"Interstellar" finds Christopher Nolan taking on a logical subject for a filmmaker so adept at crafting big budget cinema emboldened with deeply personal ideas and sweeping thematic explorations.
It shifts his focus away from the dark streets of Batman's Gotham and the Kafkaesque internal mysteries of "Inception" and into the deepest and darkest reaches of the cosmos, in a film that considers the vastness of space itself and the ways our experiences on earth affect our conceptions of the unknown.
Or at least most of "Interstellar" does precisely that, when it isn't indulging in simplistic action-movie dramatics or overwritten story lines that detract from its philosophical essence.
Running nearly three hours and best seen in 70 mm film on an IMAX screen, it's a work of extraordinary ambition that lodges itself in your mind if not your heart.
Matthew McConaughey stars as an astronaut-turned-farmer/family man named Cooper, who is recruited by what's left of NASA at a future time when the earth is dying. He's asked to pilot a mission through a wormhole near Saturn and into a different galaxy, in search of a planet ideally suited for human survival.
This is, above all, an accomplished visual enterprise, filled with images of astonishing scope. Even the earthbound scenes convey a certain majesty, with faded, dust-strewn landscapes and homes recalling Dorothea Lange's stark portraits of Depression-era suffering.
When Cooper and his fellow astronauts (including a scientist played by Anne Hathaway) take off, with their tiny spaceship but a speck against the endless interstellar expanse, the movie truly sinks in. Nolan, who co-wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, is freed to indulge his imagination in shaping the details of intergalactic transit and the texture of new worlds. It's never less than a total spectacle, a cutting-edge conveyor of movie magic that replicates the experience of staring up at a starry night sky and pondering infinity.
The movie has grand notions about love across time and dimensions and it's unafraid of express sentimentality. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but Nolan lacks Terrence Malick's artful touch when it comes to conflating big ideas with similarly sizable emotions.
The movie is never quite as profound as it wants to be and the human touch is largely swallowed by the enormity surrounding it. There's a pedestrian quality to the way the plot develops -- to all the human interactions, really -- that detracts from the majestic vision.
Still, the spirit of exploration and discovery lives in "Interstellar" and that alone makes it a cinematic trip worth taking.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
Select theaters Tuesday; everywhere Friday