Any intrepid voyager through the vast space of science fiction should recognize the origins and context of Christopher Nolan's new movie, "Interstellar." The picture owes a great deal to all those contemporary doomsday flicks, along with some special debts to the "Star Trek" series and the landmark Stanley Kubrick film, "2001: A Space Odyssey." Its several discussions of the science of space travel and the prospects for mankind, however, bear some resemblance to Emerson's dictum that "the axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics."
The movie begins with television interviews featuring ordinary citizens bemoaning the disaster of a modern dust bowl, when an overpopulated world faces starvation, and some plant disease, only identified as the Blight, steadily and relentlessly destroys all of Earth's crops. Because all governments have run out of money, no solution exists, and most people believe their children represent the last generation to survive on the planet.
Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed former NASA pilot who lives on one of the country's dying farms, realizing all too well the bleak future of his children. He discovers that a remnant of NASA's cadre of scientists runs an underground laboratory, working on a solution, a probe through a mysterious wormhole apparently created by some other beings; their chief, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) persuades Cooper to pilot a craft through the wormhole to find the outposts established by three previous missions.
Despite the anguished protests of his daughter, Murph (MacKenzie Foy), Cooper naturally accepts the mission; with three scientists, including Brand's daughter (Anne Hathaway), he flies a spaceship to and through the wormhole. When they land on the first planet outside the solar system, they encounter a world covered by oceans and the ruins of the earlier probe; on the second, an icy wasteland, they find a survivor, Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), and a greater danger than they had anticipated.
More important, they experience the reality of Einstein's theory of relativity, in which the traditional perceptions of time and space no longer operate -- a couple of hours on the planet for Cooper and Brand amount to 23 years for their partner back on the ship. That fact initiates the attempts to define both a black hole and a wormhole, and problems in reconciling relativity with quantum mechanics. The Einsteinian concept of the flexibility of time explains the strange and complicated solution for the astronauts' dilemmas, familiar of course to "Star Trek" fans who recall Captain Kirk ordering "Warp Factor Five" to sail the Enterprise from one galaxy to another.
In its suggestion of unknown beings who provide a new opportunity for mankind's development, "Interstellar" resembles "2001," but avoids that movie's visual fondling of machinery, as well as its chilly, pretentious mysticism. The crew also employs a robot/computer named TARS, a far cry from the unctuous HAL; TARS speaks with a certain drollery and resembles a Cubist sculpture in motion. In its presentation of the relationship between Cooper and his daughter, it generates some intense emotion within the discussions of the four-dimensional space-time continuum we all inhabit (you knew that, didn't you?) and the possibility of a fifth dimension that establishes the wonders of time and the mysteries of those vast spaces between the stars.
Those mysteries come alive in the final meeting between Cooper and Murph, impersonated by three different actors in different phases of her life -- in addition to MacKenzie Foy as young Murph, Jessica Chastain performs in the most important stage, and Ellen Burstyn plays the aged Murph in a scene that once again underlines the paradoxes of time. Despite the heroics of the crew and the miracle of traversing space and transcending chronology, Murph probably represents the most important character in the picture.
Unfortunately, the movie also employs an insistent musical score that often virtually smothers the dialogue. With the exception of the always competent Michael Caine, the actors often also mumble or whisper their lines, which simply dissipates the serious and potentially fascinating intellectual content of a most challenging film. Perhaps the most important and intriguing element of "Interstellar" lies in its reliance on narrative, character, and meaning instead of special effects and cinematic pyrotechnics -- rarely for a contemporary science fiction film, its content triumphs over its fireworks.