Christopher Nolan's outer space epic feels like a pop quiz in astrophysics

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"Interstellar" is the biggest and boldest movie of the year, and also its most mystifying. It's a nearly three-hour event movie about quantum physics with deep philosophical quandaries about fate, the universe and our place in it. So, who wants popcorn?

It may well be the headiest blockbuster ever made, a literal deconstruction of time and space with a script that often feels like one of those complex equations that fill up entire chalkboards in movies. Thought "Gravity" was too simplistic with its handling of the mechanics of outer space? "Interstellar" is like advanced trigonometry, which will please Neil deGrasse Tyson, but will likely leave those without a complex understanding of astrophysics feeling cold.

"Interstellar" comes from writer-director Christopher Nolan, who has dedicated himself to making bigger, better, smarter blockbusters since he was handed the keys to the "Batman" franchise back in 2005. In between his second and third "Batman" movies, he made "Inception," a hugely ambitious rumination on dreams wrapped inside a riveting, pulse-pounding action film. It was 2010's best movie, mainly because it dared to present ideas and play with the audience's heads in summertime, that most mindless of movie seasons.

"Inception" asked a lot of viewers, but its most confounding moments are a mere jumping off point for "Interstellar." (Think of it as "Interstellarception.") It's perhaps unfair to grouse about the brainlessness of movies like "Transformers" and then get frustrated with a movie as challenging as "Interstellar," but "Interstellar" goes way off the deep end. Nolan is wrestling with issues of artistic ambition vs. audience expectations, but he errs on the wrong side and leaves viewers behind as he takes off for the cosmos. Hey Chris, do us a favor and let us know when you come back down to Earth, OK?

Matthew McConaughey is Cooper, a widower with a teenage son (Tom) and a pre-teen daughter (Murph) living in America's heartland, or at least what's left of it. They live in a near-future where food is scarce, massive dust storms are making the planet uninhabitable and NASA scientists are working in secret to find a new planet, or universe, to colonize. Cooper is a former NASA pilot who is recruited to head up a mission to scope out new planets, but to do, so he must leave his children behind. He does — Murph takes it very hard — and heads to the far reaches of the galaxy with a crew that includes fellow pilots Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), as well as a pair of robots.

As Cooper and his crew head off, they explore the time-space continuum, gravitational pulls, wormholes, black holes and, at one point, the chemical properties of love; the dialogue is at times so alienating it feels like you're eavesdropping on a conversation between nuclear scientists. (For homework, there are stacks of literary references to wade through, from Dylan Thomas to Stephen King to Arthur Conan Doyle.)

Nolan's visuals are impeccable, and Hans Zimmer's walloping score pounds with urgency. The performances are solid across the board, especially from McConaughey, who is sturdy, strong and cool as the movie's hero. "Interstellar" is likely to spark strong debates from supporters and quick dismissals from naysayers, while stoners will spend countless viewings searching for which Yes album it syncs to seamlessly.

"Interstellar" is a grand undertaking, but in shooting for the stars, it loses its footing. It goes to infinity and beyond, when infinity would have been plenty.

agraham@detroitnews.com

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'Interstellar'

GRADE: C

Rated PG-13: For some intense perilous action and brief strong language

Running time: 169 minutes

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