By CORY WOODROOF

Christopher Nolan, director of beloved titles The Dark Knight and Inception, has already cemented his spot as one of the most influential directors of the 21st century.

Christopher Nolan, director of beloved titles The Dark Knight and Inception, has already cemented his spot as one of the most influential directors of the 21st century.

Some call Nolan’s style risky, and to a certain degree, it’s an apt description. His films are cerebral in style and thought. He’s never been afraid to ask his audience to think while dazzling with a knack for the thrilling sequence. Nolan’s bold bets are paying off so far. Many directors are not household names, but even casual moviegoers are aware of Nolan’s presence.

“Interstellar,” the director’s latest effort, finds him taking on his most ambitious journey yet. The film, a space-set epic with Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey at center court, is one of ideas, imagery and emotion. Nolan has never shied away from making his movies ambitious, and “Interstellar” is no different. The movie reaches high and often succeeds at getting what it hoped.

The film centers on a dying Earth, ravaged by famine. Widowed farmer and former pilot Cooper (McConaughey) tills his ground and takes care of his two children, adventurous daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and more-subdued son Tom (Timothe Chalamet), with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow). When a mysterious force leads Cooper and Murph to an abandoned area, the two stumble upon a plot to save Earth, led by Michael Caine’s Dr. Brand and his daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway).

The mission calls for a pilot to navigate a spacecraft across space to find a new planet that can sustain life, and Brand suggests on the spur of the moment that Cooper join in. The one catch? The mission would take years to complete, leaving Cooper’s children without a father for the meantime. Choosing to save humanity over the short-term relationship with his kids, Cooper blasts off into space with Amelia, David Gyasi’s Romilly, Wes Bently’s Doyle and two robots, TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart). What follows could lead to the future of humankind.

“Interstellar” lives and breathes by its ability to affect the audience. Nolan walked a tricky line with the thematics here, but he makes it across in spades. He balances some simply stunning images of space travel with some gut-wrenching emotion and a few truly thrilling sequences with ease. But, in a movie so big, not everything can be bombastic.

The film’s first act, largely on Earth, lacks the colossal nature of the space-set scenes, but somehow, it’s just as interesting. Nolan channels a little Steven Spielberg to help him get to the more-exciting moments. In his big-budget summer blockbusters, Spielberg always made the exposition scenes crackle with intrigue and feeling.

Whereas first acts have never been the director’s strongest feats (his last film, the very good “Dark Knight Rises,” made its biggest mistakes in the first stretch), “Interstellar” has Nolan keeping the viewer into the film from the get-go. Some of the early scenes with Cooper and Murph hit hard, especially when Coop has to leave home.

McConaughey, who has been having a “McConaissance” ever since 2011’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” helped completely turn his career around, is one of the big reasons that “Interstellar” works. Nolan and the tech crew will receive a lot of praise and recognition for the film’s technical and plot-related achievements, but McConaughey deserves plenty of kudos for providing an emotional anchor.

A lot is asked of the actor, and he pours himself into the role. Outside of the intergalactic themes, “Interstellar” is a movie about a guy who is forced to leave his family to save the world. No script could convey the determination and agony that McConaughey does in certain scenes. It’s a true “leading man” performance that should solidify the actor’s place among the elite of the profession (if it wasn’t already).

Hathaway also impresses, as her character has her own struggles to endure over the film’s runtime. The rest of the cast has smaller roles in the grand scheme of things. Jessica Chastain appears later in the film in a role that’s best left unspoiled, and she’s very good in her screen time. Caine never fails to impress in a Nolan movie, and David Gyasi, a relative newcomer, also excels.

The cinematography here by first-time Nolan collaborator Hoyte van Hoytema is sharp, awing work. The visuals, coupled with Nolan’s decision to shoot on 70MM film, help give “Interstellar” its most jaw-dropping moments. Seeing the film in an authentic IMAX format (available here in Nashville at the Regal Opry Mills IMAX) is a must, as a few of the film’s best sequences are shot in IMAX.

Hans Zimmer’s score is arguably his best yet in a Nolan movie, taking an organ-influenced theme and blending it in with his usual booming compositions. Per tradition in a Nolan movie, editor Lee Smith’s work is also top-notch.

Director Nolan orchestrates it all with such confidence. He’s a director in his prime, and each of his films are testaments to the level of his craftsmanship.

The film’s script, co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan, is effective in mixing in the jargon of space science and relativity into the plot. Admittedly, the scenes can be a little dense when they go on for extended periods of time, but thankfully, these scenes are few and far in between.

The film’s third act will leave some viewers with a bad taste in their mouth if they don’t fully buy into the narrative decisions, but at least for this critic, the decisions fit well into the film’s overall story.

“Interstellar” stands as one of 2014’s most unique theatrical experiences. It’s also one of the year’s best films overall. Nolan’s ambition and talent, coupled with arguably the best leading performance he’s ever had in McConaughey’s Cooper, brings about a wonderful work of science fiction – one that leaves the viewer breathless during and talking after.