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Interstellar is quite possibly Christopher Nolan’s most personal film to-date, a grand spectacle of deep space exploration involving wormholes and theories of relativity, but which ultimately rests on the relationship between one man and his daughter. For all its epic visual splendour and scientific mumbo-jumbo, Interstellar is at its heart an intensely human drama. Its success, and indeed the success of the mission on screen, relies less on mathematics, mechanics and technology than on real emotion – and as a result, the film may alienate and upset those looking for a simple white-knuckle thrill ride.

While there is certainly a pioneering spirit to the film, not to mention a string of brilliantly staged set-pieces, Nolan paces his 169-minute epic very deliberately, giving ample time for relationships to be developed and explored, vast expanses of space to be marvelled at, and absence to make the heart grow fonder. Interstellar is a story of loss, longing and forgiveness far more than it is a quest to find a new home for a species threatened with extinction.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot, now struggling to raise two young children, Tom and Murph, after his wife succumbs to cancer. We are in some unspecified period of the near-future where food levels have become dangerously low and technological advances, and other unnecessary expenses, have been abandoned. Earth is becoming an increasingly uninhabitable dustbowl, with no immediate solution in sight.

Despite his parental obligations, Cooper continually wrestles with the notion that he is meant for something more than this, and happily encourages his daughter Murph to question authority and dare to think bigger. At first, Murph’s talk of a ghost in her bedroom seems little more than her hyperactive imagination, but on further investigation Cooper discovers some kind of gravitational anomaly at work. Its rhythmic undulations seem to speak in binary code, and point to a specific location in the desert. Cooper cannot resist the impulse to go looking.

Soon enough, the future of mankind has been put into Cooper’s hand, piloting a secret space mission alongside Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) – daughter of his former professor at NASA (Michael Caine) – to attempt an investigative mission through a wormhole just off Saturn that could lead to inhabitable worlds within their, and our, reach.

The list of unknown elements of the “Endurance” mission is seemingly infinite, but not least is knowing exactly how long they will be away. While Cooper’s father-in-law (John Lithgow) is on hand to care for his children’s daily needs – and Tom is a more than capable farmer already – Murph struggles to comprehend what her father is about to undertake. Ironically she proves to have the strongest grasp on the technicalities of the mission, but her bond with her dad – the only person who really understands her – is too strong to relinquish easily.

While Inception proved a gigantic hit for Nolan back in 2010, both commercially and critically, he did come under fire as a filmmaker who directs from the head rather than from the heart. For all its visual showmanship and narrative gymnastics, there was very little emotion in the film to truly connect the audience with the characters. Nolan certainly seems to have heeded these criticisms, as Interstellar goes in completely the opposite direction, to the point that some fans may find the film so entrenched in sentimentality and familial bonding that it actually detracts from the epic science fiction odyssey unfolding in huge IMAX-fueled 70mm.

Interstellar tells its story in big, bold, (overly)-confident strokes, both in its moments of interplanetary exploration, terrestrial devastation and heart-string tugging melodrama. Viewers willing to open themselves up to such an experience will be swept up in an adventure of lofty ambition on an almost unprecedented scale. It is difficult not to compare Chris Nolan to James Cameron at this stage of his career. He has delivered enough box office-bursting, brand-friendly big screen entertainment to be allowed the freedom to create whatever he wants. By way of comparison, Interstellar feels like Nolan’s The Abyss, had Cameron made that film with all the creative freedoms he was gifted on Avatar.

Unable to employ his usual cinematographer-of-choice Wally Pfister, Nolan here collaborates with Dutch lensman Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose back catalogue includes such beautifully shot films as Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Her. Fear not, Interstellar looks absolutely incredible, whether shooting a pickup truck as it speeds through a field of corn, the cramped interiors of the Endurance ranger spacecraft, or attempting to visualise the inside of a wormhole in the darkest reaches of the galaxy. Shot largely using IMAX cameras, and seen projected on an IMAX screen, Interstellar is a staggering work of cinematic beauty, even before considering Hans Zimmer’s masterful score that employs organs in a way that brilliantly evokes Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal space odyssey, Solaris.

As one should expect from Nolan at this stage, Interstellar is a technical marvel from start to finish, and his ensemble cast that includes recent Oscar winners McConaughey and Hathaway alongside the ever-present Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck and Wes Bentley, all deliver top drawer performances, with special mention given to young Mackenzie Foy as Cooper’s daughter, Murph. Nolan’s writing always bears heavy scrutiny, and here he reworks an original screenplay from brother Jonathan. There is, as one might expect, plentiful techno-speak throughout the film, as characters do their upmost to explain such high-concept scientific theories as quantum physics and relativity coherently enough for mainstream audiences to keep up. For the most part, the Nolans achieve that, and a couple of leaden lines of dialogue aside, hold an even keel between exposition and experience.

Suffice to say, Interstellar proves one of the most dazzling and emotionally demanding blockbuster experiences of the year. As someone uncharacteristically vulnerable to the occasional jab of sentimentality, I found myself in actual tears on more than one occasion during Interstellar. Most often, however, I was just left awestruck my the sheer beauty of Nolan’s creation – itself a portal into another dimension of interstellar travel that proves an aural and visual adventure all its own. Of course, Interstellar must also serve its corporate masters as a genre thriller and crowd-pleasing slice of entertainment, so includes its fair share or thrills, spills and revelations, but it is always propelled by the story of a man forced to leave his children behind, uncertain of their fate or if he’ll ever live to see them again. And for me, that was every bit as impactful as its undeniable technical wizardry.