Einsteinian, Kubrickian, Malickian, Steinbeckian -


, Christopher Nolan's epically ambitious space opera, is all that. And more.

And, alas, less.

Juggling the ricocheting notions of the theory of relativity, the metaphysical meditations of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the symphonic connectivity of The Tree of Life, and the Dust Bowl doom of The Grapes of Wrath, and filming it with a giant Imax camera - Nolan's Interstellar is a feat not to be taken lightly. But the director, who already has probed the honeycombs of the inner universe in his low-budget memory mystery Memento and his high-budget dream-world thriller Inception, gets lost somewhere out there on the space-time continuum - his lofty queries about quantum physics and the human spirit weighed down in sci-fi cliches, in default-mode dialogue, and in characters (especially the women) rendered in two dimensions, never mind the fourth and fifth dimensions everyone is talking about.

Our story begins on planet Earth in the not-too-distant future. Food supplies have diminished drastically. Decades of environmental recklessness have made vast swaths of the globe uninhabitable. But somewhere in the Plains states, a farmer named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) continues to grow corn, a still-viable crop, and raise a family: Murph, a "bright spark" of a 10-year-old (played with requisite luminosity by Mackenzie Foy), and a son Tom (Timothée Chalamet). His wife is dead, but her father, Donald (John Lithgow), also lives on the family farm, reminding Cooper when he has a teacher conference, reminding the kids what their mother was like. Young Murph is convinced a ghost is in the house: The books on the bookshelf move, objects quiver.

Cooper wasn't always a farmer. In fact, he was a NASA pilot. When he and Murph accidentally stumble on a government facility (Was it really accidental? we're asked to ponder), he gets recruited for a top-secret mission. "You're the best pilot we've ever had," Professor Brand (Michael Caine, Nolan's go-to talisman) tells him. Cooper, he says, needs to lead the crew - Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, and a sentient robot (the voice of Bill Irwin) - about to launch straight at a wormhole near Saturn. On the other side of this intergalactic tunnel: three planets that may prove viable for humankind. Our time on Earth is about to expire.

Interstellar doesn't expire for two hours and 49 minutes. But the Endurance, the NASA ship set to rocket to that final frontier, has a two-year trajectory. Time is a tricky thing - just ask your dog, who is seven times older (or younger?) than you are. Or ask Cooper, when he and Hathaway's Amelia Brand (yes, the professor's daughter) plot the most expeditious exploratory landing they can manage. For every hour they dawdle on one of these new planets, seven years will have passed back on Earth.

Interstellar, with its black holes and gravitational anomalies, is full of head-scratching math. Back on Earth, Jessica Chastain does most of the head-scratching, running around the NASA HQ scribbling notations, emitting the same urgent vibe she had as the CIA officer hunting down Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.

Casey Affleck also figures into Nolan's equation. Chastain and Affleck's characters are byproducts of a screenplay that travels through a meteor storm of theoretical physics. Dylan Thomas also is prominent: Caine's old professor, sad-eyed and saddled with the job of saving humanity, spouts a few lines of the Welsh poet's defiant "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." ("Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light," and so on.) The incantations echo through the soundtrack, along with composer Hans Zimmer's surging pipe organ.

Interstellar is an experience. Nolan's vision of our galaxy, and galaxies beyond, is daunting, majestic; the hardware of space travel looks right, almost familiar. And like his Dark Knight trilogy, this is something to behold on a big screen - as big as you can get. It's only when he (and cowriting sibling Jonathan Nolan) try to give stature to the humans aboard the Endurance, or scrambling frantically back on terra firma, that the pieces begin to get out of whack.

And, ultimately, kind of wacky, too.



*** (out of four stars)

Directed by Christopher Nolan. With Matthew McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Anne Hathaway. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 49 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, intense space-travel sequences, adult themes).

Playing at: Imax and large-format theaters starting Wednesday; area theaters Friday.EndText