Interstellar

To begin with, I haven’t seen anyone note the coincidence that recent two films, Interstellar and The Theory of Everything (the Stephen Hawking biopic), both key off a major unsolved problem of physics, the unification of gravity and quantum theory. Who’d have thunk it? Physics in the filmhouse!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstellar_%28film%29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Theory_of_Everything_%282014_film%29

Yet Interstellar oversimplifies it. In the film, Michael Caine’s character implies that the solution will be a single equation (which is likely a gross oversimplification), and that the solution will… enable anti-gravity? He doesn’t spell it out, but how else to implement the film’s Plan A, of saving everyone left alive on Earth. (And how much would that *cost*? To build all those anti-grav spaceships to save everyone left alive on Earth?)

I’d heard enough about this initial premise of the film to distrust it going in, and I didn’t see anything that ameliorated that distrust, on this specific point. The film never spells out exactly how many human beings are left alive after all these plagues that have killed off all these crops. In fact, the film displays a rather typical American/Western culture-centric bias: it focuses on the problems of farmers in some unidentified midwestern state [from the film’s credits, the scenes were apparently filmed in Alberta], without bothering to explore how these plagues have affected the *entire rest of the planet* and what people in those other countries might be doing to save themselves. In this film, American culture, and specifically NASA, is what will save the entire world. (Alas, a not atypical myopic viewpoint of US films, though less so of literary SF.)

And were there perhaps one or two too many scenes with John Lithgow sitting on the porch?

But let’s switch the film’s stronger points. There is a huge amount of relatively intelligent physics here, moreso than any SF film ever, I would think. Kip Thorne, a CalTech physicist, was brought in early on as a consultant, and apparently advised the director, Christopher Nolan, and his brother Jonathan, who co-wrote the script, to consider and develop plot points they had not previously thought about.

Thus we have in this film a wormhole, a planet orbiting a black hole, the effects of relativity (how time is relative to travel near the speed of light, including close orbit around a black hole), and what could happen by diving into the singularity of a black hole. And the speculation of what would happen should gravity and quantum theory be merged — the film suggests this would result in the manipulation of gravity across time.

And this leads to my tentative take on this film: it tries to do *too much*. A human catastrophe *plus* traveling through a wormhole *plus* the effects of relativity around a black hole *plus* the manipulation of time via an understanding of gravity *plus* how humanity can propogate itself *plus* the human stories of all involved.

Even without Gary Westfahl’s review of this film, that I posted a while back on Locus Online, any experienced film-goer can’t help but notice the huge number of allusions and parallels between Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 film, that is widely regarded as not just the greatest SF film of all time, but one of the greatest films of all time. Both 2001 and Interstellar depict an initial primary state; a central state depicting a space exploration flight; and a final state depicting some kind of transcendence into a higher state, or dimension, or reality. As Gary Westfahl suggested, it is as if Christopher Nolan wanted to remake 2001 with an emotional content — the content 2001 specifically lacked, though not without intention. And here’s where several key scenes play…

I won’t try to detail them all, but here is one that comes to mind. In Interstellear, there is a scene in which Matthew McConaughey’s character, after he has survived a trip that has relativistically aged him a couple decades compared to his kids back home, watches backlogged video transmissions from his kids. His boy is now a man, with a kid of his own. And MM’s character can’t help but weep, seeing scenes of his children who are decades past his own experience, and whom he realizes he might never see again.

It’s a powerful scene, and one that I couldn’t help but respond powerfully to myself.

In 2001, there is a scene in which Frank Poole watches a transmission from his parents, wishing him a happy birthday. Poole watches without any visible emotional reaction whatsoever, more concerned about asking HAL to adjust the angle of his headrest. He’s watching his parents, not his kids, but still.

This was of course not a flaw in Kubrick’s film; it was an intention; and it was a very different intention than Nolan’s.

How many other allusions to 2001?

Well, just to enumerate a few I can think of off-hand:

  • The rotating space station, to produce artificial gravity;
  • The presence of an AI robot, named here TARS (cf 2001’s HAL) (One criticism I do have of this film is that TARS’s voice is not sufficiently distinct from the other human voices. There were scenes where I wasn’t quite sure who was speaking, TARS or one of the human astronauts. 2001‘s HAL voice, by Douglas Rain, was distinct, and brilliant.)
  • A huge credit to this film, Interstellar, is that it does not pretend that there are *sounds* in space; there are numerous scenes of spaceships moving about and interacting, with no sound, which is of course realistic, since sound does not travel in a vacuum, in outer space. I’m not sure there has been any SF film that has done this correctly since 2001. OTOH, there is a scene involving an explosion that depicts visible flames erupting, albeit briefly; but visible flames depend on oxygen…

I like Hans Zimmer’s score just fine, and am listening to it again right now as I prepare this post. Yes, there were two or three spots in the film where the score might have been turned up rather too loudly — though as I said earlier on Facebook, that is not the composer’s fault, rather the sound editor’s or the director’s. At the same time, those spots where the score came to be overwhelming, were sections of the film where intercuts between the spaceship scenes, and the scenes back on Earth, were especially effective in building a dramatic climax.

What else?

Well, the film indulges in some relatively sophisticated acknowledgement of the conflicting motivations of individual humans beings that derive from the forces of evolutionary natural selection. Matt Damon’s character expounds these ideas, if rather crudely; he asks McConaughey’s character why should anyone care about saving the whole human race, as a species, as opposed to saving their own children?

This is the difference between the film’s Plan A and Plan B. Plan B involves a societal, group effort, across all of civilization, to save humanity, via fertilized embryos, frozen, on the spaceships, so that if no one from Earth survives, at least the *species* will survive, via a few spaceship survivors who subsequently grow these fertilized embryos into life and into subsequent generations. Plan A is all about saving one’s own families, one’s relatives, one’s communities. One of the emotional tensions in the film is about the conflict between these two plans. There’s an obvious relationship between these two plans and the divisions as identified by current social science about individual vs group selection, conservatism vs liberalism, capitalism vs socialism…

This leads to my thought every time I see a Hollywood big budget SF film– why do these Hollywood film producers think they can write an intelligent science fiction film? When there are so many actual SF authors who could step in and advise them on plot points and correct their characters’ dialogue to not sound quite so dumb? (E.g. why does Interstellar‘s wormhole have to lead to another *galaxy*? Why not a couple hundred light years across our own galaxy? Because, I’d guess, the filmmakers don’t actually understand what galaxies are, in the vast scheme of things, compared to solar systems and stars and the vast regions of the Milky Way. Or perhaps it’s just so much simpler to say, another ‘galaxy’, for dramatic effect, without worrying about what that actually means.) The obvious answer is that Hollywood films are made for an audience who has no knowledge of, and doesn’t care about, the thought that has gone into generations of literary SF and its development of ideas. Yet the effort to improve a Hollywood film’s script with some intelligent input from an actual SF author would take an infinitesimal portion of that film’s budget.

Only Kubrick, who hired Arthur C. Clarke, got this right, with 2001.

Any other problems?

Well, yes, I think Anne Hathaway’s character’s going on about love being a primal force of the universe is a bit of woo, i.e., an invocation of an unjustified, non-scientific supernatural force. Yes, love may in fact be a primal force among human relationships, but to equate it with the fundamental physical forces of the universe is a huge category error. (io9’s Annalee Newitz captured this in her November 5th post, Interstellar Is the Best and Worst Space Opera You’ll Ever See, which I just read today.)

Back to the plus side: I had no problem with the film’s conclusion, given Matthew McConaughey’s narration, that describes how future human beings, having solved the relationship between gravity and time, have generated this infinite matrix of possible states of his daughter’s bedroom… specifically to allow him to send a message into the past, to allow her to produce that solution. Once you realize what you are seeing, that huge matrix of all states of her bedroom across time, it’s rather awesome, very cool. OTOH, that McConaughey uses the power of *love* to guide him to the one spot where he can send a message rather unfortunately depends on that woo component.

I’ve ordered Kip Thorne’s book about the science of this film, and I wonder if he will address this in any way.

To sum up: Interstellar is an amazing film with many pluses and a few issues. I will read Kip Thorne’s book about it, I will order it on DVD or Blu-Ray when it comes out, and I will watch it again, likely more than once.

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