“Interstellar,” Reviewed: Larger Than Life. (Longer and Louder, Too.)

Matthew McConaughey in "Interstellar." (Paramount Pictures)

Matthew McConaughey in “Interstellar.” (Paramount Pictures)

Having proved himself to Hollywood with his Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan can presumably make pretty much any movie he wants. So with Interstellar (rated PG-13), a nearly three-hour science-fiction epic that he wrote with his brother, Jonathan, it’s safe to say we’re seeing the true vision of the filmmaker – for better and, occasionally, for worse.

At its core, the spectacular Interstellar, very much in the Nolan tradition, is a bleak story about optimism. The film takes place in an undefined near future, when Earth and humanity have seen better days: Governments have crumbled, along with the world’s economy and, worst of all, our agricultural infrastructure. We’re struggling as a species to stay alive. It’s up to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot and astronaut, to lead a mission to save the day – by trying to find a new planet to sustain life.

Or, as his mentor Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) says, “We’re not meant to save the Earth. We’re meant to leave it.”

The mammoth scope of this quest is not lost on Nolan – in fact, it’s clearly the point of the film. Our galaxy has no suitable planets, but NASA has found a interstellar wormhole that allows Cooper’s team to travel light years of space in a seemingly short time. Due to the vagaries of physics, however, different pathways taken by the astronauts may take just hours for them while many years pass back on Earth. For Cooper, this complicates his quest: He has two teenagers at home, and he wants to save them, not just the human race in general. For that matter, will he ever see his kids again?

With these emotional stakes established, Interstellar takes us on a wild ride – a space-and-time-bending trek whose eye-popping appeal occasionally suggests nothing less than the staggering grandeur of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan shot roughly an hour of the picture using large-format IMAX film, and if you watch it in that format you’ll be hard-pressed to suppress the word “Wow” from your vocabulary. (I’m sure it’s impressive in a traditional theater, but see it in IMAX if you can.)

Unfortunately, that same emphasis on visual wonder doesn’t always extend to other aspects of the film. For one thing, the sound mix is frustratingly bad at times, with entire exchanges between characters lost under Hans Zimmer’s impressive score or even the roar of rocket engines. And when we can hear the dialogue, sometimes we may wish we couldn’t: Some of the more obvious conversations between the astronaut team (whose members include Anne Hathaway) are distracting and not nearly as profound as they seem to think.

Through it all, though, McConaughey does an admirable job of maintaining a relatable human element: We believe in him, and we root for his desperate need to balance mankind’s needs against his own. Interstellar has its flaws, but they’re not enough to alter the fundamental trajectory of its director’s mission. Like his onscreen hero, Christopher Nolan has a singular goal – to knock our socks off. And in many important ways, he succeeds.