My birthday is this month, and my birthday present to myself is the shiny Blu-ray of Interstellar. I first saw the film in the theatre with a colleague. We went because we had heard the positive buzz about the science in the film. This is a gaming blog, but gaming is only one aspect of my life. I largely keep the other ones out of this blog. Outside of gaming, I’m a science teacher. I was a PhD student in Evolutionary Ecology before switching to education. I also have very strong political opinions. I’m especially content to leave those political leanings out of this blog, because I know students read it. I’m going to sort of break that rule in this post about Interstellar because the film has a clear political bias to it. I don’t think I’d be doing my opinions justice if I didn’t at least share those observations. So, here they are. Things I like and don’t like about Interstellar! Spoilers ahead!
Like: The Science in Interstellar is mostly correct.
Why “settle”? Fair question. Science in movies is often just straight out wrong. Why? Well, filmmakers aren’t scientists. They are technicians and story tellers. They are marketing a product. Often times they (or their studios with veto power) will purposely withhold scientific accuracy to make a film more marketable. Yes, I think that there is a misperception in Hollywood that the public is too dumb to accept “smart” movies. I also think that many filmmakers simply don’t understand the science in their films themselves. That’s not a cruel-minded knock. Its simply true that if you aren’t a professional in a field, you usually lack the training, knowledge and experience to properly explain and construct understanding in a topic area. I don’t expect filmmakers to get the science right in every film. Their primary goals are some combination of artistic and economic, and if they make decisions that they feel compromise science to do their thing, that’s their business.
Enter Kip Thorne, science adviser on Interstellar, and famous theoretical physicist at Cal Tech. Dr. Thorne signed on with the understanding that the science would not be compromised. And Christopher Nolan mostly listened. Space movies are notorious for completely ignoring our current understanding of relativity. Even Contact, a movie based upon on novel written by Carl Sagan, gets the time dilation of special relativity exactly backwards to aide in storytelling. In the movie Elle Arraway leaves on a relativistic journey that she experiences as instantaneous but that people on Earth experience as a few seconds. That is exact opposite of what relativity describes.
So, as a science teacher, astrophysical enthusiast and someone who understands the very basics of relativity, it was refreshing to see a film get it mostly correct. Anything else makes my job as a science teacher harder. I normally fight what my students experience with science at the movies and have to dedicate instructional time to helping them understand our evidence-based understanding.
Specific examples of correct science include time dilation, the scale of space and the need for humans to “sleep” on extended journeys, the tidal forces of a supermassive black hole making spaghettification less likely, changing spacecraft mass to influence its escape velocity, the ability to orbit a black hole without being pulled in unless you get too close, the general appearance of the accretion disc of a black hole, complete allowable poetic license as to what’s actually inside (we have no idea) and the interesting depiction of a five dimensional “space”. We can also add future potential impacts of global climate change. More on this later.
Now, not everything is correct. Many physicists might argue that when Cooper enters the event horizon of Gargantua, his collisions with matter being thrown out of the black hole would likely destroy him. This is alluded to in the movie with his spacecraft being destroyed, yet he would likely not survive, even if he ejects, as he does in the movie.
Other inaccuracies include: “hacking” the drone so easily, sediment pooling by the tires of vehicles and on homes (this one’s for you DJ!), the durability of the spacecraft (they would get ripped to shreds in several cases), TARS communicating with Cooper inside the Tesseract/Singularity,”normal” acting people after extended “cryosleeps” (can we avoid gravitational osteopenesis with such a small spacecraft?), the concept that taking a wormhole to a distant galaxy without certainty is a preferable plan to attending to our own planet (within the next 100 years, mind you), and the idea that humans would still inhabit regions of the globe that are blighted. Human recolonization just happens to be a grotesque oversimplification and romanticization of a plan for humanity’s future. Possible? Sure. Likely within fifty years, as depicted in the film? No. Heck, as romantic as it is that we might go to Mars, the general populace grotesquely underestimates the difficulty.
You may be able to add some more! Feel free to do so in the comments.
Like: Global Climate Change/Asteroid Impacts Given Serious Consideration
I really like that, whether via global climate change or an asteroid impact, the concept of a “global blight” is central to the plot of the film. Its not only possible, but the data suggests that we’re in serious trouble. As Earth’s climate changes, there are several key aspects of Earth’s “physiology” that are undergoing alarming changes. And a hole in the ozone layer isn’t even close to the scariest of them.
Of great concern to biologists like myself is our loss of pollinators. There are several major crops that need to be hand pollinated right now, or are in serious danger of needing to be hand pollinated in the very near future. Whether pesticides, changing climate patterns, habitat destruction, or extinctions, there are a myriad of compounding factors that influence the foodstuffs that our society takes for granted and the collapse of food supply depicted in the film is actually kind of ballsy for Nolan to include. Because its not only terrifying, its realistic.
Others include cessation of ocean currents that drive several food webs due to changing ocean temperature and salinity, and the possible “ice age”-like effects of a major asteroid impact. Those are some of the top possibilities that are likely to kill us in the short term. The film never actually says what causes the “blight” depicted, but there are so many ways that it can happen, I think it wonderful that a mainstream film is showing how very real it could get.
Like: The Robots
Sure, they look goofy. But they’re adaptive and they’re functional and they look like something that an engineer who is entirely focused on practical purpose would design. I was skeptical at first, but when CASE turns into his “wheel” mode to get Dr. Brand on the first planet, I was hooked.
A big question that many techies have is: “How far can artificial intelligence go?” Terminator provides a really inaccurate picture, even in the short term, of what AI is or is not capable of. As much as we worship computers right now, they are never better than what a human being programs. Even if a computer with AI had a malicious intent, their ability to actually execute that intent is limited by their functionality and ability to influence the physical world. In space, there is a lot a robot could do to mess with human beings and their chances of survival. Asimov’s Laws of Robotics are alluded to in the film, especially the “you will not harm humans”, but even that is kind of glossed over when Mann opens the air lock. There is the capability to know what he’s doing but TARS or CASE don’t have the ability to override the override? I call crap on that one. The robot’s inaction in this case (no pun intended) guarantees Mann’s death and may very well do the same for the other two.
I really enjoyed the concepts of “humor” and “honesty” settings on the robots, even if the “percentage” ratings given to them were meaningless parameters. I think it was awesome that Nolan used those ratings as a way to bring thematic elements into the film. How much honesty is too much? How much humor is too much? How would you begin to quantify humor or honesty as a percentage? How is 90% honest different from 95%? Its interesting to think about.
Like: The experience
Interstellar is oddly paced. For many it comes off as categorically “too slow” and from a film standpoint I can see where people are coming from. For me, I view the pacing of the film as a character in of itself. If you want to experience the real human pain of the science fiction concept of dealing with time dilation, you have to be able to feel a little bit of the foreboding and terror that someone would experience in those circumstances. I find Interstellar to be appropriately paced because it forces the viewer to experience the type of pain that the astronauts in this film would.
If you want a science fiction novel that deals with time dilation, there are hundreds, but one of my personal favorites that I will liken to the feel of Interstellar is The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. The politics of that book and the movie are very different though.
And now, on to the things I didn’t like!
Don’t like: The portrayal of science may be top notch, but the narrative portrayal of scientists is anything but
If we delve into a meta-analysis of Interstellar it might convince us that while Nolan has fond feelings for human exploration, he seems to have very little respect for actual scientists.
Nearly every scientist of direct importance in the film is portrayed as making ethically ambiguous decisions at best or malicious at worst. Scientists are liars in Nolan’s realm. Professor Brand lies because he doesn’t think the populace can handle the truth. Dr. Brand lies about her conflict of interest with Edmunds. Dr. Mann falsifies his research. Whether it happens before or after his psychosis? I question if that really matters. Murph and Eric Forman (sorry the Doctor love interest) are the only scientists that seem to be making ethical choices, although, to be fair, even after Murph uncovers Professor Brands withholding of information, she doesn’t seem to act on that knowledge at all.
This will lead to the political leaning of the film later.
Dr. Mann clearly experiences some sort of psychosis on the planet. I find it hard to believe he wasn’t screened for that before his flight. I also find it hard to believe that, in his psychosis, which manifests as a desire to get home, he would forget how explosive decompression works.
It is very true that “scientist worship” has lead to a lot of poor conclusions being drawn by scientists over the years. The classic example is that a scientist with a good reputation may not be properly questioned because our reverence for their accomplishments clouds our judgment. Einstein’s ideas were the subject of this reverence for many decades. Antoine Lavoisier, a respected chemist in France, proposed and was lauded for his “caloric” theory of heat energy that stuck around for long periods of time because people were afraid to disagree with someone of his reputation. One of the themes of this film is a cautionary tale of the dangers of hero worship on the surface, but that theme is instantly trounced once Murph’s hero worship of her father’s promise is vindicated in the end. All in all, I don’t care for the portrayal of scientists as a professional group in the film. Nolan has a very cynical, perhaps politically motivated take on them. More on that in a bit.
Don’t like: And while we’re on this topic, the only group of professionals treated even more poorly than the scientists is the engineers.
Its kind of shocking what the advanced tech in this movie can’t do, given what it can do. Anyone who follows the space missions understands what goes into planning and designing a mission. The Lazarus missions and Cooper’s mission are pretty poorly designed missions for those that are intended to be humanity’s last hope.
Consider the simple fact that Lazarus didn’t actually produce any results, as far as NASA is concerned. I won’t bother to create a separate category for this one, but the communication possibilities are flubbed in this movie for the sake of and inspite of the narration. It is established early on that NASA can’t receive messages through the wormhole. Wait, you can get distorted views of the galaxy on the other side but not messages? Maybe the argument is that the distortion is big enough that it “scrambles” the data and we can’t read it properly. Yet, the visual images, which are also part of the electromagnetic spectrum, while distorted, can still be seen. So, chock it up to plot convenience. This, of course, ignores that fact that NASA was able to get ANY data on what was out there from the probes. Did the probe travel back to transmit? Why couldn’t a probe travel back to transmit?
In space exploration, we’ve been very successful in doing incremental expeditions. This means that you go a little further each time. The movie implies that there is known data on what is beyond the wormhole, yet Cooper’s team can’t get any of that until they cross the threshold. Why not send a probe to enter the wormhole and come straight back with an analysis? Look, I know that that could have happened in Nolan’s Interstellar “Universe”, and its just not mentioned in the film. Its just further evidence that Nolan is messing with the rules of communication and data acquisition in the film to suit his narrative purposes.
Due to time dilation, Cooper’s son and Murph send messages to him that he doesn’t receive for long periods of time due to time dilation. Yet, once again for dramatic purposes,this delay in messages seems to be flubbed when Murph sends her message shortly after Professor Brand dies. They are on Mann’s world, supposedly suffering time dilation, yet they have direct real-time communication with Endurance? If the gravitational distortion was so weak on Mann’s world to allow this communication, he should have sent a heck of a lot more data, false or not, to the probe!
And then there’s “Plan A” and “Plan B”, both of which are honestly dumb plans. How do you decide who goes on the “ark” of Plan A? You would have to decide. You are limited by your ability to escape Earth’s gravity. Even if you “solve the riddle of gravity”, you still would have to leave Earth! Every person is extra mass. Plan B isn’t going to repopulate the human species with that many embryos. Not enough genetic diversity. I don’t know the actual numbers, but what they portray in the film is not enough. Surrogacy is irrelevant. Speed of gestation is irrelevant. Genetic diversity is all that matters.
This may all seem like splitting hairs, and to some extent it is. This blog post isn’t about what’s “right” or “wrong”, its about what I did and did not like, and this is an aspect of the film that bothers me.
Don’t like: And while we’re on this topic, the only group of professionals treated even more poorly than the engineers is the educators.
In the film, the educators are very clearly “tracking” students based upon aptitude scores. If someone tests “farmer” they’re going to be a farmer. College is OUT. The history teacher in the film uses an “ends justify the means” mentality for saying that the Moon landings were faked so as to suppress love of exploration.
This is all part of the “see, the Earth isn’t worth saving!” mentality that Nolan brings to the film. Teachers are history suppressors and testing-based trackers. If they only could understand the power of Cooper’s individualism! His head is screwed on straight. Once again, anyone associated with any sort of establishment is portrayed as ethically and morally ambiguous or dangerous. Nolan pretty much browbeats us with this very political message that we’ll discuss down below.
Don’t like: The MacGuffin
The “problem of gravity” portrayed in the film is essentially a MacGuffin designed so that they have something to search for in support of the narrative goals. It makes sense in that if you were to travel to a black hole, there shouldn’t be any expectation that you would come back. But, there shouldn’t be any expectation of getting any useful information out either. By definition, anything that enters the event horizon of a black hole isn’t getting back out.
They send Romilly, a supposed expert in relativity, on the voyage. He experiences 23 years of time directly observing Gargantua while the “away team” is on the first planet and essentially learns NOTHING? From a narrative standpoint, you need him to learn nothing because Cooper can’t be the savior of humankind unless he enters the Tesseract near the end. I just find it hard to believe that he learns nothing and TARS essentially “solves” the problem in the scant minutes/hours that its in the Tesseract and then translates it into morse code in a sequence that can be communicated over the watch’s second hand?
Don’t like: The political message.
Christopher Nolan has a reputation for making ideologically conservative films and Interstellar is no exception. It is a very conservative film. If you like Ayn Rand, you should be eating Interstellar up. Interstellar is a poster child for a “power of the individual” world view. Consider this: NASA and the scientists are all portrayed as making ethically questionable decisions and designing pretty dumb missions to Gargantua. All we need in this picture is an “every man” farmer who happens to be the best pilot to stumble upon our compound of his own doing! This brings me to the ending of the film. Cooper goes off to find Brand. By stealing a single person spacecraft and expecting to find her with no further training, no additional navigational data and a robot that he repaired entirely on his own. Bullspit.
Individuals! They can do anything! Well, unless you’re Romilly. Then you have no Protagonist Powers™. The 23 years you spent analyzing data from a black hole is irrelevant next to what the pilot and robot can do. If Romilly was a Savage Worlds character, he would have the Major Hindrance “Scientist”, which renders you completely ineffective in any problem solving matter in your own field. Hey, I got some gaming in after all! 😉
Second, although climate change is given a realistic portrayal in the film, Earth is portrayed as not worth staying on or saving. Every decision in the film leads to “we’re better off somewhere else”. We’re going to kick climate change by leaving Earth. Although the film’s possible outcomes for climate change are realistic, the decisions that the people make scream: “Screw the Earth! We’ll just find another world, even if the odds of that are abysmal!” Everything about this film says that we should look to the skies, not because we’re explorers, but because Earth isn’t worth saving. The EASE at which they launch and accomplish the missions portrayed in the film is a little ridiculous given the resources they lack. Of course, this doesn’t matter if your overall message is: See how easy it is to abandon the mother of us all! Any scientist who knows anything about biology will tell you right now, unequivocally, that recolonizing the human species on another world isn’t likely, unless you have advances in technology that are not actually portrayed in the film and are very unlikely in the short term.
Finally, while legitimately admitting that science is limited by the ethics of the process, the whole film shows Nolan’s true opinion of scientists, engineers, and teachers. His portrayal of them is pretty insulting. Nolan’s message appears to be: “Don’t trust the gov’ment. They unethical. And stupid. Get yourself a pilot farmer. You can trust the down to Earth (which isn’t worth saving) individual because they have love. Not these cold, calculatin’ scientist and teacher types. They’re inhuman.” Although not categorically true, one of the mantras of far right conservatism is that anyone that could educate the populace is an enemy of the individual. How else is the individual supposed to control the populace?
So, despite its short comings, I love the film. I have quite a few ideological problems with it, as I’m sure you can see. That notwithstanding, I applaud Nolan for making a film that endeavors to get the science correct. I’ve always had a deep love for space exploration and cosmology. But loving it and knowing the science are a package deal to me. You can’t politicize, romanticize or forget science fact. And the fact is that our own planet offers the best odds we have for our own survival.
Cosmology in the film: A-
Potential future climate impacts in the film: B+
Humanity’s future decision portrayal in the film: D
Portrayal of scientists, engineers and educators in the film: F