Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Stellar Performance

When I first saw trailers for Chris Nolan's Interstellar movie, it didn't look all that interesting. But when critics started raving about it I began to think we might have, at long last, a science fiction offering that would add some serious original thinking to the genre. It has been a while since I'd felt that kind of anticipation waiting to see a film, and when I did I was not disappointed, at least with respect to the film-going experience. The overall production was really great - the beautiful space-scapes, the dramatic performances, especially from Matthew McConaughey, and the interesting and well written script, with a good balance of plot, character development, and action. I was often on the edge of my seat. Of course, what got me most excited as I watched along was that there was a bonafide effort to provide scientific credibility to the events on screen, which is what makes science fiction so fun. In many ways, Nolan attempted to achieve some of what made 2001 great, and on that count, I'd say he made a "stellar" effort, but nowhere near on par with Kubrick's classic. Still, he left a lot to talk about, and so I just had to write on it.

<<spoilers below this point>>

I'll start with the good stuff, but please note the spoiler alert if you still plan to see it because I don't think it would have the same impact with too much advance info. The premise of the whole story is one that I have not seen treated realistically before. I think the scenario that creates a dying planet would be something involving rising global temperatures or ozone depletion which make it impossible to grow food in quantity, etc. Although they did not convey that very well, and I would be inclined to believe more firmly in human ingenuity to solve such problems, the basic concept is credible enough to provide a basis for the story. I liked the interview Cooper had with the school showing how a global plight on the scale of generations would start to re-shape the values of society. Could they have illustrated that without postulating a re-think of the moon landings? I'm not sure.

Another theme running through the film which was given more credible attention than I've ever seen, was the practical consequences of all these theories of gravity and black holes that we've known about for years but never been able to test in the lab. To see 23 years pass by on their orbiting ship while the rest of the crew spent a few hours on Miller's water covered planet surface was striking when you realize it could actually happen that way. Of course, there were always little details that didn't work. In the case mentioned, it was that the energy that would be needed to get out of the gravity well and back to the ship would be enormous. I don't think they would have been able to get back at all. But the idea that the tidal forces would be so great on a planet orbiting a black hole that there would be giant waves constantly circling the planet, flattening everything in its wake, was a tad compelling. Another example was the wormhole that was supposedly placed there by someone. The problem there is that the only thing known to bend space is gravity, so there is no reason to believe a wormhole could stably exist without massive gravitational forces holding it together. These would make travel to the other side itself involve huge time shifts and intact communication through the portal very difficult if not impossible. Speaking of communication, the explanation given as to why they didn't know the beacon on Miller's planet was no longer transmitting all those years was because of the time shift. That's quite clever, but aside from them already being able to figure that out beforehand, the signal would have been so slowed down as not be recognizable. And one more thing - their scientist correctly describes the opening of the wormhole as being a 3-dimensional sphere, and its depiction was visually stunning, but if you extend the analogy, you would only be able to look though it as a porthole, not as a lens capturing the entire field of view as it is shown in the film. Of course, that would  not have looked as cool.

One of the most striking new creations in the film was the treatment of the TARS and CASE robots. The way the film introduced them and all their capabilities was perfect, as if it was just normal course of business for everyone but the audience. The mechanical design was very original - just rectangular cylinders with apparently movable hinges. Only a computer could coordinate such bulky parts with such precision. Watching it turn into a rolling wheel to get across the water was amazing. And I believe that they correctly predicted that the human-machine interface of the future would include personality settings like humor, honesty, and discretion. I don't think we've seen a robot become a serious character that convincingly since the HAL9000.

But in the midst of all that accurate scientific theory lay a great deal of nonsense. The big one that hit me as I walked out of the theater was the obvious time paradox. If the only chance to save the human race depends on that same human race in the future, how could the future human race exist to save itself? I guess they wanted it to seem like this 5th dimensional technology could shape the past like a landscape, but that doesn't make the paradox go away. And an awful lot of hand waving was done for the end sequence, even though it provided a wonderful closure to the story. The ability to manipulate time and even gravity is still well in the realm of fantasy today. Saying the answer lies behind the impenetrable event horizon, and then using the theoretical ergosphere to see inside, is again a clever idea but let's be real, if it was just a matter of hidden data, it wouldn't be that hard to come by.

Another odd item in the script department was how they played up Dr. Mann, the original expedition leader, as being such a noble, inspiring person, and then when they find him he turns out to be the most despicable and cowardly character in the film. I suppose you could argue that if a coward knew the human race was doomed, he would jump at the chance to be one of the only twelve people to save their own skin. Either way it made for a great plot twist. The subsequent scene where he ruined their mother ship prompting Cooper to dock while spinning and descending toward the planet was not only a cliff-hanger but one of the most stunning space visuals in the film. Watch it here (full) or  here (music only) if it hasn't been removed yet. Despite all the flaws, I think sci-fi fans will find this film enjoyable not only because it was well executed, but because it gave more respect to real science than most do.

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