Quick Interstellar Thoughts

I'm teaching a Gen Ed course on relativity this term, which means I'm spending the last few weeks of the term discussing black holes. Which, in turn, means there was no way I couldn't use that story about Kip Thorne calculating the appearance of a black hole for the movie. Especially since I have the students reading Thorne's book.

And that, in turn, meant I needed to see the movie. So we got a sitter for the kids Saturday night, and went to the local theater to check it out. And, you know, it's pretty much what it's advertised as: A very pretty giant SF movie, with all that implies, both good and bad.

On the good side, they really did take some pains to get actual science content in there. There's the black hole from the promo stuff, a wormhole, and even some old-school orbital mechanics. More relevant to my current obsessions is the fact that scientists and engineers are unambiguously the heroes of the piece, and the day is saved by people who stop and think things through in a systematic way.

On the bad side... well, the failure mode of grand cosmic SF is and always has been mystical twaddle, a narrative force whose attraction is more inescapable than gravity. And Interstellar doesn't even come close to avoiding that problem. There's a whole bunch of "fifth dimension" hooey, and that's even before you get to the Power of Loooove transcending time and space.

And those flaws are somewhat magnified by the fact that a lot of the science is badly bent for narrative purposes. They fit gravitational time dilation in there, but the degree of time dilation they see is ridiculous, and real gravity isn't like Angry Birds Space, with effects that cut off a fixed distance from the center of the black hole. And the characters are kind of stupid for not realizing that there was a problem with the water-planet probe, and the Blight doesn't make any sense, and blah, blah, blah. Many of these questionable elements are also delivered in speeches that strain to rise to the heights of clunky dialogue. If you're inclined to poke holes in the science and story, there are no end of holes you can poke.

But, to bring it back around to the good side, I don't think any of those holes are any harder to retcon away than any other SF movie. A lot of them probably should've been addressed with an extra line or two of dialogue here or there, but it's not hard to imagine off-screen conversations (and while it's a very long movie, there are conversations off screen...) that could plug a bunch of the holes.

And I greatly appreciate the movie for what it isn't, which is any of the things we saw in the trailers. Which, for our showing, were for the seventh Fast and Furious movie, the third Hunger Games movie, the second Avengers movie, and Ridley Scott remaking The Ten Commandments. (We also got trailers for a MLK biopic and a dreadful-looking Mark Wahlberg movie, but those aren't relevant here.) For all Interstellar's flaws, it's at least got ambition-- it's an original story, not a sequel or a remake or based on something that was successful in another medium. And those are depressingly rare these days. The flaws of Interstellar are, for the most part, present in pretty much every big-budget movie, but at least it's trying to do something ambitious and original.

So, I'm overall pretty happy with the movie. It also helps that Christopher Nolan's general directorial style works well for me, making me more inclined to forgive the plot holes and bending of science to serve dramatic purposes-- if you're allergic to the Inception horns, you'll probably feel less charitable. But it's a great-looking movie, with spectacular design work, and while it takes liberties with astrophysics, it presents a very positive view of science on the whole. I'm glad I saw it in the theater, and I hope it makes a giant pile of money, mostly so people in Hollywood will keep giving Nolan the resources to make movies that aim high.

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Great review- it definitely takes some liberties, but I think getting terms and concepts like the ones covered into the public consciousness is overall a net positive, even if they played fast and loose for dramatic effect.

The acting, cinematography and score were all top-notch, and overall, as a piece of dramatic science fiction, I feel it knocked it out of the park.

Considering Kip Thorne wrote a short article describing how the movie is extremely accurate, I'd say the source of "hooey" is your analysis.

By james appenzeller (not verified) on 09 Nov 2014 #permalink

I saw it with my 22yearold son, who is far too much into finding and complaining about scientific holes (of which he found many).

But, at least I saw exactly zero references to current monotheism, I thought that was pretty amazing. This was pretty much humans versus an impersonal universe (except for the mysterious benefactor that placed the wormhole and tesseract there, and the movie concluded that those were some from some far- future progeny of humans that did that).

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 09 Nov 2014 #permalink

Chad, an otherwise fine review spoiled by a truly embarrassing foot-in-mouth maneuver: "...the Power of Loooove..."

You can make fun of it all you like, but "love" and its siblings "compassion," "care," and, yes, "empathy," are so central to human existence, that by making fun of any of them, you only succeed in doing exactly what you set out not to do, which is to alienate the hell out of a large chunk of your potential audience. Way to go, dude (not!).

Understand this: The reason a large chunk of the public are alienated from science is that they see science and scientists as cold, heartless, and inhuman. You just reinforced that stereotype in spades. That is exactly what we do not need.

Read Ethan's columns on astrophysics. He's doing it the right way: by recognizing that emotions are the key to getting people interested in science. He even had a devout Catholic drop in to say that he (the devout Catholic) really appreciated being able to learn about science from someone who wasn't going to clobber him with the aggressive atheist proselytizing he'd run into in many other places online.

Reasonable people can agree or disagree about the existence or nonexistence of deities and other untestable hypotheticals, but for purposes of civic engagement, what matters is getting people onboard with science and scientific method. And ideally, getting people to start using scientific method as part of their basic "operating system" for understanding life / the universe / and everything. Once someone starts doing that, much else follows.

The way to encourage humans do those things is, first of all, by not mocking the humans for being human.

G@5: Please recalibrate your snark detector. Chad is a child of the 1980s (as am I), so it makes some sense for him to riff on the title of a hit song of that era (perpetrated by Huey Lewis and the News; IIRC it was in the soundtrack for one of the Back to the Future movies).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 10 Nov 2014 #permalink

Hollywood is a strange machine…At its face value, it comes across as this glitzy glamourous hit-maker, looking towards skin and sex to sell it, but it inherently ends up strengthening our faith in a higher force or at least something supernatural out there.

In recent years, as more and more post-apocalyptic films grace the big screen, human endeavor seems to be the champion every time, sometimes pushed forward by a miracle or an ‘unexpected twist’ as a critic would call it.

Christopher Nolan, whose Interstellar is wowing audiences across the world, has had a blooming relationship with the space-time conundrum, since his early days in Hollywood. He also fiddles with the idea of the ‘manufactured memory’.

All of his films, have this disturbing and bizarre concept of forgetting, of time being a fourth and powerful dimension and the depth and magnitude of the human sub-conscious. Even his Batman series, deals with passage of time, the power of the human will and the element of mysticism that makes Nolan’s Batman the most brooding of them all.

His earlier film, Memento was the troubled story of a young man who has short term memory loss and takes Polaroid photographs to jog his lost memory…At the end of it, one is lost in these photographs wondering whether they are his, or have they been planted by other forces!

In his dream within a dream within a dream thriller, Inception, memories and dreams collide to create a mysterious world, where all of us dread to tread even when we are awake. The concept of the totem, the disturbing hijacking of dreams by one’s most powerful memory are a world, unknown to us, but possible.

Most battles of the heart and the mind are as such, fought at the sub-conscious level…It is said that had Freud met Hitler in his childhood, then the infamous dictator’s life-story would have been starkly different.

Coming back to Nolan, with Interstellar, he has taken his questions about existence, about the boundless universe and the existence of a higher benign force, to the next level.

As the film’s protagonist relives his life through a time-space warp, we are suddenly struck with that notion that are we really moving forward, backward or is it so that time is so powerful like the sun is; for our solar system. The fact that time is simply not moving and that old phrase ‘stuck in time’ is true for all of life and civilization. That everything else is moving, expanding, procreating, contracting, withering and rotating around a constant, static monolithic all-powerful time in complete mad abandon.

Is that possible! Is time a concept created by us or is it really 6:30 in the evening and the world should catch the best possible option to head home to watch their favourite 9PM TV re-run…

Mad! But then, who said being sane was Godly!

By satrajit ray (not verified) on 30 Nov 2014 #permalink

Why, for all the care with the physics and science, do they give the dimensions and distances in non-metric measures? Do physicists really use feet and inches when they calculate measurements? Also, would it have been too much to ask to have more of the extras be non-white? Why so many , many white men, one black guy, and nary an Asian in sight?

"Interstellar" could not approach the grand spectacle of "2001, A Space Odyssey". Lacking the classical music score of Waldteufel's "Skater's Waltz" they simply cranked up the volume of the sound track to a thunderous level of interference. I missed at least half the dialog because the music was too loud. In "2001" I did not expect a biblical theme to be promoted but in "Interstellar" they made it a point to denigrate and behead any biblical point of view by showing a volume of Darwin's Origin of the Species bound in thick leather with gilt edged pages. This was one of the books that was being pushed off the bedroom shelf to make the intellectual connection with McConaughey's daughter. I got the message clearly.

By Allen Paul (not verified) on 08 Dec 2014 #permalink