Movie reviews: 'Interstellar,' 'Big Hero 6'

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"Interstellar" (PG-13) ***(out of four)

Writer-director Christopher Nolan blasts the art of filmmaking into an entirely new dimension – both literally and figuratively – with "Interstellar," an engaging mind-bender of a sci-fi action drama that examines such heady concepts as wormholes, black holes and the notion of love transcending space and time.

As in his brilliant cerebral thriller "Inception," Nolan ambitiously voyages with "Interstellar" to unknown territories and artfully creates an atmosphere rarely examined in such detail on the big screen. If you can manage to wade through the dearth of quantum physics jargon used to set up the film's spectacular space travel sequences without wracking your brain too hard to figure out just what the heck's being said, you're in for a wild ride.

Matthew McConaughey gives an emotionally-charged performance as Cooper, a farmer in an unspecified time in Earth's future where conditions reminiscent of the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s have eliminated much of the world's food supply. Blight has eradicated wheat and farmers can only grow corn, and as Cooper finds out from the now secretly-funded NASA, his children's generation will likely be the last to survive on the dying planet.

A former pilot and engineer whose aspirations were waylaid because of the planet's deteriorating condition and a shift in the government's fiscal priorities, Cooper finally gets his chance to live his dreams and command a space module on a potential life-saving voyage that will secure Earth's future. However, the mission comes with great sacrifice as Cooper, a widower, will be forced to leave his 10-year-old daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), and teenage son, Tom (Timothee Chalamet), behind – possibly forever.

At its heart a pulse-pounding thrill ride, "Interstellar" will no doubt have its detractors because of its nearly 2 hour, 49 minute runtime and difficult-to-grasp scientific theories. But for those who are willing to strap themselves in the rocket ship (you can literally feel the engines when screened in IMAX) and open their minds to the wonders of visual and sound effects, it's a fascinating trip.

Although some may want to label the film a doomsday thriller, "Interstellar" far distances itself from the genre, characterized by films like "Armageddon," which featured Bruce Willis and his band of roughnecks voyaging to blow up a Texas-sized meteor hurtling toward the Earth. Instead, Nolan, a stickler for details and realism, hired the likes of renowned theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who creates a plausible scenario in which "Interstellar" could truthfully play out, both on Earth and in the far reaches of outer space.

Naturally, the creation of such intellectually challenging material can alienate an audience member, but only as far as they let it. That's because "Interstellar" doesn't expect you to so much understand the science that creates the wonders of space flight and the potential existence of wormholes, but rather to experience it, almost in first person aboard Cooper's ship. The great thing is, as foreign as the movie galaxy is in "Interstellar," Nolan and his co-writer brother, Jonah, have also established an emotional through-line. Driven by a father-daughter relationship, it's heartbreaking to see Cooper living in fear and regret, thinking he made the wrong choice and may never get to see his kids again.

While McConaughey is great in the lead performance in "Interstellar," stealing the show is Jessica Chastain, who shoulders the heaviest emotional burden as the adult version of Murph – a woman filled with contempt after feeling abandoned by her explorer father. Nolan regular Michael Caine is also terrific as a Thorne-like physicist who formulates the mission, yet isn't all the person that he seems; and Anne Hathaway, whom Nolan cast as Selina Kyle in "The Dark Knight Rises," aptly fits the bill as Caine's daughter and a doctor on Cooper's ship whose emotional vulnerabilities cloud the mission. Comic Bill Irwin also brings an unlikely bit of swagger to TARS, the ship's resourceful robot.

Despite the film's sometimes weighty ambitions, Nolan deserves high marks for not turning "Interstellar" into a preachy message movie. Given the never-ending arguments over the environment – specifically climate change (or global warming) – "Interstellar" in lesser hands could have devolved into a political debate and/or ideologically-infused cautionary tale, and alienated half of its audience in the process.

Instead, Nolan smartly doesn't take sides, finding a very viable narrative in its Dust Bowl scenario and in the process avoiding any finger-wagging at audiences (who just want to be entertained) and bestowing any blame on the humans in the film who are just struggling to survive. A film filled with optimism, Nolan makes "Interstellar" first and foremost a compelling piece of science fiction, which oddly isn't driven by doom, but hope.

"We'll find a way. We always have," Cooper says in the movie. And when all is said and done, "Interstellar" will make you believe that the sky truly is the limit.

"Big Hero 6" (PG) ***1/2 (out of four)

An exciting new, big-screen superhero franchise has been born with "Big Hero 6," an entertaining and emotional computer-animated offering that feels like a cross between "The Incredibles" and "The Iron Giant," yet mostly emerges with its own unique identity.

Based on a Marvel comic book series of the same name, "Big Hero 6" stars the voice of Ryan Potter as Hiro Hamada, an orphaned, 14-year-old robotics prodigy being raised by his aunt, Cass (Maya Rudolph), and older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), in the tech-infused city of San Fransokyo.

Always his brother's keeper, Tadashi convinces Hiro that his gifts are better suited for a local science university instead a making quick cash in backdoor robot-fighting games, and he encourages him to enter a contest that will guarantee a spot at the prestigious institute. It's the place where Tadashi learned the skills to build Baymax, an inflatable robot whose main function is to detect health problems with its owner.

It doesn't take Hiro long to impress the college with his own invention, something that's so advanced that it's sure to revolutionize the robotics industry. Hiro's excitement, though, is quickly tempered when his brother, in a valiant effort to save his mentor's life, dies in an explosion at the school.

Left with only Baymax to remember his brother by, Hiro is resistant to the robot's offer to heal his heartache, until he discovers that his invention was stolen and his brother's death was not accidental. However, the team can't work alone, which leads Hiro to recruit Tadashi's closest classmates to form a high-tech squad of superheroes to capture the mysterious villain responsible for the tragedy.

While "Big Hero 6" is grounded in a tragedy, the movie manages to maintain a spirited and uplifting vibe throughout. Loaded with laughs and plenty of heart, "Big Hero 6" is a great movie for all ages that not only manages to engage viewers with its fast action, visual gags and crackling dialogue, but ultimately reveals a winning tale about family priorities and maintaining the essence of loved ones in the face of great loss.

While the voice acting across the board is spot on, it shouldn't come as a big surprise that the Baymax, expertly voiced by comedian Scott Adsit ("30 Rock"), is the most lovable character in "Big Hero 6." Maybe it's because Baymax is the first inflatable robot we've seen on the big-screen that seems so darn huggable, or maybe it's because it's a character that, despite speaking in monotone phrases, seems to become more human as the film rolls along.

There's an answer why, of course. I won't reveal it here, but it's a powerful and poignant moment when we discover exactly what it is that drives this seemingly soulless machine. Forget about "Transformers," there truly is something about the robot in "Big Hero 6" that has more than meets the eye.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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