Few working directors are better than Christopher Nolan at marrying the popcorn pic with a mind-warping big concept. “Memento” mashed a crime noir into a memory puzzle that put time on a yo-yo. “Inception” folded the heist movie into a stack of dreamscapes, embedding Leonardo DiCaprio in a piece of conceptual pop art. Three Batman movies rush past to pad the accounts, and here we return with “Interstellar,” Nolan’s adaptation of his and his brother Jonathan’s script. The sweep of the story could scarcely be more epic: Blight and drought will be the end of the human species, and right soon, so we gotta ditch to a different planet or starve and suffocate.
This is no small undertaking, as you can imagine, and in the storytelling the Nolans bring the ruckus. Wormholes, black holes, relativity, quantum mechanics — the whole canon of “Star Trek”-worthy science gets packed into just less than three hours of deep-space travel, during which time becomes putty and some mysterious five-dimensional beings play a hidden, pivotal role. This would be a fine week to bone up on your Stephen Hawking or just go spelunking through Wikipedia before wandering into the multiplex.
Uniquely for this space adventure, you may pick up Ken Burns’ 2012 documentary about the Dust Bowl. Do that anyway, in fact — it’s a masterwork. Christopher Nolan was so taken by it that he folded the mini-series’ interview footage into “Interstellar,” planting the film in an ecological disaster of proportions that strained even the word “Biblical.” Researchers have determined lately that it was a thousand-year drought that struck the American Plains during the Great Depression. The elements of doomed farm life in the near-future of “Interstellar” all ring with the same elements: silt forever invading homes, children developing chronic lung disease, dust clouds like mountains blacking out the horizon. It looks a lot like a climate change preview. Frankly, it’s damn scary.
Hope comes when a NASA-pilot-turned-farmer, a father named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, wild-eyed and stern), finds his way to a secret NASA facility, courtesy of some oddly communicative gravity anomalies in his daughter’s room. A father-daughter team of brilliant astrophysicists (Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway) explain to him the underground agency’s new missions have involved probing new worlds on the notion that humanity can either be transplanted or, worst case, restarted with a colony of fertilized eggs. They enlist him to fly a team through a wormhole near Saturn to follow transmissions from worlds on the other side, where pioneer astronauts years earlier fanned out, seeking a livable replacement Earth.
It’s a dialogue-intense script, lots of big words and big decisions; it’s easy to lose the themes for the particulars. (Hans Zimmer’s score, an instant-classic fusion of electronic minimalism and orchestral sweep, does yeoman’s work to hold the heart of the film.) Nolan asks too much of his actors in too small a space, in fact; Jessica Chastain, harried as Cooper’s adult daughter, embodies the sense that we’ve seen these performers accomplish more in other films.
In scale and scope, though, “Interstellar” aims as big as movies can, loading up lives and worlds and ideas, and along the way creating something indelibly beautiful and disturbing. It pits hope against humans’ puny timelines, against our ability to endure isolation and personal hardship, against our insistence to choose our own families against the welfare of countless strangers. The path it sets out to save the world of course flaunts implausibility. The path it describes for how we end it, alas, seems far more convincing.