In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey's Cooper is cushioned in the iconography of a teenage Superman, living in the midst of verdant fields of corn, with his pickup truck, Carhartt jacket, and jeans. McConaughey, with his bright white smile and warm drawl, is already an actor who feels as American as a hamburger made of ground-up bald eagles. And here, he's playing a farmer and an astronaut, two professions as dear to our national mythology as cowboys and apple pie. He's also a dad, a fact the movie valiantly tries to pretend it believes is interesting.
The world is ending in Interstellar, Christopher Nolan's expansive, gorgeous, frustrating, and sometimes super dumb latest movie, which opens in theaters on Nov. 7; but we don't really see the world. Aside from a departing shot of the planet from a spaceship, what we get of the Earth is limited to the area of countryside in which Cooper and his family have been eking out their precarious living, and the hidden NASA base in which scientists and engineers mill around, allegedly trying to save the human race.
The limited earthbound vista is, in part, a factor of Interstellar's dying future, where air travel and international communication seem to have died off. Everyone's resources have instead focused on the increasingly difficult immediate task of growing things to eat — blight has been killing off crops, species by species. An Indian surveillance drone drifting down after years of automated hovering is the lone reminder that there is (or was?) life on other parts of the globe. If cities still exist, they also stay off screen — with food and technology so scarce, rural has become the way to go.
And anyway, screw all those suckers, amirite? Interstellar, which Nolan wrote with his brother Jonathan, is not about broader cooperation or conservation. It's a sometimes poignant, but more often pandering, ode to American exceptionalism, and also trusting in great men to save us, provided they're the right great men (not all of the candidates on screen measure up). The film directly links the survival of mankind to the restless frontier spirit, of which Cooper is the ultimate embodiment. He's the man meant to enable us to finally build a big ol' baseball diamond in the sky.
"It's like we've forgotten who we are — explorers, pioneers, not caretakers," Cooper muses to his father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow), who's been helping him raise his teenage son, Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and younger daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), after his wife died of cancer. "We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt," Cooper continues.
A former pilot on a failed mission that took place before NASA was forced to go underground, Cooper is still jonesing for the job he feels he was born to do when the movie begins. He gets his chance when he and Murph find their way to the hidden outpost where his old colleague Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) have been launching ships in search of a new home for humanity.
Cooper's so certain of his hotshot destiny that when Professor Brand says, after an apparent few minutes together, "I can't tell you any more unless you agree to pilot this craft," he doesn't laugh out loud. Because of course there's a top secret space mission that's just been waiting for him, the best pilot there is, even though they never tried to contact him before this moment, even though yesterday he fully believed NASA had been shut down! Humanity needs Cooper, demands him, even if it means Murph will resent him for leaving her behind.
Interstellar is a movie that heightens everything Nolan does well as a director along with his weaknesses, which look more glaring in a story that wagers so much on emotional drama. It's supersized in every way — in scope, in appearance (it was partially shot in IMAX), in booming audio that includes a less-thrummy-than-usual Hans Zimmer score, and in its nearly three-hour runtime. And when it takes to space, it soars, offering up giant, stomach-dropping sequences of the spaceship Endurance as it spins past Saturn toward a wormhole that will bring it close to a group of possibly inhabitable planets.
Nolan's at his best in the film when bringing new vistas to life, which he does here with the help of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (who shot Her and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and a host of visual effects artists. Space is breathtakingly vast and silent, dwarfing the tiny structures in which Cooper, Amelia, and fellow travelers Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi) are housed. Planets are genuinely foreign spaces — the first and most memorable (which there is a glimpse of in the trailer) turns out to be like a nightmarishly massive wave pool when the visitors slowly realize what they're seeing on the horizon aren't mountains. When he tries for awe, Nolan tends to get it.
But in the other half of Interstellar, he aims for pathos, never his strong suit, and whiffs. It's partly due to the convolutions of the movie's setup, which waves away a lot of science (Gravity this is not) while holding on to the idea of the effects of relativity like a talisman. But it's also thanks to the roughness with which Cooper, Murph, and the other characters are sketched out. Cooper promises his kids to return, which, in the context of the insanely dangerous mission he's accepted, seems like a cruel or deluded thing to say, but it's one he actually believes, always acting on his multiyear trip like his parking meter's about to run out.
Murph sulks over her father's leaving, a resentment that she carries into adulthood (where she's played by Jessica Chastain) even when she understands the stakes — she's a genius who's still apparently emotionally 9 years old. And Brand, in the worst scene in the movie, has a speech about relying on the power of love to make a major team decision that's both ludicrous and a frankly offensive thing to put in the mouth of a supposedly serious scientist. It's tempting to point to Nolan's record of preferring his female characters to be dead, but Interstellar also shortchanges adult Tom (Casey Affleck) as well as Romilly, who goes through something traumatic that's made to feel like a punch line.
The movie just can't plausibly get into the headspace of people going through the unprecedented experiences its characters do, and therefore, it constantly smacks of psychological phoniness in everything but Cooper's love for what he's doing, the one emotion Nolan doesn't seem to have any difficulty relating to. It's not an accident that his best film, The Prestige, explored how ambition drove its two main characters to destroy each other in their competition to be the best. Dedication to a cause or calling at the cost of everything else is a theme you can pick out in all of his movies, and Interstellar suffers in halfheartedly trying to pretend there's some kind of counterbalance.
When it pauses for human drama — and it does, frequently — Interstellar feels empty, despite the efforts of its strong cast. When it slings Cooper (and McConaughey is, as always, incredibly watchable) into the far reaches of space and has him improvise his way through a million impossible challenges, it's thrilling. But when it tries to bring the human drama and the thrills together in its off-the-rails final act, it's an enterprising mess. But there he goes, the all-American hero, with a charismatic glow, a cocky grin, and a proclaimed love for the children he doesn't actually seem to want to spend time with. He's better at grand acts of bravery and sacrifice than sticking it out at home with the rest of the norms. He'd hang around, but he's got so much to do at the intergalactic office — but he'll be back in time for dinner. Bedtime at the latest.