Home > Reviews, Science > But what I really want to talk about is INTERSTELLAR (Spoiler review)

But what I really want to talk about is INTERSTELLAR (Spoiler review)

I finally went to see Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar yesterday. I didn’t get the full IMAX experience; only one theater in reach is showing it that way, and I wanted to go to a different theater so that I could visit a couple of stores nearby. But it was still an impressive experience. There is a lot I love about the film, although it has some significant flaws. I tend to agree with a lot of the reviews I’ve seen that certain ideas in the climax really stretch credibility and take one out of the film, which is a problem for a movie that, for the most part, is very heavily grounded in credible science.

The premise of the film is one that feels familiar from a lot of science fiction I’ve read — which is a good thing, given how rarely cinematic sci-fi feels like it engages the same kind of ideas as science fiction literature. The world is dying, and the heroes of the film are scientists and explorers trying to save the human race. The drama comes largely from the clash between the commitment of the protagonists — including Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Brand (Anne Hathaway), and her father Dr. Brand (the inevitable Michael Caine) — to exploration and human survival and the more intimate, personal concerns of the people they leave behind, notably Cooper’s daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy as a child, Jessica Chastain as an adult). There are also conflicts arising from the dispute over whether to place rescuing a loved one over the greater needs of the mission, with the conflict generated by the physical and engineering constraints of the situation, and from the profound isolation that drives the film’s main antagonist Dr. Mann (Matt Damon, who seemed to eschew major billing and whom I was surprised to see in the film) to his desperate actions. So even the character drama is mostly (mostly) placed in the context of thoughtful, plausible scientific scenarios, and that was good to see.

There was so much science here that was awesome to see onscreen at last. I loved the portrayal of the wormhole and the dialogue explaining why it has a spherical mouth instead of the cliched funnel shape. It was amazing to see an accurate version of a wormhole portrayed onscreen for once (although the sequence of passage through the wormhole seemed more visually fanciful). I loved the realistic treatment of the spaceships and their physics, and — as in Gravity — I loved, loved, loved the lack of sound in the space scenes. I’ve come to realize that silence can make things feel more real, and not only in space. Even here on Earth, we often see news footage or surveillance-camera footage that’s soundless, or observe something live from a great enough distance that we can’t hear it. So seeing something without hearing it, without a carefully honed accompaniment of clearly audible sound effects, can make it feel more like a real event and less like a constructed artifice. I had the same reaction to the shot of the Endurance passing by Saturn, visible only as a distant point of light. I gasped in awe at that, because the very absence of clarity and detail made it feel like I was looking at the real thing rather than a constructed special effect.

The reason there’s so much good science is because Nolan made the film in cooperation with Kip Thorne, the physicist whose work on wormholes for Carl Sagan’s novel Contact led him to a whole new field of wormhole physics that improved our understanding of general relativity and the way it could apply in extreme situations. This is taking that kind of collaboration to the next level, since Thorne was actually an executive producer on the film and was involved in every level of building the story. So there is so much good science and effective science exposition — naturally a bit simplified for movie audiences, but nothing that really felt badly wrong or misunderstood by the screenwriters. Even areas other than physics were well-handled. I gather that the filmmakers met with a team of biologists to work out a plausible mechanism for the blight that’s killing all the crops on Earth. And it was so refreshing to see cryogenic pods that didn’t have big windows that would let tons of heat in, that were more like realistic deep-freeze units.

But all that good science made it harder to tolerate the more fanciful moments, the parts that Nolan apparently considered non-negotiable and that Thorne had to compromise on as best he could. The severity of the time dilation on the ocean planet near the black hole was hard to justify, although apparently Thorne found an equation that made it just barely believable. The second planet they visited was just plain weird… so, it’s… made of clouds of solid ice, and has no surface? It’s just some kind of spongy ball of ice? And yet it has 80 percent of Earth’s gravity? There’s just no way that works. Even if such a body could form, if it were so low in density, it would never have gravity anywhere near that high. And it’s more likely that it would condense into a more solid ball of ice. This was just weird. Thorne has said it’s the part he’s most unhappy with.

Also, I’m disappointed that a movie nominally about the wonders of exploration doesn’t give us more interesting environments. We get a bunch of ocean and a bunch of ice, and that’s about it. So monochrome! Apparently the earlier draft by screenwriter Jonathan Nolan had more planetary exploration and even aliens, but director Nolan stripped most of it out.

Oh, and how was that NASA facility supposed to work as a centrifuge if it ever launched? All those vertical columns next to the walls would become big horizontal obstructions at chest level.

But the climax of the film is what really pulled me out of the story, and here’s where we get into the heavy spoilers. So Cooper falls into the black hole — okay, there was Thorne-guided dialogue explaining reasonably why it was the kind of black hole that could allow a survivable entry — and ends up in a tesseract spacetime manifold constructed by the 5-dimensional “bulk beings” that are actually the far-future evolved descendants of humanity reaching back to help us save ourselves. Okay, I can buy that conceit. And I can buy the premise that only gravity can cross the dimensions and transcend time, which is why the bulk beings could only send Cooper and the robot TARS back to Sol System in the relative present and could only send a message back in time. (String theory says that most kinds of particle/string are attached to the 4-dimensional brane of our universe, but gravitons are detached from it and can leak through to other universes, which may be why gravity is so weak.) But still, that’s something I had to reason out after the fact. As it was presented — Cooper just magically turning out to be the “ghost” and sending cryptic messages to Murph through “gravity” — it felt silly and fanciful. Thorne did his best to ground Nolan’s idea in some kind of plausible context, but it’s hard to believe that a force as weak as gravity could be focused tightly enough to have the fine-scale effects shown in Murph’s room. More to the point, even if it can be justified physically in terms of Sufficiently Advanced Technology for 5-dimensional gravity control and spacetime manipulation, there’s the deeper question of why. Why employ such convoluted methods to send the quantum data to Murph? Couldn’t the bulk beings just send the message directly instead of setting up this contrived father-and-daughter-connecting-across-time situation? The only excuse I could think of as I walked back to my car after the movie was that maybe they were so far in the posthuman future that they no longer remembered our languages and communication methods and thus needed a human intermediary to interpret for them. But then, how were they able to communicate to TARS sufficiently that he could explain the situation to Coop? And why couldn’t TARS transmit the data? It felt like Nolan’s intent was to build on Brand’s earlier speech about love being a force that could transcend time and space, that it was only Coop’s love for his daughter that let him connect. But as a number of other critics have said, that’s sentimental silliness in the context of such a hard-science film. It’s a maudlin, corny scenario that just doesn’t feel right, and it’s a shaky foundation for an otherwise mostly solid film.

On top of which, how the hell did adult Murph figure out that it was her father communicating with her? There was no evidence presented to her that would’ve let her make that deduction. She just magically knew it because the timing of the montage demanded that she recognize it at the same time the audience did. It’s the one part where there wasn’t even an attempt to assert some kind of rational justification for the sentimental situation, and the worst part of the sequence. Heck, it wasn’t even justified from a character standpoint. For all these years, she’s felt that her father abandoned her. Why would she suddenly, based on nothing but the Morse-code “STAY” that she’d already known about at age 10, do a total about-face in her perceptions and suddenly believe that her father had been sending her messages from the future all along? Where the hell does that come from, either as an intellectual leap or an emotional epiphany? The only reason she got there was because the script made her do it. That’s as dishonest from a character standpoint as it is from a plausibility standpoint.

And that’s a shame, because the visual portrayal of the tesseract is brilliant. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen onscreen before, and it’s a marvelous visualization of the idea of time as a traversable dimension, although I could quibble about the details.

There’s one other area where the film’s realism failed badly, and it’s more disturbing. This film is set in the United States sometime in the future, probably the latter half of the 21st century. By then, demographic trends suggest that the US is going to be a white-minority nation. I’m sure that the current pool of physicists, engineers, and astronauts working for or with NASA is already highly diverse today. And yet the cast of this film was overwhelmingly white. There were only two black characters in the film, a school principal who appeared in a single scene and a token member of the expedition who stayed behind on the ship on the first landing and then got killed off at the midpoint. The only vaguely positive thing that can be said is that at least the black guy was the second one killed off instead of the first. Other than that, there were only a couple of uncredited bit players in the background. And the only Asian face I noticed in the film was a photo of one of the missing astronauts, one they didn’t bother to rescue. I don’t think there were any Hispanic characters in the film at all. The robots got more screen time in this movie than anyone nonwhite. This is a story about the survival of all humanity, yet virtually the only humans given any agency or participation in the story are white people with Anglo-Saxon names. In a film that strives for realism on so many levels, this is a gross failure of plausibility and common sense. I’m sick of the Hollywood establishment being so out of step with reality when it comes to inclusion in feature films. Television is increasingly catching up to reality as executives realize that their audience is diverse and they can make more profit by appealing to that diversity. But movie executives still apparently haven’t caught on.

On a more positive note, I wanted to commend Hans Zimmer’s score. As I’ve remarked before, I find Zimmer a chameleonic composer that I have a mixed response to; he’s good at adapting to what different directors want, so sometimes I find his work brilliant and fascinating, yet on other films I really don’t like it at all. I really disliked his work on Nolan’s Batman films, Inception, and the Nolan-produced Man of Steel, finding those scores ponderous and blaring, so I wasn’t expecting to like his score for Interstellar. But it’s actually very good. It’s in kind of a Philip Glass-y, minimalist vein, but it works well for the film. I’m glad that it ends up being another tick in the plus column for the film rather than adding another minus.

All in all, then, Interstellar is a film that mostly works as an installment in the all too small but growing category of hard-science fiction motion pictures. It’s more successful than Gravity at being believable, and hopefully it will add momentum to the trend of SF films getting more grounded in real science. In many ways, it’s a refreshing treat for fans of physics and hard SF. But it has a couple of major flaws that are hard to get past, especially for fans of physics and hard SF.

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