Tomorrow we wake up to a dust bowl. There will be subsistence farming of corn accompanied by mass starvation, and austerity measures that will halt human progress in the name of giving people something to eat. Our collective technological dreams attenuated, we will wait for the planet to finally reject us, and then the last human being will die. That is, unless Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), a little girl named for an unscientific aphorism, stumbles upon a set of mysterious coordinates – delivered to her by a ghost, or science, or both – that will lead her cowboy-farmer-engineer-astronaut father, Coop (Matthew McConaughey), to a secret space mission. The task: locate a new Earth-ish place for people to take over and, it is hoped, not ruin a second time.

Grounded in that terrifyingly plausible near-future, director/co-writer (with brother Jonathan) Christopher Nolan takes the next three hours and ungrounds it, hurling his movie into a stern black hole of a near-solution, one built on a shifting, floating foundation of speculative galaxy-talk, recursive visual fields, bendy space, free-jazz time signatures and melodramatic human emotion.

Coop takes to space travel like he was born out there, and alongside fellow engineers Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), as well as an immensely cool walk-box of a robot named TARS (the voice of Bill Irwin), they search for missing explorers of potential worlds, desperate to find the one who hit the we-could-kinda-sorta-live-here-maybe jackpot. It's not giving anything away to reveal that what they find instead is maddening, confusing, and marred by the utterly normal yet still pitiful human inability to see into very real extra dimensions.

So yes, Nolan has once again blasted off to a crazy place, the farthest of external farscapes (companion to Inception's deeply embedded inner worlds), where time and love are visible and quantifiable. Then he wraps it up in a last act frazzle of action, convoluted explanations and coldly moving emotional punch.

This would be undeniably silly and even mockable in the wrong hands, but Nolan works hard to to undope the dopey with staggering technical precision. Working within a grave, dirty, blue-collar production design, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema admirably assists with compositions of a beautifully doomed, Steinbeckian Earth. These are crosscut with crisp, silent frames of blackened space (one occasionally punctuated by almost-hopeful, 2001-style light shows) or bitterly frozen, last-chance galactic outposts. And all of them are deep-feeling sites where people tend to lose what they were trying to save.

It's a preposterous puzzle, a story of love and sadness wrapped up in a wonky sci-fi maze, one that trips like Inception, science raps like a stoner theoretician and dispenses fuzzy hugs like a warm puppy. So if its reach extends its grasp -- and how could it not? -- then it's the reach of a filmmaker who has earned the privilege of taking risks within a business model that detests risk. That's an extra-filmic sort of value, but its important all the same, which makes Nolan his own self-styled cowboy-astronaut and this his ad astra per aspera.

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