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11/17/2014 11:18 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

Interstellar : Imperfect Epic Addresses Big Questions About the Future, Time, Human Nature, and Space Exploration

"We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt."

Matthew McConaughey's Cooper in Interstellar

Christopher Nolan's first film since the massive success of his Dark Knight Trilogy is a big movie about the future with with big ambitions, big themes, big images, and big questions about human nature, time, and president-day attitudes and policies. Or lack of same.

I've seen it twice, and I like it. Precisely how much I like it, I'm not quite sure yet. Of course, it took me 20 years to decide that Apocalypse Now is my second favorite movie of all time. (Behind perennial Chinatown.)

Like Francis Ford Coppola's flawed but great epic, Interstellar has passionate admirers and insistent detractors. More the former than the latter, but -- like Coppola following his own genre-expanding hits with The Godfather saga -- the positive reviews aren't as predominant as they should be. One might even think that some again want to take down a popular auteur a peg or two.

The movie, some say, is too long. Its intellectual reach exceeds its grasp. Its scale exceeds the definition of its characters. It's too cold. It's "incomprehensible."

That last criticism, of Interstellar, comes from the critic for The New Yorker. Which makes me embarrassed for the critic.

Because no decently educated person should find Interstellar to be incomprehensible. (Apocalypse Now, perhaps. Though I prefer to think of it as ambiguous.) Demanding of your attention, yes. If your mind is turned off, you will get lost. There's a lot going on and a lot of information in play. The only thing that didn't make sense to me was an explanation towards the end by protagonist Matthew McConaughey's Cooper. But it's just his opinion, and he's a pilot.


The long, fascinating, and challenging Interstellar is turning into a serious worldwide hit, if not one on the same scale as director Christopher Nolan's massive Batman movies.

I'm not getting into heavy spoilers here because Interstellar has some real surprises in it. I was happy, if not a little horrified, that for once I didn't know what was happening in a big pop picture.

You may have an idea of the set-up. We've wrecked the human-friendly environment of Earth. (Sound familiar?) The planet will survive, but time is quickly running out for humanity. And most are ignorant and in denial. Instead of looking skyward and forward, we look down and think day-to-day, eschewing technological advance in favor of a neb-luddite revisionism as we scratch out our subsistence with a couple remaining crops.

Innovation? Forget it. Space exploration? Frivolous extravagance. The Moon landings? Never happened. Faked to con the Soviet Union into bankrupting itself.

I run into too many people who think that last today, not incidentally. It's unearned cynicism and, frankly, stupid. The KGB would never have been fooled, and Moscow would have garnered a potentially game-changing propaganda bonanza.

McConaughey, a tail-end NASA astronaut now reduced to farming with his mother-less kids and a curmudgeonly father-in-law (a fine John Lithgow) who misses his late daughter, is unsettled. Where his son is happy with the farm, he still looks up at the sky. So does his precocious 10-year old daughter, played by the excellent Mackenzie Foy.

In what seems a supernatural fashion, they are drawn to an unknown, remote location, a secret base of residual government power practically out of The X-Files. Which is run by the C.., er, who is it, anyway?

After flashing a 24 stalwart, the ever reliable William Devane, as the official in charge of this most secret installation left in the world, it quickly develops that the chief architect of all that is to unfold is our protagonist's old friend Professor Brand, played by Nolan's most consistent go-acrot, the legendary Michael Caine.

Since he is a physicist -- and this very scientifically accurate film is executive produced by famed Caltech physicist Kip Thorne -- the supersecret agency desperately pulling some remaining strings is NASA. Humanity's time on Earth is coming to an end. There is no secret plan to save the Earth; there is a plan to leave it.

For 50 years, someone has been leaving bread crumbs for humanity, most notably a wormhole near Saturn. Probes show it opening on another galaxy, with a dozen potential worlds within reach. A dozen astronauts have already ventured to those worlds to explore them. A four-person mission to examine three which show promise is in the works; the fortunately delivered Cooper is by far the best choice to pilot the spacecraft, a rather ominously named Endurance.

This is what Cooper, who's seemed a man in the wrong time, was born to do. He swiftly agrees, even though he loves his family, especially the independent-minded Murph, and relativity means his time away could be a very long time on Earth, if indeed he ever returns.

So in this film which is also about the bond between fathers and daughters, he leaves Murph to ben mentored by Professor Brand while he sets sail to unknown shores with Brand's brilliants scientist daughter Amelia as the planetary specialist in a crew which includes two male scientists and a pair of walking 2001-style "monolith" artificial intelligences.

The daughters become fascinating opposite numbers as the story unfolds in parallel fashion in space and on Earth. Anne Hathaway, decidedly not in Catwoman mode, brings layers of demure vulnerability and passionate strength to Dr. Amelia Brand while Jessica Chastain, as the emerging Dr, Murphy Cooper, is a study in coruscating anger and intense optimism.

Meanwhile, a stark and desperate story -- leavened by courageous resolve and moving spectacle -- gets surprisingly darker and more desperate as humanity's fate rockets deeper into night.

Yes, Caine's Dr. Brand intone Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night, rage against the dying of the light" perhaps too often -- a character played by the always excellent Matt Damon has a drily sardonic view of it -- but Brand is a scientist. He doesn't know a lot of literature. And the shoe does fit.

Nolan has said that he drew on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Right Stuff, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre in designing Interstellar. Echoes of 2001 are obvious, as are those of another film about fathers and daughters and desperate stabs into the dark, 1997's Contact.

That Jodie Foster vehicle also starred Matthew McConaughey, as a charismatic man of faith skeptical of the material world and open to science and the unknown.

Here McConaughey blends elements of that role with his portrayal of challenged young submarine officer in 2000's rousing Navy drama, U-571.

McConaughey, unfortunately tipped early on as "the new Paul Newman," was always a good actor. In recent years, having resurfaced from the gulag of rote rom-coms, he's been showing it more, culminating in his Best Actor Oscar for The Dallas Buyers Club.

Interstellar shows that he makes a terrific leading man in a very large scale intellectual action drama. McConaughey holds the screen easily, against strong co-stars and eye-popping spectacle alike, with charm, decisiveness, humor, heart, and serious acting chops.

The drama of Interstellar sometimes falters a bit with too on-the-nose dialogue and a parallel structure setting the drama in space against the melodrama back home. And, ironically for a director whom many regard as chilly, the picture wears a big heart on its sleeve. But it is also quite spectacular, frequently moving, and ever ambitious.

And for all its often downbeat atmosphere, Interstellar is determinedly "up-wing." That's my term for a politics of civilizational uplift through technological advance and innovative arrangements, derived from my old friend and boss Gary Hart's chart measuring politicians on axes of left-right and future-past. (The futurist orientation naturally goes up, like the McConaughey character's vision.)

With Interstellar, Nolan and company, including co-writer Jonathan Nolan, repeatedly make the point that, while it's true that possessing techno-gadgets does not equate to happiness, a society that fails to innovate and explore becomes stagnant, decadent, and ultimately incapable of its own salvation. Space exploration, the next frontier, is critical to continued advance.

In this context, our current situation is more than faintly pathetic. While we explore the trivialities of the human experience through social media, imagining that our transfixing little gadgets make us clever, real knowledge recedes. And the state of space exploration, 45 years after reaching the Moon, is embarrassing. The future is out there, in a universe filled with unimaginable knowledge and opportunity, but we're stuck spinning our wheels down here.

In this, President Barack Obama finds another way to disappoint those of us who've supported him, continuing the fundamental drift that set in when Richard Nixon decided to follow up John F. Kennedy's Apollo program with the space shuttle, a flying truck that very expensively went round and round the world doing chores while most exploration languished, left to the clever probes run by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in LA.

Today we are reduced to relying on Russia to get Americans to the International Space Station (ISS).

Private firms are stepping up, but the going is not easy. Virgin Galactic suborbital spacecraft SpaceShipTwo -- I was at the rollout five years ago in the California high desert with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- recently suffered a fatal test flight. Orbital Sciences before that lost a cargo rocket headed to the ISS. Even promising California upstart SpaceX has had ups and downs, but it shares a big new contract with Boeing, with each firm slated to deliver a reusable orbital spacecraft by 2017.

Ironically, we could have had a manned mission to Mars and much more besides for the cost of either the Iraq invasion or the Afghanistan surge, take your pick.

The reality is that, since JFK, only Governor Jerry Brown among Democratic presidential candidates has run on a program of space exploration, with his old slogan "Protect the Earth, Serve the People, Explore the Universe."

If we don't explore the universe, Christopher Nolan argues in Interstellar, we won't have a world to protect.

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