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Movie review: Sci-fi epic ‘Interstellar’ gets lost in space

After spending a bladder-busting three hours enduring Christopher Nolan’s uber-hyped “Interstellar,” my end reaction wasn’t jaw-dropping awe. It was more a feeling of relief. Relief that I somehow survived such a loud, overwrought, pretentious, tone-shifting movie.

Those who worship at the altar of Nolan, will vehemently disagree. They’ll point to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” or recall Spielberg and Lucas’s sense of wonderment. They’ll deem “Interstellar” a masterpiece. Sorry, it’s not.

In a nutshell, blight has overtaken Earth, and it’s up to Matthew McConaughey and a team of geniuses to find a new planet for mankind to inhabit. In Nolan’s mind, if you rocket past Mars over to Saturn, you’ll find the wormhole to an alternate universe where dizzying techno-speak and schmaltz collide.

Nolan, who co-wrote the script with his brother and longtime collaborator, Jonathan, ponderously contemplates gravity, relativity and the time-space continuum, all of which were more fun in the “Back to the Future” movies. But what he’s really after is the nexus of science and emotion, and there are moments when he truly succeeds at locating it.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that he cheapens the revelatory insights with clunky exposition and boring, existential musings. Perhaps the Nolans rely too heavily on Kip Thorne, the esteemed astrophysicist who serves as an executive producer. In the end, it all gets to be a bit ludicrous. I see a silly “SNL” parody coming.

What keeps the film from being sucked into a black hole are the performances, mainly by McConaughey, doing the space-cowboy thing as all-star pilot Coop, a dad who has to leave his two children behind to save the world. The terrific MacKenzie Foy plays his daughter Murph (as in Murphy’s Law, if you like your herrings red) as a precocious teen, while an equally terrific Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”) portrays her as an adult.

Nolan regular Michael Caine does his requisite bit as the brilliant Professor Brand, and Anne Hathaway (sporting a pixie cut) proves she’s a far better Catwoman than a scientist as Brand’s priggish and annoying daughter Amelia. John Lithgow also pops in as the father of Coop’s dead wife, while NASA’s best and brightest are represented by Wes Bentley, David Gyasi and TARS (voiced by comic Bill Irwin), the coolest robot since R2-D2.

“Interstellar” is certainly ambitious. Nolan reaches for the stars and hauls down some magical moments, most of them courtesy of his Oscar-winning leading man. In one scene, McConaughey is watching 23 years’ worth of video messages from his kids. His boy (a flat Casey Affleck) is grown with a newborn son who Coop sees for the first time. Stripped of his slick schtick, McConaughey is raw and the tears real. It’s not attractive movie crying, it’s ugly sobbing, and it’s a gut-punch, especially for parents. It’s the sort of bravura performance the movie needed more of.

What it needed less of is Hans Zimmer’s obtrusive score, which is steeped in church organs cranked loud enough to wash out the dialogue. The noise, however, does make for an intriguing contrast to the moments when Nolan nixes all sound to lend a quiet eeriness to his evocative images of outerspace. They, like the rest of the film, are visually stunning, fueled by eye-popping effects that deserve to be seen on the biggest IMAX screen you can find.

You’ll feel like you’re on a theme park ride, venturing deep into the belly of a black hole, or nearly being overcome by a giant tsunami. You’ll feel the cold on the Hoth-like ice planet. It’s pure movie magic — impressive and astonishing and deserving of all the out-of-this-world hyperbole. Too bad the rest of it is mostly empty space.

Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com. Follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.

Rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine and Casey Affleck. Grade: B-.

Movie review: Sci-fi epic ‘Interstellar’ gets lost in space