life to scenes and situations we've seen a hundred times before, and occasionally stumbling over pompous dialogue or overly portentous music.
Of course, the film is more than that. It is in the nature of science fiction to aspire to more, to ascend fearlessly towards the sublime.
But Interstellar is ultimately about the longing for home, about voyages into the unknown that become odysseys of return. And Interstellar may take its place in the pantheon of space movies because it answers an acute earthly need, a desire not only for adventure and novelty, but also, in the end, for comfort.