Not long after I published my thoughts on Chris Nolan’s film Interstellar, Centauri Dreams regular Larry Klaes weighed in with his own take. Views on Interstellar have been all over the map, no surprise given how personal film criticism can be (take a look at the critical reception of Bladerunner over the years). I like the point/counterpoint aspect of what Larry does here, and while I imagine most readers have seen the movie by now, his criticisms may provoke a few more viewings and, I hope, a look at Kip Thorne’s excellent book on science in the making of the film.
By Larry Klaes
When I first heard about the existence of the film Interstellar, I was initially hopeful yet cautious. Most science fiction, especially these days, is some variation on Star Wars, which is often about as scientific and science fictional as the Harry Potter series. Yet Christopher Nolan and his team insisted they were striving hard to stick to REAL science with their production: They even had the famous Caltech astrophysicist Kip Thorne on their side, the very man who convinced none other than Carl Sagan to go with a wormhole rather than a black hole as the means to propel Ellie Arroway across space and time to meet the ETI in his 1985 novel (and 1997 film) titled Contact.
My real hope was that Interstellar would both portray a realistic method of travel among the stars based on currently known and plausible science and technology (no ambiguous hyper drives or nearly magical wormholes) and ignite the public’s passion for true interstellar exploration – along with overall space exploration and colonization in the process. A decent and maybe even original story with characters I genuinely cared about would be nice, too. Something to counterbalance the last three decades of fantasy and soap opera that Star Wars and Star Trek had done to science fiction after the golden age of the cinematic genre in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The cry and hue that the story of Interstellar was based on real science and was very similar to the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey thrust upon the world by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke 46 years earlier only grew as the date of its general release approached. My gut feeling that Interstellar was not going to be a straightforward science film of fiction also grew, but I kept hoping to be wrong, that somehow we were going to have a cinematic creation of the genre worthy of 2001 or at least in the same room as Kubrick’s masterpiece. Heck, I would be happy if Interstellar was in the same building or at least on the same street as the original 2001: A Space Odyssey.
When I finally saw Interstellar on the big screen I sadly realized my underlying fears were true. In a number of ways the film was even worse than I predicted and not just because it felt like I was watching something created by an amateur filmmaker whom the studios had given a big budget to and told to do as he pleased. My hopes of giving the general nonscientific public an anchor to see and appreciate how we might really send our species to the stars one day were also dashed.
Now I may be wrong, for Interstellar did do a lot of positive cheerleading for the cause of science and expansion into space and that could be enough to tip the scales or at least contribute to humanity getting off this rock permanently. Nevertheless I feel the way Nolan and company went about showing how people might spread into the Cosmos could ultimately undermine the enterprise with unrealistic and even damaging expectations.
Is Interstellar a cinematic herald that will turn the public’s interest and support towards a destiny in space? Or is it an unwitting siren’s song that will lure in unwary viewers to expect our journeys and colonization of the Cosmos to be like the fantastical paths in the film, only to lead them to unfulfilled dreams, disappointment, and ultimately turn away from what has long been called the Final Frontier?
Now to elaborate….
Let’s Put On a Show!
First the film itself. I am not a big fan of Christopher Nolan’s work even though I know he has a rather rabid fan base. I feel most of his films, while nice looking and not lacking in action, are rather heavy-handed in their messages, which themselves are given a gravity I find undeserving overall. About the only film of Nolan’s that did do more than just temporarily entertain me was The Dark Knight from his Batman trilogy and that was mainly due to the late actor Heath Ledger’s amazing performance as the psychopathic villain The Joker.
In any event I expected a director and producer of Nolan’s experience to come up with something better than what I witnessed on the big screen. Yes Nolan was clearly influenced by 2001 and many parts of Interstellar were both emulations and tributes to the 1968 cinematic landmark, but ultimately that is essentially what Interstellar felt like, a tribute by someone who thought they could make a 2001 level science fiction film for this generation but ultimately fell short. It was both a bit surprising and disappointing.
Across the Internet many people were quite vocal in praising and defending Interstellar and that of course is their right. I noted in particular how many were adamant both that it was “just a film” as if this were some deep revelation and that any poor or inaccurate portrayals of science should not matter, usually reverting back to the “just a film” reason or Interstellar not being a documentary as the most common excuses. No, Interstellar was not a terrible film and it was obvious that Nolan et al tried very hard to make good science fiction cinema. Perhaps that is what makes it all the sadder that for all their talent and budget they could not match what they tried to emulate or even as a lesser science fiction film, not even in the three hours they had to tell their story. And when one has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and years on a project and loaded it with important messages for a wide audience, then Interstellar is NOT “just a film.”
To me it felt like Nolan said to himself “Hey, I can write science fiction!” and then proceeded to show why and how making a good creation of the genre is not as easy as the fluff the public has been fed since 1977. I also blame this on why certain segments of the public think Interstellar is so wonderful: When you have been fed a near steady diet of hamburger for decades, suddenly being given a better made hamburger (yet a hamburger nonetheless) makes you think you are dining on a porterhouse steak. Or cooking up one, apparently.
I am not going to delve much into the science portrayed in Interstellar as many have already done so (Google the words ‘interstellar science’) and amazingly even a science book by Kip Thorne himself was produced on the very subject, which perhaps may be the best thing to come out of this whole effort. I do not want to detract from the main points I really want to make about Interstellar next in this piece. Besides, there will still be enough of my comments on the science of Interstellar in the process.
When You Wish Upon a Wormhole…
I was honestly quite bothered by the way Interstellar went about saying and showing how humanity may one day achieve the stars. The first issue is their reason for spreading into deep space: In the film it is not due to humanity’s desire for knowledge or adventure, it is primarily one of survival. Now while needing to evacuate Earth and the Sol system is one legitimate reason for developing a means of interstellar transportation and colonization, there are two problems with this scenario: One is that it is often considered to be the ONLY legitimate reason for sending humans to the stars. The other is that if humanity and our planet are in some kind of dire trouble where the only alternative is to evacuate, the odds are probably rather high that humanity will already be in a state where building any kind of interstellar vessel, even a slow-moving multigenerational starship, may no longer be an option. So if we are ever to develop a real interstellar capability, perhaps we should start conducting one while our civilization is not in a major state of crisis or outright impending doom.
In the near future, a disease called only the Blight has decimated most crops across Earth and is steadily increasing the amount of nitrogen in our planet’s atmosphere. This in turn has led to many aspects of the society falling towards doom, including space travel in general and NASA in particular. The slow march to extinction for the human species appears to be inevitable and the efforts at preservation shown in Interstellar are only buying time.
Then suddenly it is revealed (by methods which feel like nothing less than the supernatural) that NASA isn’t gone but merely hiding underground (literally) to escape a skeptical and increasingly ignorant and panicky public while what is left of the United States government secretly funds the space agency for several plans it has to save the human race, or at least some of it. One part of the plan involves flying up to a spaceship in Earth orbit which will then take a crew of brave astronauts (and a collection of frozen and fertilized human eggs as the backup part of the plan) to travel to a wormhole which appeared near the planet Saturn some decades ago. From there the astronauts will use the wormhole to journey to a solar system in another galaxy and check out three worlds circling a black hole to see if initial reports beamed back from earlier expeditions there do indeed prove these alien planets to be viable places for human colonization.
It has already been stated multiple times elsewhere about the concerns one might understandably have about venturing to planets in the gravitational grip of a black hole. We have also been informed more than once how Thorne made some actual new scientific revelations about this type of celestial object while helping the filmmakers create a realistic black hole. What bothers me deeply is that the public will have even more firmly entrenched in their minds that cosmic wormholes are probably the only way humanity will ever achieve interstellar travel (the other faster than light speed contenders are of course warp drives and hyperdrives).
What may be even more harmful is that the wormhole was apparently not a natural cosmic formation but placed deliberately near the ringed gas giant world by some unknown advanced entities from the future in our Sol system for use by their distant human ancestors from the struggling Earth. This will merely add reinforcement to those who think humans both in the past and present are not bright enough to solve their own problems and build wondrous devices in the process, that some outside force like advanced aliens or future humans must intervene or all is lost. This is an insult to the intelligence and ingenuity of our ancestors and present ourselves, who have done and learned some amazing things without any external assistance and beaten some very strong odds against us and our societies.
Anyone who has done more than a very casual read of Centauri Dreams knows there are multiple methods for interstellar travel which are plausible and do not invoke help from remote human descendants or superior ETI and do not require abilities that seem to be almost magical in their powers. Ironically the new television miniseries called Ascension, which I thought would be little more than an imitation of Mad Men set in space for the novelty, involves a multigenerational starship with Orion nuclear pulse propulsion – both forms of star voyaging which we could build either now or in the rather near future.
It is obvious that Nolan, feeling he had to have a means for star travel grand enough to match his visions and huge film budget ($165 million, which does not even include marketing costs), while lacking a strong background in science and technology (he even says as much in Thorne’s science companion book), went for what he thought would invoke the wonder and magic of the Cosmos for his audience. Maybe it did, but maybe it also left the general public thinking there is only one real way to attain the vast realm beyond the Sol system. This implies that we should let the smart people of the future do all the grunt work to hopefully come up with a device that seems to solve the physics and technical issues resident with wormholes with little effort.
This concern of mine has a real world basis in the reactions of the press and public to some of the more recent interstellar workshops and conferences. While these wonderful and groundbreaking events have many real experts discussing about and working upon a wide range of interstellar methods of propulsion and exploration which involve real physics and technology, the media instead tends to focus on those presentations about warp drives and wormholes, both of which suffer from some major obstacles in reality.
However, thanks to certain popular genres, this does not stop the general public from overly attaching their attention and excitement onto hypothetical means of reaching the stars which may not come to fruition for a very long time, if ever. Witness the hype about the belief that NASA is developing a warp drive, when in reality there is just one person working on the subject on a very limited budget and has so far produced a few academic papers from it all. Meanwhile the more plausible methods such as the aforementioned Orion, fusion propulsion, laser sails, and antimatter, are left standing off to the side, diminished by the very artificial glare of the flashier warp drives and wormholes. Yet Orion and its brethren, while certainly having some issues of their own, give us much better chances of actually getting us to Alpha Centauri and beyond, even if it will take years to centuries rather than minutes or seconds.
Despite what may seem at first to be incongruent to common sense, many people do get much of their “education” about the world from films and television whether they think so or not (or like It or not); whether it is accurate or not is another matter, yet they still absorb it and take what the film shows as the way something is, especially if it is a place or object unfamiliar to their everyday experiences. This certainly includes space science and astronomy, as these subjects are often either taught sparingly in the public school systems or not at all. This is why the general public and the media by extension focus so much on using warp drives or hyperdrives or wormholes as the most popular and expected means of deep space propulsion. These are not only the most complex methods but also perhaps the most unrealistic, but when your education comes from Hollywood, that hardly matters – except when it comes to supporting groups that are trying to make interstellar travel a reality.
Just So Long as We Look Really Cool
Then there is the issue of where the expedition in Interstellar was going to start a new civilization for humanity. Forget for a moment that the best candidate planets are circling a giant black hole, perhaps one of the worst places to be near in the Universe between the constant threat of being torn apart and then crushed into a singular dot and the massive amounts of radiation from all the x-rays being generated as celestial debris is constantly being pulled into the black hole and heating up immensely in the process. There is also the general lack of any light from an object with a mass strong enough to keep any photons from escaping but why quibble at this point? The worlds around the black hole named Gargantua seem to get enough illumination somehow so that the visiting astronauts can see what they are doing and getting into.
No, my even greater issue with the scenario is that apparently there was not a single world of the 400 billion star systems in our own Milky Way galaxy which were good enough to resettle what was left of our species. This despite the fact that even in our early stages of knowledge about real exoplanets we can now comfortably estimate there are billions of habitable worlds in the Milky Way: With those kinds of odds at least some of them should be good enough for terrestrial life to settle upon, or at the least be made viable for colonization. Instead the superior future humans (or whatever they really are exactly) chose a galaxy so remote that the people doing the initial exploring do not even know where it is In the Universe. So if something went wrong, the people on either side of the wormhole are literally stuck with no other apparent options.
In many science fiction films and television series which deal with deep space, Hollywood has often made no distinction between a solar system and a galaxy. While the makers of Interstellar were aware of these two very different kinds of celestial objects, the fact that they still had our main characters whiz off not to another solar system in the Milky Way but another entire galaxy many millions if not perhaps billions of light years away probably blurred the distinction for many in the audience, who sadly have little better knowledge of astronomy than a typical Hollywood producer.
For that matter, this film should have properly been called Intergalactic rather than Interstellar, since any travel outside the Sol system by the astronauts led not to another star system in our galaxy but another entire stellar island. I see this as a missed educational opportunity for a cinematic production team which boasted how scientific their film is and hoped it would inspire millions of viewers.
What is Love? Baby Don’t Hurt Me
Perhaps there is one thing more derailing about Interstellar than a near magical wormhole sent from the future and that is the film’s take on the concept of love. And the fifth dimension. Of the many instances where Nolan tried to channel Kubrick’s 2001, perhaps the biggest example was near the end of the film, when our hero astronaut named Cooper rides into the black hole called Gargantua and somehow ends up inside an infinite bookcase where he attempts to communicate with his daughter named Murphy using Morse code. She in turn goes on to create what I can only surmise is some form of cavorite – the antigravity material written about in the 1901 science fiction novel The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells – which somehow saves what is left of the human race by getting them off Earth and into giant space colonies, one of which ends up around the ever-photogenic Saturn.
This then begs the question: Why did we spend the vast majority of the film focused on trying to save humanity by colonizing some really distant alien worlds when we ended up living in massive space cities in our Sol system after all?
Much of the film’s latter parts can only be described as a metaphysical mess which were actually made worse when Nolan tried to throw in explanations to make it all seem somehow plausible along with dramatic and heartwarming. Sure, Kubrick also went seemingly transcendent with the famous Stargate sequence in 2001, but at least he had the good sense to speak only with images and let the viewers decide what was going on. Nolan fell into the trap that most cinematic and television producers make these days and that is they feel they have to explain EVERYTHING. Even if it is a bunch of metaphysical technobabble.
All Nolan really did was reinforce my concern that the public will think we can reach the stars only if we do the future technological equivalent of clicking our heels together three times and wishing really hard.
And this thing called love. I literally started to sink into my theater chair when I heard the character of Brand played by Anne Hathaway declare with dead seriousness that love is not just a chemical reaction or a genetic drive to continue the species but a physical, tangible force that can transcend space and time and unite two people despite any and all odds including deep, deep space. This is how she knew her lover was still alive on one of the worlds circling that black hole.
I know love can make people do amazing, crazy, and stupid things, but Nolan really went off into the deep end of the pseudoscientific swimming pool here. This notion about love is the kind of thing one expects from a Lifetime or Hallmark Channel production, not an expensive epic wannabe that continually boasts about how scientific it is – and then immediately dances down the magical mystery tour path. If they had stuck with the melodramatic message that love can drive and unite two people even if they are very far apart in space and time in the metaphorical sense, that would have worked. But then they went the pseudoscience route, which really undermined Nolan’s repeated claims about how science-oriented Interstellar is.
How Not to Buy the Farm
For a film that I assumed wanted to inspire the average Joe and Jane to support space exploration, I was left rather wondering about their treatment of farmers and farming in general. Cooper’s son, Tom, is designated by the local school system – the same one that said the Apollo lunar landings were a hoax, please note – as being smart enough for farming. Cooper takes this pretty much as a given and for the rest of the film we see our hero astronaut bonding over and over with his daughter, the smart one who grows up to become the scientist who solves the “gravity problem” – whatever the heck that was anyway. As an astronaut who desperately wants to get back into space, everything else, including working in the terrestrial dirt, is second rate.
Not too many generations ago, most people were farmers. And even though the number of participants in this occupation are much less these days, there are still plenty more whose jobs are much closer to farming than those of science. So why does Interstellar implicitly put down the average Joe and Jane even if it thinks it doesn’t mean to? Son Tom grows up to become the farmer he was more or less assigned to be, one who is so focused on his trade that even when his sister and her boyfriend warn Tom that he and his family have to consider leaving their home and fields due to health problems from all the dust caused from the Blight, his reaction is a very negative one tinged with growing hostility.
In the end we don’t know what becomes of Tom or his family in the later years, because Cooper’s bond is mainly with his scientist daughter and not the son he pretty much wrote off the day the school determined he was good enough for farming.
While I for one was very happy to see a film which verbally promoted and elevated space and those who want to explore it, I was also surprised at all the underlying negativity towards what I guess can best be described as Middle America. If anything Nolan should have been trying to find ways to show folks who were not science minded or ever considered the possibilities that space holds for our species and our planet that they too could participate in the Great Adventure; that space truly does hold the keys to our future. Instead we get Cooper making comments such as: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” He may have been largely right both for his world and ours, but putting up a further divide between the two modes of thought that also treats Earth as something separate from the rest of the Universe, which as a big ball of rock circling a star through space certainly means it is not, is not going to help the cause in our world to get off that dirt – or use space to help it, for that matter.
Oh Look, O’Neil’s Space Colonies – Hey, Wait, Come Back!
Despite the fact that it kind of felt like defeating the whole point of spending so much time and effort with those astronauts trying to find a new world to colonize on the other side of that mysterious wormhole, I was rather pleased to see the scenes near the end taking place aboard an honest-to-goodness O’Neil space colony.
In the 1970s we were presented with huge artificial space cities looking like either long cylinders or wheels with spokes. Thousands of people were going to live on them and construction would begin by the start of the 21st Century: The Bicentennial issue of National Geographic Magazine devoted an article to the concept, complete with very nice artwork showing how we could all be living in these floating space colonies fifty years hence – that is how serious and widespread the idea was becoming, at least in the minds of space fans
Of course just like the manned missions to Mars, we are still waiting for them to happen, but the ideas have taken on a form of reality in science fiction cinema. The Stanford torus version of the O’Neil space colony is a key player in the 2013 film Elysium, although it isn’t doing space utilization any favors by showing that only the rich and powerful get to live way up in Earth orbit while everyone else gets to struggle for existence on a dying planet.
For Interstellar, the space colony is for everyone, or at least all those who could manage to survive long enough to escape Earth and start new lives on these huge artificial worlds thanks to Cooper’s scientist daughter solving the “gravity problem”, whatever that was exactly. Again, why the film did not depict humanity expanding into the Sol system, which would have been a lot easier than even more conventional forms of interstellar travel let alone a wormhole that appears by virtual magic, I still do not quite understand. Just as I do not understand why those future humans let machines, resources, and lives be wasted attempting to colonize a few really distant and rather inhospitable alien planets which being from the future they should have known about already. So that Cooper and Brand could hook up on the one planet that was livable? I know Brand also had all those Plan B frozen fertilized eggs with her as well, so maybe they were supposed to start a new branch of the human race in another galaxy, but I did not see how exactly they were going to gestate all those eggs and then raise the children into successful adulthood on their own? Were those monolithic robots supposed to help?
We the audience did get a more satisfying and plausible answer to solving the dilemma of settling space with those big artificial colony worlds, but it took most of the three hour long film going down some rather murky and even dead end roads to get there. I wondered how many viewing Interstellar could appreciate or even remember what an O’Neil colony was and what it promised humanity by then? And what about settling actual worlds in our Sol system, namely the Moon and Mars? Did they get colonized and Nolan just didn’t bother to have anyone mention it? Are the planetoids and comets colonized too? Why didn’t they get at least a mention considering just how important their roles will be when real space colonies come along? I think a real opportunity to present how we could colonize our celestial neighborhood was missed here.
Teaching Them to Long for the Endless Immensity of the Sea
Ironically, for all my views on and concerns about Intergalactic – I mean Interstellar – my fondest hope is that I am wrong when it comes to the film succeeding in its intentions, that Nolan’s effort does pay off with the public supporting space in their minds, with their words, and with their wallets. Especially those who so vocally defended Interstellar. We have enough pretend space programs and actors portraying astronauts; we need to do our part to show how much more amazing and exciting the real Universe is and can be.
Perhaps the author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, has it right about how to get the public interested in settling the stars when he said the following:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
And while you are at it, as Interstellar said multiple times, do not go gentle into that good night. Rather, go boldly with a sense of adventure and purpose, all of which space can give us – and which we can do on our own with our minds and tools. We are the ones who will create the future, not the other way around.