Skeptics in space: McConaughey and Hathaway.

Einstein is the screenwriter’s crutch. At least in the case of Christopher

Einstein is the screenwriter’s crutch. At least in the case of Christopher Nolan (writing with his brother Jonathan), the bending of space and the relativity of time—to say nothing of nasty black holes, hostile planets, and murderous astronauts—means that anything goes in Interstellar, plot-wise. Really, Einstein turns out to be the perfect collaborator with Nolan, fond as he is of puzzle pictures and inversions of our normally regulated world. In Following, Memento, and Insomnia, the riddles were smaller and more human-scaled. Nolan’s ambitions grew with his hit Batman trilogy, and Inception twisted itself into a leaden, insoluble pretzel: a monument to its own solemn inscrutability.

Should it be any surprise, then, that the indigestible, almost circular Interstellar takes itself so seriously? Reaching about 90 years forward from its start in a near-future dystopia, where ignorance reigns on our neo–Dust Bowl planet, the movie commits itself both to a father/daughter reunion and the salvation of mankind. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper—first name never given; could it be Gary?—blasts off from Earth after a ponderous first half-hour, sent on a mission to plunge into a wormhole near Saturn because Michael Caine tells him to. And no one in a Chris Nolan movie can say no to Michael Caine, here playing a professor named Brand who also sends along his scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) with Cooper and two others. (The latter duo might as well be wearing the red jerseys in a Star Trek episode; we know from the start they’re doomed.)

What’s wrong with Earth? Why is it so parched and exhausted? Was it something we said? Nolan has little time for such questions in a movie that lasts almost three hours. He takes a few swipes at the “I’m not a scientist” types and anti-vax crowd, this being a film that venerates books, learning, and bold intellectual ventures. Cooper and his precocious daughter Murph (played by three actresses at different ages) are relentlessly high-minded and noble in comparison to the defeated “caretakers” in charge of the planet. He’s a widowed (of course) former NASA pilot; she’s a future scientist, a teary 10-year-old when he heads to space. Maybe we’ll be the same age when I come back, he tells Murph, because of Einstein and other stuff we slept through in AP physics. The two ceremoniously synchronize their watches, sure to figure later—two hours for us, rather more for them—in the story.

The quiet, awesome void of space comes as a relief after all the tiresome preliminaries and terrestrial clue-settings. Nolan is smart enough to avoid the obvious Kubrickian 2001 homages, but he’s necessarily working in the same cinematic universe. Rather than staging balletic space-station dockings to Strauss, he’s content to contrast the razor-edged rings of Saturn—filling the frame in IMAX format—with puny plinks on a piano (in an otherwise overbearing score by Hans Zimmer) to accompany Cooper’s frail ship. (It’s called the Endurance, surely a nod to Shackleton.)

If Earth is all corn blight and dust storms (where the gaunt McConaughey could easily pass for a displaced Okie in a John Ford movie), Nolan renders the galaxy in familiar shades of terror. Cooper and company must pass through a rattling, carnival-lighted wormhole to a fresh galaxy, where they investigate possible planets for colonization (scouted in advance by other astronauts). One is water, the other ice, and both prove quite lethal. After Cooper and Amelia briefly survey one possible haven, they return to their craft where a colleague has aged 23 years relative to them (again: Einstein). Video messages from Earth likewise reveal curious little Murph now grown into genius astrophysicist Jessica Chastain, bitter and aggrieved that her father has seemingly abandoned her. Yes, there’s the torment of loneliness and isolation to space travel, but it’s a plastic surgeon’s dream: no aging!

Cooper, looking the part, demonstrates some Right Stuff–style piloting skills, but what Nolan really wants his team to do is talk about relativity, gravity, the fifth dimension, and quantum data (the latter requiring a visit to a black hole). Correspondingly, there’s not a lot of action in Interstellar—just a few narrow escapes, a tussle on the ice, an explosion or two, and a really big wave. (Anyone else remember McConaughey in Surfer, Dude?) After about 90 minutes, Nolan does start cross-cutting between space and Earth, which helps the pace somewhat.

Still, the frequent recitations of Dylan Thomas poetry and the grown Murph stabbing chalky equations on a blackboard can make the movie feel like an undergraduate seminar in space. Interstellar’s temple is the book-lined study in Cooper’s farmhouse, to which Murph is repeatedly, intuitively drawn. There’s talk of ghosts and a cosmic “they” who chose Cooper for his long mission. Even Amelia says of the convenient wormhole that could save our species, “Someone placed it there,” as if it were a donut left out on the conference-room table. Skepticism inevitably gives way to sentiment, and Newton is trumped by love—“the one thing that transcends time and space,” says Dr. Amelia. (Funny, but I don’t remember that being a correct answer on the SATs.)

Ever the craftsman, Nolan consulted a physicist during the writing and filming of Interstellar; like most viewers without a Ph.D., I’m not going to quibble with their deviations from textbook astronomy. The movie—being screened in three different formats—certainly looks great in its wide cosmic vistas. It doesn’t scream sci-fi; the technology and human behavior could, for all we know, be just a few election cycles away (NASA funding ever in doubt). McConaughey, Hathaway, and Chastain don’t have to work that hard to sell what are basic emotions (loss, grief, longing, etc.); these prevent the movie from floating entirely into the mystical (where Nolan appears to be writing his own new textbook).

Freighted with plot and porch-chair aphorisms, Interstellar isn’t half the movie that Gravity was (though twice its length). Admittedly, Gravity’s was a far more economical story, and maybe that’s the next great challenge for Nolan: lighten up.

INTERSTELLAR Opens Tues., Nov. 4 at Pacific Science Center IMAX, SIFF Cinema Uptown, SIFF Cinema Egyptian, and others. Opens Thurs., Nov. 6 at Majestic Bay, Ark Lodge, Varsity, Admiral, and others. Rated PG-13. 168 minutes.