'Interstellar' review: The grandest cinematic spectacle of 2014 to behold

'Interstellar' review: The grandest cinematic spectacle of 2014 to behold

"Interstellar" (now playing in limited theaters and opening nationwide Nov. 7) is a throwback to the great cinematic blockbusters -- a film that brilliantly plays in the heady world of theoretical physics and is executed with stunning, cutting-edge visuals. Set in a desperate and dying world, this is a story of heroic, bold exploration and - most importantly - the love between parents and children that transcends all distances and defies all laws of nature.

In short: As the Earth becomes less and less habitable, former pilot and widower Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) joins a last-ditch scientific effort to explore deep space in the remote hope of finding a new, habitable planet for humanity -- but the journey will take him from his children for many years. Academy Award winners Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain andMichael Caine also star. (Watch the trailer)

Despite all its grandeur, this ninth film from director Christopher Nolan fails to unseat "The Dark Knight," "Inception" or "Memento" from their places among Nolan's very best movies. "Interstellar" is a masterfully crafted film rooted in exciting scientific ideas and based in essentially a love story - but it suffers a number of structural weaknesses.

At the risk of sounding like meaningless hyperbole, but "Interstellar" is reminiscent of the excitement of "Star Wars: A New Hope" and the daring, breath-taking aura of "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- all the while telling a very elemental love story at its core. Yet, Nolan's latest is not as esoteric as "2001" and presents a more intellectually satisfying ride than "Star Wars." Although "Interstellar" is not better than either aforementioned sci-fi landmark, this deep space adventure is perhaps the perfect middle ground between pure intellectual exercise and space pulp adventure.

Hundreds of movies are released in theaters every year -- but, with rare exception, almost all of them are equally as entertaining in anyone's living room as they are on the big screen. "Interstellar" is that rare exception for 2014. The jaw-dropping cinematography of space alone makes "Interstellar" an absolute must-see at the cinema. Film purists will get to enjoy "Interstellar" presented on good old fashioned film projectors starting Nov. 4 in IMAX 70mm, 70mm film or 35mm film, while wide, less discriminating audiences will get to see it in digital or 4k digital starting Nov. 7. See where the film is playing invarious formats here.

The awe-factor is not limited to just the space travel sequences. This is a beautifully shot film that perfectly captures the bleak Earth suffering endless dust storms and famine, as well as a water-covered planet battered by colossal, skyscraper-sized waves or the glacial hell of a distant, frozen world.

"Interstellar" is not simply a sprawling adventure across space -- it is a story that spans years and decades. This movie plays fast and loose with storytelling conventions related to time, with scenes suddenly leaping many years forward. That said, it also establishes its own rules for time and follows them rigorously - which is very satisfying to anyone with basic knowledge of relativity, but most importantly, also keeps the story stakes redlined.

Great science fiction is not simply special effects and fantastical plot elements. Great sci-fi uses science-based elements merely as storytelling tools to execute fundamentally human narratives. While "Interstellar" is superficially a save-the-world space adventure, its real brilliance is its precise use of time and relativity as the main plot drivers. Nolan takes the time dilation basics used in "Inception" and takes them to the next level in "Interstellar." McConaughey's character has one primary goal - to get back to his children as soon as possible. Space travel alone takes a very long time -- but relativity's ability to distort time always threatens to keep Cooper separated from his children much, much longer. This ever-impending threat is deftly wielded to always imperils Cooper's personal and primary goal.

Yet, for all its brilliance, "Interstellar" is far from perfect and is not one of Nolan's very best films. In an attempt to generate/manufacture suspense or thrilling momentum, the story unfortunately resorts to popcorn-flick sequences that never feel as genuinely intense as some of the movie's simpler, quieter moments.

For example, at one point a very simple land-and-make contact mission already has some incredible stakes -- simply going to the planet will cost the crew precious fuel and time. Yet, the story is so insecure with its organic and nerve-racking stakes that a very cool looking, but equally unnecessary, natural disaster is thrown into the mix. At another point, the story sets up already precarious and volatile situation -- which devolves into a fist fight and a drawn-out end to the fight. These needless additions, clearly added to ratchet up the excitement, feel sadly cheap and wholly unnecessary, especially given how the film's basic premise naturally keeps the narrative exciting.

Several characters are sadly underdeveloped, including Anne Hathaway or Wes Bentley's space scientists or Casey Affleck's steadfast corn farmer. These two characters each have their moments, but they are overall thin and do little more than nudge the plot here and there. The fact that the awesome, wise-cracking robot TARS is surprisingly one of the most endearing characters reveals the unfortunate lack of depth among the supporting cast.

Final verdict: Nolan's latest film is an experience best seen on the biggest screen possible. Forgiving its transgressions for resorting to some cheap thrills, "Interstellar" is a remarkable cinematic achievement of the year.

Score: 4/5

"Interstellar" is now open in limited theaters in IMAX 70mm, 70mm film and 35mm film - and opens everywhere in digital formats Nov. 7.

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