No Oscar-handicapping website or columnist wants to say this for fear of Paramount pulling ads, but Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar (11.5) is clearly the first big bust of the season, esteem-wise. I’m not any different than the others. I’d like a piece of that Paramount award-season revenue. But this is reality, Greg. Nolan’s apocalyptic space voyage epic will make bales of money, I presume, and the geek chorus (led by guys like First Showing‘s Alex Billington) will chime in and a pro forma Best Picture nomination may happen, as indicated by some positive industry reaction. But it’s too much of a frustrating mixed bag to be called wholly successful (an observer at Saturday night’s Academy screening has described the post-screening reaction as “pretty quietnot a lot of buzz“), and the mixed critical pushback so far makes the likelihood of serious Best Picture contention seem…well, unlikely.

This uh-oh feeling began, of course, with the initial TCL Chinese bass-thromp media screening on 10.23. (I’ve tried to see it again at a better venue that would allow me to hear more of the dialogue — my only shot this week is catching tonight’s all-media at the TCL Chinese…horrors.) And then a fair amount of negative reviews mixed in with the raves. (With a big award-season film any critic aggregate rating below 80% spells trouble.) And then came Michael Cieply‘s N.Y. Times assessment piece last Friday, which basically said the same thing I’m saying here except in gray lady prose. Interstellar, he wrote, has “crashed into the awards circuit amid sharp disagreement about its prospects, merit and meaning…a wildly mixed reception now finds the awards crowd slipping from budding consensus to near chaos.”

And then this morning I read David Denby‘s New Yorker review, and after the first sentence I said “okay, that’s it…game over.” Here’s what it says: “Interstellar, an outer-space survivalist epic…is ardently, even fervently incomprehensible, a movie designed to separate the civilians from the geeks, with the geeks apparently the target audience.” And then: “Black holes, relativity, singularity, the fifth dimension! The talk is grand. There’s a problem, however. Delivered in rushed colloquial style, much of this fabulous arcana, central to the plot, is hard to understand, and some of it is hard to hear. The composer Hans Zimmer produces monstrous swells of organ music that occasionally smother the words like lava. The actors seem overmatched by the production.”

Denby had trouble hearing the dialogue also? In other words, people are cupping their ears on both coasts? Interstellar isn’t the first major award-season film to skid off the road and into a ditch, but it may be the first ambitious, heavily-budgeted film by a world-renowned auteur to compromise itself due to a mixture of (a) an imprecise, thrompy, soupy sound mix, (b) an unfortunate decision to screen Interstellar to elite media at a theatre (i.e., the TCL Chinese) with problematic sound and (c) a pulverizing, take-no-prisoners score.