Monday, December 1, 2014

Interstellar: An Amateur Astrophysicist's Review

Yep, I saw Interstellar this weekend. Yep, I loved it, mostly. Yep, I wanna talk about it.

Spoilers, yo!

Man, where to begin. I was raised on stuff like Star Trek and 2001. I've always had a love of astronomy. Not very surprising then that sci-fi tends to be my bread and butter, and well-done hard sci-fi has an extra special place. There's something about attempting to tell a story within the confines of science that makes it even more provocative for me, knowing that such a story could actually happen, even with the more speculative elements like aliens or time travel. Sadly, well-done hard sci-fi is very hard to come by these days. Even Star Trek has abandoned any vestige of hardness for quantum plot device projectors.

So naturally when a movie like Interstellar comes along, I needed to see it. I deliberately tried to avoid as much info online as possible so as not to spoil anything, which largely worked. I knew it was a sci-fi movie, trying to generally be realistic, and by Christopher Nolan, who has yet to put out a movie I've disliked. That was about it.

When I left, I realized it was the best Star Trek movie in 20 years. Heh. Thematically, it's a much greater fit to the franchise than the last half-dozen movies. Exploration, diving headfirst into the unknown no matter what, working for the betterment of all mankind, giving us a chance as a species to step back and look at ourselves and think about where we're going. If I haven't said it before, I'll say it now. I'm a humanist. I'm very big on my belief in mankind being capable of amazing things, and it depresses me to no end when we forget that. When our dreams get set aside for mundane concerns that will never truly end. When we assume someone else will come along and carry us forward or make things better. When we refuse to reach out for ourselves and seize our own destiny. So I'm glad when this kind of movie comes along and says "No! Stop looking at the dirt and look up! We should believe in ourselves!"

The message is unabashedly pro-exploration. As a vaguely-described blight is slowly destroying all the crops in the world (in many ways, this is almost symbolic of the Earth's vast but ultimately finite resources), and innovation and progress grinds to a halt in favor of simply focusing on the grind of daily living (which also explains why most technology on Earth still looks modern despite it being mid- to late-21st century). Even the moon landings have been officially retconned as "faked" in schools to discourage children from wanting to be anything other than farmers. Only a few still believe in the ideals of the past, including Cooper, a former NASA pilot-turned-farmer. He's been trying to keep the flames of passion for science alive in his children, though only his daughter Murph shows any aptitude for it. His older son Tom is destined to become a farmer, not quite scoring high enough to make it into college (which is also now a scarce resource).

Murph reports a "ghost" in her room, knocking objects off her bookshelves. She discerns what appears to be a pattern in the books, and later dust clouds fall on the floor, revealing dashes that turn out to be binary. Coop and Murph figure out the binary is coordinates, which they travel to and stumble across an abandoned NORAD base, the new home of NASA. After being taken inside, they meet Professor Brand, Cooper's old boss in NASA, who reveals a massive project to find a new home for the human race. Earth is done for, it's merely a matter of time. The primary plan is to build a colony ship, stock it with as many people as possible, and fire it off through a recently-discovered wormhole to another world.

Oh yeah, the wormhole. Setting aside any arguments as to whether they're even possible or not (I lean towards they are, but for different reasons than some might), So about 50 years prior to the movie, a wormhole suddenly gets detected in orbit around Saturn (spotted by Voyager II, maybe?). Some probes are sent through, and eventually even smaller scout ships, in the hopes of finding another world to migrate the human race to. On the other side of the wormhole, they find a system with some twelve planets in it, located in a completely different galaxy (though how they know it's another galaxy and which galaxy is never stated).

Anyway, a larger scout ship, the Endurance, is sent along to check in on the scouts and determine a final destination for the colony ship. Of the twelve scouts, three are still transmitting a "good to go". signal. Coop is recruited to pilot Endurance alongside Amelia Brand, Professor Brand's granddaughter (and played by Anne Hathaway, who is apparently capable of looking beautiful no matter what her hair color/length/style is), and two other astronauts, Doyle and Romilly.

I wanna make a quick aside that, although a lot of the dialogue makes the characters sound more like walking concepts or archetypes than actual characters, they're still done well enough that their names actually stick in my head. A lot of movies, before the credits even finish I've forgotten who was who (see: my Godzilla review), but with this one somehow everyone stuck with me, for the most part. Which was nice.

But yes, our intrepid gang takes to space, heading for the wormhole. Teary good-byes are made, as, even with a successful return being made, relativistic factors mean years will pass on Earth for months on the parts of the crew. This will only be further exacerbated by the crew going into cryogenic stasis to preserve supplies and power for large chunks of the trip. After eight months, they arrive around Saturn. Thankfully, the robot on board hasn't decided to murder them all this time around, and the ship plunges into the wormhole in an amazingly well done scene reminiscent of the wormhole sequence from 2001 (though not quite as trippy and vastly fancier, of course).

They arrive in the distant system, passing a nebula that I'd swear looks like one in the Milky Way but maybe it's just me, and begin to decide their next course of action. Of the twelve scouts sent out, three are still transmitting their signals to indicate a likely place. They set course for the nearest, dubbed Miller's planet after the woman who went there, discovering it orbiting a black hole dubbed Gargantua (it's definitely a bigg'un, many times the size of the planet, and looks pretty amazing. I'm told it's a fairly accurate depiction of a black hole, too). However, due to the gravitational effects of the black hole, there's a time differential just between the surface and orbit, meaning an hour on the planet will equal seven years in orbit. Romilly stays behind in stasis while the other three head down, and we get to see our first alien planet.

And thus we get to see our first alien world in the movie. At first, it seems fairly mundane, nothing but rock and knee-deep water with mountains in the distance. But Miller's ship has apparently been torn apart and oh frak those aren't mountains those are tidal waves! Which is a neat concept, we get waves up to a few meters here on Earth from the moon's gravity, but if you've got a planet orbiting a black hole, of course those waves are going to be wayyyyy bigger. Sufficed to say, Miller's planet isn't a suitable place for the humans, and they move on to Mann's planet.

This one is a cool place too. Heavily rocky surface, with incredibly low air temperatures. The chemical makeup of the atmosphere means the clouds are actually frozen, and it looks like you're standing/flying between two icy mountain ranges. It's quite a breathtaking sight.

So they land near Dr. Mann's compound and head inside, waking him up from stasis, and it's

Yeah, that's who's playing one the greatest scientists of mankind. Prooooobably not the best casting choice, but whatever. He's not around very long anyway, and Mann's lack of social skills is pretty evident.

So with fuel and people still alive running low, Cooper sends Brand on towards the last planet, while he detaches himself to give Endurance a chance to escape from the black hole's gravity. He plunges past the event horizon alongside the robot in the hopes of transmitting "quantum data" back to Earth to help figure out some super-complex equation that'll unlock gravity manipulation or something. Yeah, that part gets a little weird. Sufficed to say, after he plunges into the black hole, it basically turns into the end of 2001, minus the giant Space Fetus. But it's an interesting way to look at time and space in a non-traditional way, and wraps up a bunch of plot threads, while leaving some cool details to explore in our imaginations or an unlikely sequel.

Cinematically, the movie is fantastic. Good camera work, amazing visuals, an epic soundtrack that does have a few notes of 2001 in it. Honestly, I'd almost call this movie 2001 for the 21st century, although what each movie is trying to do is a bit different. There are certainly many similarities between them, but I think each stands on its own merits.

Interstellar is a pretty complex movie, but at no point did I feel like I was losing track of everything. Nolan does a great job of keeping you engaged both mentally and emotionally, and, though it feels a little slow at first, by the time they launch into space the rest of the movie flies by. Scientifically, my interest was piqued throughout the movie, since much of it relies on similar theories to my own sci-fi work. You may recall from my article about giant robots the technological underpinnings of them being largely based on the idea of graviton manipulation. Many concepts present in this movie are similar, and it was amusing to realize I already knew most of what's discussed in it from my own research.

I think this movie is also a great look at the difficulties we'll face in space travel for the first few decades, if not centuries, as we try to figure out ways to compensate for relativity, actually reaching other systems (and probably without relying on randomly appearing wormholes), survival in space and managing resources, dealing with hostile alien worlds (the habitable zone for humanity is insanely thin given the full range of possible environments out there), even docking procedures (which really does require an awful lot of precision) and compensating for the momentum of objects in space. Sufficed to say, unless the Vulcans give us a leg up, we probably won't reliably have Star Trek level technology for a lot of basic things for a few centuries (something I took into account in my own timeline. If I recall off-hand, the first extra-solar ships don't even take off until the late 24th century). But many of the problems they face on their journeys are realistic and presented dramatically in a good fashion, even if they would be laughably mundane in other sci-fi.

Not to say this movie wasn't without fault. One of the biggest overall issues I have is Matthew McConaughey. He never. Closes. His mouth. The whole movie his jaw is slightly agape as he stares at things around him when he's not talking. I would think, having spent a few decades dealing with heavy dust storms, he'd have learned to breathe through his nose by now, but I guess not. It was pretty noticeable and vaguely annoying. I also felt like the movie started to go off the rails, at least scientifically, though also plot-wise, towards the end. The future of mankind apparently relies on a predestination paradox, something that, while it's fairly possible, doesn't entirely sit well with me in terms of telling a good story. I think I would have preferred it if it was actually aliens of some sort, playing with the idea of existing in different spatial or temporal dimensions from us. Oh well. Also the robots in the movie strike me as an awkward design, and I can't help but feel like it was more than a coincidence most of their moving around happened off-screen. I kept mentally comparing them to the Haro robots from Gundam, heh.

To conclude, despite some issues, the movie was very well done, and if you're even remotely interested in astronomy, you need to see it. In fact, see it anyway, because if you're NOT interested in astronomy after this, then I can't help you, you're too dead inside. This is exactly the kind of movie we need in an age of cynicism and depression, something to spark the fires of hope in us and remind us that our destiny is not here, but in the stars above. There's a vast universe out there waiting for us to explore it. We need to get going.

For a little more reading on the science of the movie, I recommend this interview with Kip Thorne, the physicist who helped design the movie.

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