With the Earth degenerating into an arid dustbowl, a team of scientists embark on a secret mission to find an alternate planet suitable for relocation. An ace pilot-turned-farmer leads the charge, and is forced to confront his own private fears and personal priorities as he ventures into a wormhole, and puts Einstein's theories of relativity to the test.

What Lies Above

Dramatically awkward and visually ravishing—often within the same sequence—Interstellar is director Christopher Nolan’s ninth and most ambitious film to date. It is a sprawling, century-spanning saga of ecological disaster, familial yearning and deep-space exploration that stumbles only when it’s otherwise engagingly-drawn characters must mouth cumbersome dramatic platitudes and self-conscious exposition in necessary service to the broad-reaching story.

Still, the cumulative effect for those willing to buckle in to Nolan’s eventful, nearly three-hour ride is satisfaction on both entertainment and intellectual levels. Here is a film that provides plenty of 70mm action (cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot the whole thing on film with IMAX cameras he calls “the world’s heaviest Go-Pros”), as well as references both obvious and veiled to such influential sci-fi and/or science touchstones as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Right Stuff and the best speculative fiction of to-the-stars maestro Robert A. Heinlein.

In an unspecified near future, the earth is succumbing rapidly to famine. Only corn and okra will still grow, and the latter has one crop left. Dust bowl farmer and widower Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), his 15-year-old son Tom (Timothée Chalamet, and Casey Affleck as an adult), stubborn 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy and, later, Jessica Chastain) and grizzled father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) are a close-knit family barely getting by, with Cooper dreaming of a return to his glory days for a NASA that has been so thoroughly refuted and driven underground that Murph is suspended from school for daring to speculate the Apollo moon landings actually happened.

Surprisingly recruited by physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine) at one such NASA outpost, Cooper must choose between protecting his family and serving as pilot of the Endurance, a craft secretly constructed to navigate a faraway wormhole and scout the three planets beyond identified as possible destinations for the human race. With him are Brand’s scientist daughter (Anne Hathaway), a pair of crew (Wes Bentley, David Gyasi) and a wise-cracking ex-military robot voiced by Bill Irwin.

As to the rest of the credited (and uncredited) cast, their unexpected appearances and roles do much to enhance Nolan’s complex yet rewarding human fabric of pioneers, participants and survivors in an endeavor that requires selflessness and fortitude in equal measure.

It’s a fair while before Interstellar leaves the new Dust Bowl behind and blasts off to infinity and beyond, but once it does Nolan largely jettisons the melodrama in favour of a harrowing yet trippy journey into the further reaches of space and time that grows to incorporate themes explored in such unlikely genre cousins as Gravity and the labyrinthine dream libraries of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.

It is these references and their weaving into the fabric of the visionary plot, in the end, that elevate Interstellar above the fits of dramatic mawkishness and Hans Zimmer’s deafening score (think Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman on acid). Arguably, there is no other filmmaker currently working within the Hollywood system who could have such a story green-lit and summon such a bounty of resources to realise his vision (on real film, no less).

To the list of such filmmakers as Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, who have done things their own way for decades now, could reasonably be added the name of Christopher Nolan. For the time being, at least, he will be afforded all the space he needs.