Space odyssey ‘Interstellar’ challenging, exquisitely made

Gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you what Freddie Mercury was singing about in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but I still like the song.

Likewise, long stretches of “Interstellar” are so far over my head, I can barely see its vapor trails.

But there’s no denying that director Christopher Nolan’s challenging space odyssey is exquisitely made. He’s one of painfully few filmmakers whose every effort fills me with a sense of awe.

Set in the near future, “Interstellar” imagines a dying world in which dust covers every surface like freshly fallen snow. A blight has ruined the planet’s food supply. Corn is the sole remaining viable crop, and it’s barely hanging on.

Even militaries have been disbanded as Earth is in survival mode.

Without a need for test pilots and engineers, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) retired from both and is getting by on the family farm, supporting his father (John Lithgow), son (Timothee Chalamet) and his beloved, precocious daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy).

Like her dad, Murph loves science and outer space, so much so that she gets into a fight at school over textbooks that have been “corrected” to show that we faked the moon landing to bankrupt the Soviet Union.

She’s also convinced there’s a ghost in her room that’s knocking books off her shelves and leaving messages in the dust.

Whatever’s going on in that bedroom leads Coop, and a stowaway Murph, to a secret underground bunker housing what’s left of NASA as well as Professor Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine), who has an equally secret plan to save humanity.

Explorers have identified three planets that might be capable of sustaining human life, and all Coop has to do is lead a team of scientists through a wormhole near Saturn, shoot into another galaxy and conduct a little reconnaissance with the fate of mankind hanging in the balance. What could possibly go wrong?

Accompanying Coop on his mission are Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), backup pilot Doyle (Wes Bentley) and astrophysicist Romilly (David Gyasi), who might as well have been played by Charlie Brown’s teacher, because after a while, all I heard of his scientific explanations was “Wah wah wahwah wah.”

Gravitational anomalies, disturbances of space-time and time shifts are some of the easier concepts to grasp, and there hasn’t been this much talk of the fifth dimension since the dawning of the age of Aquarius. Some of the dialogue, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, sounds like it was recycled from McConaughey’s “time is a flat circle” monologue from “True Detective.”

Also along for the ride is a sarcastic surplus military machine, with its humor levels set to 100 percent, that isn’t nearly as lame as it sounds. Voiced and brought to life by Bill Irwin via a hydraulic puppeteering rig, TARS is one of the highlights of the ambitious “Interstellar.”

The same certainly can’t be said for Hans Zimmer’s distracting cacophony of a score that often sounds like an overcaffeinated Phantom of the Opera going berserk on a pipe organ. (I’m usually not a big noticer of scores, unless they substantially add to or detract from the moviegoing experience. Coincidentally, “Birdman” also opens Friday, and it features a terrific jazz drum score by Antonio Sanchez.)

“Interstellar” offers an intriguing mix of old and new, blending a ’70s-style aesthetic with cutting-edge special effects. In just one of many eye-popping moments, one of the potential new homes Coop and his crew visits is plagued by enormous walls of water that make those waves in “The Perfect Storm” look like flatulence in a bathtub.

But for all its technical wizardry, “Interstellar” is still very much the story of a father wanting to protect his kids at any cost.

Fans of Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy may have forgotten he’s also responsible for “Memento” and “Inception,” and this one is more of a mindscrew than either of those.

I’m sure Nolan knows what he’s talking about. Among the executive producers on “Interstellar” is theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who tested each part of the plot to ensure it was scientifically sound.

Toward the end, though, even the walking computer gets confused.

“Don’t you get it TARS?” Coop says.

Nope.

I didn’t either.

But I’m OK with that.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.

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