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Interstellar review

7 November 2014
Can one like a movie, yet still not be happy with it? Regarding Christopher Nolan’s new movie Interstellar, the answer is, apparently, yes. Before you read any further, be aware that this review contains minor spoilers.

In 1979, Disney released the first popular science fiction movie that explicitly mentions black holes. Although The Black Hole had some haunting music and fabulous special effects for its time, it also suffered from a leaden script and poor acting. In addition, it was unclear whether the film was meant to be a kids’ movie or a more thoughtful exposition on what people will sacrifice in the pursuit of knowledge. Needless to say, the movie didn’t do well at the box office. Since then, no major motion picture has centered on a black hole and its related physics, until now.

With Interstellar, director Nolan presents an imaginative portrayal of how humanity might leave Earth, the reason why they would do so, and, with the apparent help of beings from another dimension, how a spacecraft could travel through a wormhole. Nolan developed the script jointly with his brother Jonathan and received scientific advice from one of the leading gravitation theorists of our time, Kip Thorne. Nolan is a master storyteller who likes to incorporate complex themes and ideas into his movies. Interstellar continues that tradition with homages to earlier hard science fiction movies, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Gravity (2013). Unfortunately, as in 2009’s Star Trek, the technique of lens flare is overused as a special effect.

In a pleasantly surprising turn, two of the lead scientists are women who act and behave more or less realistically compared with some other on-screen portrayals—with the exception of one scene late in the movie, involving actor Anne Hathaway. Some more traditional stereotypes surface when the space travelers land on the second planet to explore, a scene which could have been deleted without any negative impact on the story. In fact, the deletion would have served to tighten up the storyline and shorten the nearly three-hour movie by about 20 minutes. Nevertheless, the technology used in making the movie is almost as impressive as the fictional technology employed in the movie’s plot.

On Earth

The opening scene of Interstellar starts quietly with dust raining down on a bookcase inside a house. A toy space shuttle sits there, abandoned, as the dust piles up. The imagery projects two main messages in the first 30 seconds: that environmental conditions are getting worse and that humanity considers space travel one of the ventures it can no longer afford to invest in. The image evokes T. S. Eliot’s famous poem “The Hollow Men,” in which the apocalypse comes “not with a bang but a whimper.”

That message is reinforced by video interviews in which elderly individuals recount the stress, troubles, and difficulty of living through a terrible famine and drought. At first, one thinks they are talking about the 1930s Dust Bowl, then the camera pans over a familiar rectangular shape—a laptop computer—and the viewer realizes that the events being described represent humans’ near future and the characters’ ancient past. The device also provides hope, however, because if the reminiscences are describing the past, then clearly humanity has survived a disastrous calamity—but how?

The environmental disaster on Earth centers on three main problems: Crops are failing due to worsening conditions, dust is everywhere and causing health problems, and a disease called blight is thriving, slowly replacing all oxygen in the air with more nitrogen. How viable is this scenario? There have been famine calamities in the past—for example, in the 1840s Ireland faced a potato blight that wiped out 30% of the population and forced another 30% to emigrate. However, it is extremely unlikely that a single disease could wipe out the whole of humanity. Surprisingly, climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels isn’t mentioned at all in the movie. It is also suggested that there has been a decline in Earth’s human population (which might explain why people generally look healthy in the movie despite all the problems growing food).

In fact, one historical period that bears similarities to Nolan’s vision is the Roman Empire from about AD 165 to 325. Over that period, the empire suffered a series of plagues that killed more than 50% of the population and caused massive disruption to transportation. Goods that once flowed from every corner of the empire ceased to do so for the next 1500 years. The loss wasn’t only in population but also in knowledge: buildings, art, and engineering never recovered in the Roman or later Byzantine Empires. Towns became smaller and more fortified, food was grown locally, and, eventually, regions disengaged from the empire and went their own way. The one curious—and extremely unlikely—event in Nolan’s version is the disbanding of the military. More believable is the changing of a school district’s textbooks to say that humans never went to the Moon and the restriction of a college education to a select few who can afford it.

Matthew McConaughey plays the main protagonist, Cooper. It is quickly made clear that although Cooper is currently working as a farmer, he is a former NASA pilot and clever with his hands. Cooper has two kids, Murphy and Doyle, and a father-in-law. Unfortunately, his wife died due to the lack of MRIs and the expertise to use them. As the result of a series of initially unlikely occurrences, he finds the remnants of NASA, where workers have a plan to visit another galaxy via a wormhole to check out three possible new homes for humanity.

Cooper and three others are asked to go. Cooper, however, is conflicted as he will have to leave his kids behind. In the meantime, the visionary behind the project, Professor Brand (played by Michael Caine), searches for an equation that could give humanity the ability to control gravity, which would allow Earth’s millions of inhabitants to leave and go into space. Brand, who favors a different poem to describe humanity’s reaction to disaster—Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night”—also has the best office for a theoretical physicist that I’ve ever seen, with acres of blackboards, rich furnishings, and comfortable chairs. Brand’s decades-long work without success of some sort will probably feel all too familiar to many researchers.

In space

Cooper’s launch into orbit made me wonder if real NASA footage from the Saturn V launches were used, as the quality was astounding. The way the spacecraft handled in space, with silent retro-jets being fired to position it for docking, also seemed based on actual orbital mechanics. The exterior shots of other space-based objects such as planets, stars, and debris also look extremely realistic. The main spacecraft spins at 1 g in order to minimize the human passengers’ bone loss on the two-year journey to Saturn, where the wormhole is positioned. In fact, the only part of this scene that feels unrealistic is the lack of noise. Every astronaut I’ve spoken to has said the International Space Station and the space shuttle were noisy. Ironically, later scenes of the craft are noisier and, hence, more realistic.

To save on resources, the crewmembers are put into hibernation, a technique that doesn’t exist yet but would revolutionize space travel. Finally, they reach the wormhole. It is impossible in the movie to calculate the size of the wormhole but, according to sources close to the movie’s science adviser, they just assumed that the aliens who built it could alter the gravity field around the object, so unlike a real black hole at that location, the wormhole wouldn’t mess up the orbit of Saturn and its surrounding satellites.


(Image: Paramount Pictures)

On the other side of the wormhole is a black hole nicknamed “Gargantua” (see image above). It is probably the most believable object in the movie because of the way it behaves and the relativistic effects it imposes on the crew members who enter its orbit. (Time doesn’t seem to impact the spacecraft systems all that much, to my surprise. The equipment looks as good as the day it launched despite being in space for decades, and I’m not sure the relativistic effect on one of the planets could be totally true.) Apparently the calculations describing the black hole’s behavior and the way it affects light were the main contributions by Thorne (whose book on the subject comes out today). The crew’s descriptions of relativity are spot on, although they may be a bit complex for the general public to comprehend. The planets are interesting and clearly look alien, although the crew members commit some basic errors during their exploration. I think current astronauts would dearly love the flexibility of the astronaut suits in the movie, and everyone would want as members of their crew the two robots TARS and CASE, who, ironically, have some of the best lines in the script.

In fact, my main gripe with the realism in this part of the movie is the way the shuttles are able to reach orbit from the ground with so little available fuel. They must have been using some form of nuclear propulsion, possibly with a SCRAM-type jet to gather fuel from the atmosphere, as some of the planets they visit have higher gravity wells than that of Earth.

Interstellar is a long movie, and I’m not going to spoil the ending except to say that, when the design of a certain space station appeared, I was delighted. I’m torn about the acting, which sometimes gets lost in the scenery, and some aspects of the plot. The scenes from the second planet suggest a last-minute addition to ratchet up the tension and stakes at a point when they were already high enough. If the movie is seen in a theater, those in the audience who have sensitive hearing might want to check that the sound level isn’t too loud and is mixed correctly. My sound meter at the IMAX theater recorded 120 dB at one point, and dialog frequently got washed out by the musical score. The picture was slightly out of focus, too, which didn’t help. As a space nut, I found the movie to be very entertaining. Despite some liberties that require suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer, this is a movie for adults that seeks to incite wonder at the strangeness of the universe and our place in it. On that level it succeeded.

One final point, if NASA really does want to go to Mars, then the agency is going to need to conduct in-orbit research on rotating spacecraft to achieve the artificial-gravity system used by the craft Endurance in the movie. As far as I know, there are no plans to do so, which suggests we aren’t going to Mars in the near term. Maybe this movie will help change NASA’s mind.

Score: scientific accuracy 6 story plot 6

Related articles
Interstellar's black hole once seen as pure speculation (Inside Science)
The end of life on Earth as we know it (The Dayside)

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