"Interstellar," Christopher Nolan's hyper-ambitious but slightly underwhelming epic, begins its story on a dying Earth. Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, is an aeronautical engineer reduced to working as a farmer; John Lithgow plays Donald, grandfather of Cooper's children, who remembers when mankind dreamed big. "When I was a kid," he says, "it seemed like they made something new every day."

Nolan, the filmmaker behind the "Dark Knight" trilogy and "Inception," is still dreaming big, as his three-hour movie proves. Cooper, who boards a spacecraft in search of a new, habitable planet, could be a stand-in for Nolan, a rare visionary in small-thinking Hollywood. As "Interstellar" progresses, however, the filmmaker's ambitions seem to get the better of him.

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Inspired by the work of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (an executive producer), "Interstellar" is a quintessential Nolan film, filled with Möbius-strip logic and brain-taxing science. Cooper and his traveling team of NASA die-hards -- including Anne Hathaway as the brittle Amelia Brand and a very good David Gyasi as the placid Romilly -- will grapple with shifting notions of space-time while Earth years tick by in seconds. Cooper's aging children are Tom (Timothée Chalomet and Casey Affleck) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain).

Nolan tells this story with a curious mix of tones and styles. There's no shortage of spectacle, such as a water-covered planet that churns up terrifying, mile-high waves. Elsewhere, Nolan goes for realism: Ships collide and shatter, but soundlessly, in space. Potentially stunning moments, as when one astronaut suddenly ages 23 years, are dismissed almost without comment. The pacing and editing (by Nolan's longtime colleague Lee Smith) are so remorseless there isn't a single lull in all 168 minutes, but the movie also can feel jumbled and rushed.

Around the two-hour mark, "Interstellar" shudders apart like a satellite on re-entry. Minor subplots suck up time, characters develop weird motives and the scientifically precise screenplay (written by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan) resorts to squishy notions of spirituality and love. "Interstellar" deserves credit for aiming for the stars, but the hard realities of filmmaking and storytelling pull it right back to Earth.