Why so serious, Christopher Nolan? We’ve entered inception together, marveled at magic shows, saved Gotham from decimation. Still, my favorite Christopher Nolan remains Memento, his breakout thriller from 2000. Depicting Guy Pearce’s memory loss, in a half-reversed chronology, required an expert puppetmaster behind the camera. The screenplay’s structure stays rewarding on second viewing; so carefully controlled, but also plain entertaining.

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Interstellar, Nolan’s latest blockbuster, finds the director aiming for a higher level. His subject is human connection across space and time, lofty themes for a director who’s vaulted into the A-list, the go-to for intellectual popcorn fare. He’s mastered the elevated B movie like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas did before him. I’m glad he’s around; we need someone like Nolan to balance the Marvel megalith. I’ve rarely left the movies debating relativity in the cab home.

But this expedition feels, just like Nolan’s Inception, too pleased with itself. Interstellar is a good movie that wants to be a masterpiece.

Warning: Spoilers below.

We spend nearly three hours with Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, a farmer turned galactic explorer, and Anne Hathaway’s scientist Brand. Earth is doomed, so Cooper and Brand’s exploration team searches the universe for humanity’s next home planet. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay plays like an honors thesis that favors theory over character. Hathaway doesn’t have much to draw on, so she plays two emotions: jadedness for what she’s left behind on Earth, and hope that love transcends everything else. After Cooper and Brand escape Matt Damon’s uninhabitable Arctic planet, it’s clear that Hathaway was right. Love is the answer — take that, McConaughey.

McConaughey’s Cooper is an Odysseus determined to reunite with his daughter, who grows into Jessica Chastain. Without their bond, humanity would have been lost to a scorched Earth. He’s more of a vessel for Nolan’s puppetry than an actual person. And the daughter isn’t fully realized; she only exists to motivate Cooper. Did we need an actor of Chastain’s caliber to play this underwritten woman?

I bet Nolan plotted the story very precisely, and had to condense his canvas to fit an acceptable movie length. This means we have to listen carefully as crucial details pass by — and trust that movie magic will make up for the rest. I’m sure there’s an in-depth, half-theoretical explanation for Cooper’s survival after his fifth-dimension wormhole experience, but the real answer is, the movie wanted him to live. Same with the magical bookshelf. It’s an imaginative, powerful movie, but its accomplishments magnify what’s missing.

Can our next planet support a sense of humor?

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