Interstellar travels through a familiar universe: the cerebral Christopher Nolan blockbuster. The space exploration saga has the fabulously realised visuals for which the director is revered, a verbose screenplay, grown-up performances and ambitious ideas that make a meal out of multiplex bait. It’s deadly serious, as Nolannamas tend to be, balancing complex debates about relativity, gravity, and the very meaning of time with emotional exchanges about love, hope, and redemption.

Interstellar is set somewhere in the distant but identifiable future. The planet has nearly exhausted its resources, and nations have disbanded their armies to fight a greater, potentially unwinnable war against time. Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley and a robot suit up for a new mission that involves burrowing through a wormhole and finding new and inhabitable planets. What lies beyond the wormhole, and what about the ones left behind?

The screenplay, by the director and his regular collaborator, his brother Jonathan, tethers the gobbledygook to cornball sentiment. McConaughey’s Cooper has signed up because he wants to save his family, especially his precocious daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). The movie toggles between bravura sequences set in the unexplored and unsettling planetary worlds that exist beyond Earth and lachrymose moments between the characters on terra firma. (A chunk of the movie has been shot with IMAX cameras and on the widescreen 70mm format).

Grinding on

Interstellar grinds on for 169 minutes, some of it intelligible only to physicists and star-gazers, some of it so sentimental it could have been a women’s weepie, and some of it jaw-dropping enough to justify the running length. Every visit to a new planet brings surprises – a horrific wall of water in one, a barren desert of icicles housing a very lonely astronaut (Matt Damon) in another – but the greatest mystery is locked behind on Earth. The extended climax, which contains an Inception-worthy switcheroo, movingly brings together the movie’s major themes, but some fatigue at the sheer volume of technical and emotional data might have already seeped in by then.

Nolan has mastered the art of addressing difficult ideas through crowd-pleasing and visually stunning narratives. But he overplays his hand in Interstellar, delivering his thoughts on environmental degradation, the fallibility of the human race, the limitless possibilities of space, the necessary bravery of space programmes, and the need to find solutions to pressing social problems with as much earnestness as a priest at a sermon. The church organ-inflected soundtrack rounds off the impression of being at a special Sunday mass.

Interstellar is matched in its scope by only a handful of filmmakers working in contemporary Hollywood. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is the most immediate and obvious reference, but Nolan sticks his neck out further than that space-set movie. Interstellar dares it viewers to come along on a perilous adventure that is immersive, impressive, and intelligent. If it’s also exhausting, it pays to remember that this is a movie about the elasticity of time and space, where a few years in outer space can equal several decades on Earth.