Recently, I have watched the movie Interstellar in a cinema near me. It’s been the first time in more than a year that I’ve been to the cinema, mostly because I was disappointed with the theaters in my area and with the new movies in particular. Many of the recent movies are more like computer games with a lot of action but without story – of course, this has its place, but it’s not what I look for when I want good entertainment.
Interstellar promised some intelligent story and some nice action. Besides, the movie makers were proud to have Kip Thorne as their scientific advisor: the science in this science-fiction flick was supposed to be as genuine as possible, not made up. And if something was to be made up, it should be based on a genuine physical theory, so that nothing in the movie would be impossible to begin with. This peaked my interest. I own a copy of Thorne’s book “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy” that I read and enjoyed about 12 years ago (goodness… how old have I become…). And my interest was pushed over the top when I realized that Christopher Nolan was the director, the same Nolan that is responsible for the masterpiece Inception.
Note: The following text contains spoilers, some of them heavy. Do not read any further if you haven’t seen the movie yet and if you don’t want to know about the plot. You have been warned.
The plot of Interstellar is simple on the one hand and contrived on the other hand. Basically, humanity faces extinction and needs to find a way to settle in some other place in the universe. Luckily, there is a wormhole near Saturn and some death-defying astronauts have passed it to survey several planets that are on the other side. But since you can’t properly transmit any detailed signal back through the wormhole Earth only has very limited information about the success of the astronauts. Hence, they send Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway to have a closer look at the three most promising planets and at what happened to the three astronauts that went there. In what follows, I will just refer to the main characters by the actors’ names – I couldn’t memorize what their roles are called, and in this movie, I found it didn’t matter. The only two exceptions are named in the text below.
Before I start telling what I really loved about the scenes that followed, let me first address: the launch of the main characters into space takes place at about one hour into the film. The time before that sets up the background and explains what kind of a guy our main character is (I wouldn’t have connected this guy in any way to the male main character of Contact – either McConaughey really can change the way he looks, or he has gotten quite old. I hope for the first of these alternatives). In particular, we get to know his awfully intelligent daughter, an honestly likeable character. Her role name is Murph, by the way, named for Murphy’s Law: Everything that can happen, will happen. Even though I can’t say that I’ve completely wrapped my head around this allusion. Anyway, there is some voodoo going on about ghosts in her bedroom that kick out the books from the shelf, but that’s just strange. My problem about this was: this first hour of the movie is really sluggish. At first I attibuted this to a metaphore for time-dilation that follows from relativity theory – but maybe that’s taking it too far. It’s just a very slow story.
Then, in space, the pace gets better. We get to learn two robots that can do the extremely rare trick of providing really funny, intentional comic relief. Mostly, the humor in movies like this is either unintentional or unfunny. My respect to the writers of the robot’s dialogue.
My respect spread immediately to the CGI-people and to Kip Thorne for the images of the wormhole. I am quite familiar with the physical concept (at least as far as non-specialist’s science books go) and I am very familiar with the representation of the wormhole in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The wormhole in Interstellar is a lot different and it’s explained on screen without any technobabble: it’s sphere-shaped, and what other shape should it have? In usual representations you explain the concept of a wormhole in two dimensions, so you can fold the paper in the third dimension. Actual wormholes join two places in three-dimensional space, hence they will be three-dimensional (and a sphere is actually a very canonical object – an ellipsoid would have been just as logical). Of course, what would be the distinction of the two dimensions of a “hole” as it’s usually depicted, as opposed to the third dimension where you’d be orthogonal to this “hole”?
The first planet they encounter on the other side is under heavy gravitional influence and hence suffers from extreme time-dilation. But the reports they had gotten were quite encouraging and so they want to take a closer look, even though the transmission from the astronaut landing there has stopped recently. And again: my highest respect goes to Nolan’s imagination, the CGI-people and to Thorne. The planet is uninhabitable, even though there’s a lot of water. But the gravitational stress induces extreme waves that nearly shatter their spacecraft and that killed the astronaut that came before them. When they leave the planet, 23 years have passed on earth because of the time-dilation. I cannot remember seeing a better and more intense representation of an alien world that made so much sense from a physical point of view (except for the lights – why would there be natural illumination on a planet that has no sun? And if the illumination comes from radiation from the black hole near it – why isn’t everybody killed immediately? On the other hand, I didn’t care. I loved the way this planet was shown). Again, I’m quite familiar with the concept of time-dilation, but it took me a while to understand that the astronaut has only landed a couple of hours ago in planet’s time, even though it has been years from the Earth’s point of view – hence the transmissions didn’t stop until very recently. How amazing to be shown a familiar but unusual physical concept in action. And how amazing that they didn’t fool around this like all other science-fiction products that I know.
McConaughey’s daughter has grown up in the meantime and her character has become even more interesting. She is the only one that makes the sequences on Earth bearable. Even though they still are sluggish.
McConaughey himself goes on to the next planet where he encounters a frozen Matt Damon – the astronaut who came to this planet, and the inspiring figure in exploring the other side of the wormhole in the first place. And his readings were extremely encouraging for settling humanity on this planet. He has endured a couple of years in hypersleep until he would be found and woken up. Finally, McConaughey awakes him which brings Damon practically to tears because it’s the first time in years that he has seen a human face. He used to have a robot with him that was named Kipp – most probably a shout-out to Kip Thorne, by the way. In a very nice and unanticipated move, it is shown that Matt Damon faked his data. His planet is uninhabitable, but being desperate he lured the other mission to come to his rescue. In his attempt to complete his assignment (find an adequate planet for humans to live on) he tries to steal McConaughey’s ship, but he fails and dies. McConaughey allows his fellow astronaut Anne Hathaway to land on the third planet that had shown promising results, but in doing so, he must stay behind and fall into the black hole.
This is where the movie gets esoterical again: as far as I know, he should have died immediately after falling into the black hole. And even if he didn’t: on a clock on Earth, he would never enter the black hole, because gravity drags time so much that it would seem he’d hardly move at all. Anyway: he enters the black hole, survives and now he sees the bedroom of his daughter as it was more than 20 years ago. They explain it away as being a space constructed by more advanced humans that allow him to communicate with his daughter in the past… somehow, using gravity. The explanation was somewhat sloppy as far as I was concerned. I somehow had the impression that during the writer’s session, Kip Thorne was sent to fetch some coffee for the team, while the others made up this whole sequence. The movie is very nicely self-referential with some dialogue similar to “they constructed this space so three-dimensional beings could understand it” – “well, that didn’t work”. Apparently, few others found that quote as entertaining as I did, because even a long search on the internet didn’t show me the proper lines. But never mind.
Quoting Confused Matthew here (who said that about one of the Matrix sequels): “They tell you: You might not understand everything that is said in this scene: that’s ok, that’s normal. That’s just how smart the scene is. This is the biggest ‘get out of jail free’-card in the history of film. Now they can have their characters say whatever useless jargon they want as long as it’s confusing enough, and they can get away with it, because if you can’t understand it – hey, they said you wouldn’t, right?”
Coming up next on this blog will be a post with more on Matthew’s reviews. I would really be interested in a review of either Interstellar or Inception.
Well, in the end, McConaughey can communicate through space and time with his young daughter, by kicking out the books from her shelf (yay, full circle!) and using morse code on a wrist watch (which is a nice plot device, actually: communicating through time using a watch). This enables him to somehow being resuced and brought back to earth, even though about 100 years have passed there. There is some paradox there, since his rescue involves knowledge about the inside of a black hole – which can’t be known when you are outside a black hole, since by definition no information leaves a black hole. So he is rescued by a technique that can only be invented if someone has been rescued already. Who brought this knowledge to Earth in the first place? Paradox.
Meanwhile, Anne Hathaway has arrived at the third planet, it is inhabitable and humanity may or may not start a colony there some day. There are some touching scenes about father and daughter meeting again, even though the daughter is a lot older than her old man, and then the movie is about finished.
I felt quite entertained, but the bottom-line is: I was underwhelmed. I had higher hopes for this movie and it hasn’t paid off as much as I wanted it to. But there were some very nice aspects in this, and there are still some things that deserve to get some of my thoughts in the future. Among the new movies I have seen since Inception, this is definitely among the better ones.