Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar

On a visual level, Interstellar is an exceptionally well-crafted Hollywood entertainment. Director Christopher Nolan, art director Dean Wolcott, and their effects artists render the imaginary settings in stunning detail. The film is rife with brilliant imagery: a horizon of frozen clouds, an ocean wave as tall as a skyscraper, the flashing interior of a wormhole through which the principal characters fly their spacecraft. The most striking thing about these images is that we’re rarely encouraged to ooh and aah over them; unlike most ambitious space operas since 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Interstellar inspires not wonder but a cool contemplation. Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who cowrote the script, advance a hard-science perspective, incorporating such concepts as the theory of relativity and placing dramatic emphasis on research and problem solving.

The movie centers on the pressing problem of how to save humanity as global warming renders the earth uninhabitable. Set in the late 21st century, it imagines a future in which the world’s population has been decimated by food shortages and ecological disasters. The United States has reverted to an agricultural society to feed what’s left of the population and undo the “excesses of the 20th century.” (Typical of Hollywood sci-fi screenwriters, the Nolans never stop to consider how other countries have fared.) Yet the human race is still in jeopardy, because the atmosphere is becoming too polluted to breathe.

The Nolans establish this situation by focusing on the daily life of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot and engineer forced by the government to operate a farm. An all-American single parent, he recalls numerous Steven Spielberg protagonists—brilliant, impulsive, and down-to-earth. Soon after uncovering a top-secret NASA base, Cooper is recruited to pilot a team of scientists (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, and David Gyasi, none of them especially credible) through space and time so they can explore distant planets that might sustain human life. Their mission must be completed as soon as possible because they’ll be traveling at the speed of light and time will pass much more quickly on earth than it will for them.

Oddly, Interstellar rarely feels suspenseful. As in Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, the storytelling falters whenever the filmmakers attempt anything more intimate than a special-effects set piece. Moreover, the film seems to lack any unifying theme that might give substance to the various scientific concepts, and the thin characterization (a chronic shortcoming of Nolan’s films) prevents one from really engaging with the material emotionally. After the first hour, with its poignant depiction of humanity’s decline, Interstellar always seems to be rebuilding its momentum, offering plenty to think about but little to hold on to.