Last weekend I went out to see Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s newest movie. I’ve pretty much liked every production I’ve seen by Nolan and I love me some science fiction, so I had high hopes for Interstellar. Fortunately, the movie was a very enjoyable experience, although I felt like it had some issues. This… review of the movie will include plenty of spoilers, so watch out, if you haven’t seen it yourself.
Interstellar is set in the not-so-distant future. Mankind is starting to struggle to survive, as some diseases seem to be killing our plants. It paints a rather bleak picture of our future and can also be seen as comment on climate change and the effect our actions have on our environment, although this is not directly stated in the movie.
Humanity’s challenges have made space exploration basically extinct. The US government has even labeled the Moon landings as a hoax, as per the conspiracy theories. While I see movies like Interstellar and Gravity as positive marketing for space exploration, I also took this aspect as a comment on the current state of NASA and lack of manned space missions. A future without space exploration would be a dark one indeed.
Science is in fact one of the key players in the movie, as NASA is running a secret operation for saving mankind. They’ve spotted a wormhole near Saturn. The wormhole opens up a route to another galaxy with possibly habitable planets. The trick is, however, that the planets are orbiting a supermassive black hole. The intense gravitational effect becomes an important element due to the time dilation it causes later on in the movie. I think this was handled pretty well, as they showed its effects with some emotional scenes.
It’s easy to draw parallels with Inception when it comes to time dilation. However, here it was explained better, executed more simply and had an actual basis in reality. I don’t know if these plot elements are hard to follow for people not very familiar with relativistic effects, but I do think they did enough exposition to explain the basics. I’m not an expert in relativity, but I did see some possible problems with the details, as have some other people as well. It was not entirely clear how the planets were orbiting a black hole but still receiving enough light to sustain habitable conditions, not to mention the frozen clouds on one of the planets they visit.
I don’t mean to bash the movie just because it does not get some scientific details right. It’s still a movie and its main mission is to entertain. But a good movie also gets things right and gets people thinking, and Interstellar does a lot of that. When it comes to science fiction, I think it’s very important that a film keeps a consistent tone when balancing science and fantasy. It makes it easier suspend your disbelief when things are at least presented logically, even if they might not be realistic.
For example the time dilation mentioned earlier was handled rather nicely. The movie also drops some quick mentions of important physical details, such as the fact that the supermassive black hole is actually spinning, as it has important effects on the physics. The size of the thing also helps to explain the lack of huge tidal forces and spaghettification, from what I understand.
As it turns out, Gravity is an important plot element in Interstellar. Early on in the movie Cooper, the main character portrayed by Matthew McConaughey, and his daughter receive some information from a “ghost” that’s dropping books from a shelf and manipulating how dust falls down on the floor. At the same time, the GPS system of the combine harvesters seems to be going haywire. This can be explained by the time dilation effect that gravitational disturbances can have, as GPS satellites need to take into account time dilation in order to stay in sync with the surface. If this sync is messed up by local gravitational effects, the GPS system does not work properly.
During this phase of the movie I started thinking about possible reasons for the anomalies, but the movie quickly discards the possibility of magnetic effects. Instead, he points out that the strange things are caused by gravity. I kind of felt that was too much of a leap in logic, but that was not the only moment when the movie took some rather quick steps forward in order to advance the story. In the end it turns out that the “ghost” was actually Cooper sending gravitational waves from the future, which was even more ludicrous. I started suspecting this as the movie went on, since Cooper’s early lines and some other scenes were clearly setting up this reveal.
The movie really jumped the shark at the end, though, when Cooper decides to drop into the black hole. Not only does the scene include some physical issues, but the movie largely exchanges science for fantasy to deliver its metaphysical message. Of course, these circumstances are so extreme that it gives an opportunity for the writers to get creative and to put in some twists to bring their central themes to the forefront. Still, the quantum theory of gravity felt more like classic Hollywood scientific term dropping than anything else.
In the climax, Cooper arrives to a tesserac that lies behind the event horizon of the black hole and allows him to interact with the past. It turns out that Cooper actually guides himself to find the NASA base in the first place and then relays the much needed “quantum information” from the singularity to his daughter. This whole situation was enabled by future humanity who actually put the wormhole near Saturn and the tesseract within the black hole to help past mankind solve their problems. I’m not even going to try figuring out how painful it must have been to Morse code the “quantum data” using gravitational waves and a wristwatch.
The time travel aspect of course creates apparent paradoxes: how is mankind or Cooper able to essentially travel back in time to help themselves or himself survive? And if this is indeed possible, why the hell would they make it so difficult? Discussion around this seems to come closer to philosophy than physics, since the possibility of time travel is still kind of an open question. I think Psychology Today had a good blog post about the issue. David Kyle Johnson points out that if the universe is born as a four or five dimensional whole. The “causal loops” existed already, when the universe was born, which of course makes our lives seem rather deterministic. Whatever the explanation, I’ll admit that I find these kind of plot devices a bit cheap.
The ending gives room for other possible solutions and discussion, as well. For example, Dr. Mann, an earlier explorer of one possible asylum planet, makes a point out of how people tend to see their loved ones when they’re nearing death. One could try to explain that this is what happens for Cooper in the end, although it is unlikely the ultimate interpretation of the plot.
On the other hand, questions about “why make it so hard” kind of remind me of the usual surrounding religion. At least in Christianity, God is said to offer salvation for those who believe. The Bible describes complex events in the past that explain how God has saved mankind through Jesus. The obvious question, for me at least, is then: why make it so hard? The future mankind that has ascended into five dimensions could be seen as a God-like entity. This kind of reminds me of Contact, the movie based on Carl Sagan’s novel and one of my favorite films. Interstellar shares some similarities with Contact, but ultimately the latter concentrates on the theme of science versus religion much, much more heavily. Still, at least there’s Matthew McConaughey in both of them.
The most important theme of Interstellar is love, no matter how you put it. In the movie, love means the relationship between Cooper and his daughter. While it is used to create some very emotional scenes, I think the execution is heavy-handed. Especially the discussion the team has about love transcending time and space includes some cringe-worthy stuff. Of course, this fits in nicely with the final moments of the movie, considering how the love ultimately brings Cooper’s daughter back into her old room to find the solution to their problems through the wristwatch Cooper gave her.
I think it would’ve been interesting to see a less fantastic and a perhaps a little bit darker but especially more grounded ending in the movie. It wouldn’t have prevented them playing the father-daughter card and the story still would have had some twists. But maybe it’s just me, as I tend to like dark endings, and Hollywood rarely likes being subtle. I just can’t shake the feeling that the final twist broke that cohesive scientific tone established earlier in the movie.
While Interstellar and Gravity, another interesting and recent science fiction movie, are both about space travel and exploration, they are still very different. Gravity is short, compact and simple, while Interstellar is long, complicated and epic. One essential component in both of them is survival instinct. In Gravity, it’s the survival instinct of one person in extraordinary circumstances. In Interstellar, survival brings out both best and worst out of people. There is indeed a scene in which two men end up in a fistfight on another planet in another galaxy, as Neil de Grasse Tyson pointed out. Perhaps the scene was meant to point out how even the brightest of us succumb to our basic instincts. Still, it was a rather cheap way to bring some more action into the story and felt unnecessary, considering that the movie was already quite lengthy.
Interstellar has much more common with Nolan’s other movies. It manages to tell a gripping story. When the writing fails, spectacular effects and excellent performances from the actors cover for it. Especially traveling through the wormhole made me happy I decided to see the movie in a theater – yes, I was happy to see it.