Some time in the near future, Earth undergoes ecological changes that make food production non-viable: crops are dying and dust storms envelop the planet, leaving humanity facing a bleak future.
A former test pilot and engineer called Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey) finds himself drawn into a black-ops plan to voyage to another galaxy and locate a habitable exoplanet to which the population of Earth can evacuate.
This is the backdrop to Interstellar, the new film from director Christopher Nolan and starring McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and Matt Damon, which hits cinemas on Friday, and which I caught a pre-screening of at Odeon Leicester Square recently.
In the huge single-screen auditorium, what unfolded on screen was a space epic for our age, which drew a round of applause from the assembled audience of hardened press and PRs.
Okay, the film is nearly three hours long, McConaughey’s Texan drawl is a little impenetrable at times and the soundtrack could be accused of being belligerent, but it left me impressed on many levels.
Here are just three:
The craft of the film
The film looks great in widescreen (there is also an IMAX version), due in great part to Nolan’s old-school cinematic techniques.
His films abstain from CGI, instead using detailed models crafted on multiple scales and hi-res backdrops.
It feels like an epic to your eyes – there’s a quality to the lighting and a depth to the shadows that can’t be matched by computer rendering.
The hardware that the characters work with is believable: the look of having been stored in a military surplus store is always there, even with the robots.
The spacecraft resemble the vehicles of NASA’s Space Transportation System, the system of reusable craft envisioned by the space agency in 1969 as a follow-on to the Apollo programme, of which only the Space Shuttle was actually built.
The handling of the storyline
A non-linear plot has become a hallmark in the narrative structure of Nolan’s films, many of which he partners with his brother Jonathan to write the screenplay – think Memento and Inception.
Interstellar is certainly no exception; indeed, for at least part of the story, time itself takes on the significance of a character in the storyline.
Our comfortable notion of time as an arrow is utterly deconstructed by the characters’ interaction with environments in space where the current laws of physics fail.
It’s moving to watch the film’s characters grapple with the effects these interactions have on their minds and their relationships with colleagues and family members.
This is something that the narrative does well: whatever epic panorama the cast find themselves in – coasting past Saturn, on the other side of a wormhole voyaging through a foreign galaxy, the story remains on a human level.
The scientific veracity
There’s a scene early on in which the central character, Cooper (an engineer and former test pilot), gets his daughter suspended from her school because its teachers believe that the Apollo programme was faked as a geopolitical power play to bankrupt the USSR.
Effort has been taken to stick to scientific truths in Interstellar’s fictional story.
Granted, there are scenes that take place in exotic environments that we don’t currently have the science to investigate, wormholes for instance.
But these are approached within the boundaries of established science and what can be reasonably extrapolated about concepts that are just beyond the frontiers of knowledge.
For me, this didn’t make the film dry and boring, despite some accusations that it goes beyond audiences’ intellectual reach (okay, there is a scene in which Cooper and his spacecraft crew discuss the special relativistic effects of landing on an exoplanet orbiting a black hole).
After all, astronomers have identified plenty of weird and wonderful environments out there in the Universe and Interstellar presents these on an epic scale, but with a human touch.