*** SPOILER ALERT — This post reveals elements of a just released movie. Do not read if you want to keep it a surprise! ***
[caption id="attachment_3953" align="alignright" width="465"] Interstellar[/caption]
I watched Interstellar yesterday. You will have one of two reactions to this movie. You will either leave the theater saying, "Wow, just... wow." Or, you will leave the theater thinking this movie was an hour too long. I must admit I tend to fall into the second camp though I enjoyed the movie. It's not that I object to the movie being nearly three hours long. I happily sat though the Return of the King. What I object to is a three-hour movie that seems to have no real message even if it is beautiful.
That said, I'll start with the awesome about Interstellar. First awesome: the cinematography is incredible. I watched it on a standard 35 millimeter screen and it was breathtaking. From Sahara sized dust storms to mountain sized waves, our incredible smallness in this universe really comes to the forefront. It doesn't take a large black hole named Gargantua to bring that into perspective. It was much better served using planetary effects to which we humans can easily relate. That brought home not only our own fragility, but the scope of our struggle merely to survive. If anything speaks to how overwhelming the universe is, it's the simple fact we are helpless in the face of sandstorms so large they blot out the sky before even reaching us. You see, most people cannot imagine the incredible distances involved in space travel. NASA and science articles routinely throw out mission parameters expressed in years, and it simply doesn't register with people. A thousand foot high wall of water registers with people. Especially when you put a human body in front of it. The director seemed to understand this, and kept the talk of distances involved to a minimum while maximizing the time spent in front of towering elemental forces.
Another awesome in the movie has to be the actresses and actors who portrayed the people trapped on a dying Earth, or struggling to survive planets humans were never evolved to live upon. To a person, they all delivered excellent performances. Now don't get me wrong, these characters are fairly stereotypical. There's the thwarted adventurer. The brilliant child failed by a mass market education system. The guy who's perfectly content to be a farmer his entire life; bound to the land where his family has lived, struggled and died for generations. There are no complicated psychologies in this movie. The writers pulled no all-night sessions coming up with these characters. But the actors and actresses brought them to life and made them real. The talent with which they did so was evident to me, and I enjoyed every single moment of their performance. In fact, I find myself thinking more about the characters than the cinematography today, but more on that in a bit.
Now for the not so awesome. Interstellar was touted by some as a scientific wonder. A science fiction movie that gets the science right. There were even articles written about the theoretical physics discovery made while developing Gargantua visuals for the movie. However, this is incredibly misleading. Much of the science is not believable. From a terrestrially evolved organism that seemingly metabolizes nitrogen like oxygen, to spacecraft which seem to have inexhaustible delta-v, this movie missed the mark. I'll admit I might have missed something recent on nitrogen metabolizing organisms, but I've played enough Kerbal Space Program to know you just can't do what those spacecraft did. There are laws of physics outside of black holes that are every bit as unalterable as those inside one. And as for those inside a black hole, don't get me started on the complete absence of any mention Schwarzschild radii or spaghettification. Certainly Gargantua was large enough to have its Schwarzschild radius inside its event horizon, but the other one certainly was not. The ship should have been torn to pieces by differential tidal forces before even reaching the wormhole. But then there'd be no movie. That's Hollywood, not science. If you are a science connoisseur like me, please go into the movie knowing you will have to suspend a lot more disbelief than the articles indicate. There certainly is enough fantasy to taint the experience if you are not prepared. At least it wasn't as egregious as Gravity. Of course, I could simply be ignorant of the science the screen writers relied upon as the basis of their movie. Anything's possible. Perhaps it's just there wasn't enough time (no pun intended) for them to explain the science they used. That speaks directly to the next non-awesome about the movie.
This movie is nearly three hours long and still suffers from insufficient time to explain itself. It seemed to me there were two parts to this story. Part one covers how humans got into the situation humanity faces on Earth. The second part is what the humans are doing to find a new home. By combining both stories into one movie, the first part was mostly robbed to make way for the second part - and that kills both. Viewer fatigue sets in long before you get to the really exciting parts of the movie. Honestly, the majority of the earth based story line could have been left on the cutting room floor and the best parts of the movie would have been preserved. I have a completely unsubstantiated suspicion the director was forced to leave a lot out of the first part to avoid controversy, and the movie suffers for it twice. It was a bad decision.
So now that I've given two paragraphs on awesome and two paragraphs on not so awesome, here's my advice. Watch the movie. If you love incredible cinematography, go watch it on a 70mm IMAX screen. If you like the movie theater atmosphere in general, go watch it in the theater. But I think the majority of people can wait to rent it and watch it in the comfort of their own home, where they can pause it for bathroom breaks. Seriously. Unless you have a bladder the size of the Hindenburg, you'll need that break. Regardless, watch the film. It's been nearly 24 hours since I saw it and I am still thinking about it. That's not the mark of a bad film. In fact, I keep going back to the nuances, like the relativistic effects portrayed in the film. This was all in the second part I wrote about above. One of the science realities Interstellar gets right is the effect of black holes on time. There is a scene where three crew members go down to the surface of the a planet. It is near the event horizon of Gargantua, and so time passes much slower for them. They are on the planet for about an hour their time, but on the ship 23 years go by. When they return, the airlock door opens and the fourth crew member, Romilly, is standing there in a bathrobe and t-shirt. It's one of the images from the movie which keeps bubbling to the surface and making me smile. The realities of Einstein's equations are reflected in Romilly's expression perfectly as he stands there in more disbelief than greeting. It really does bring a human face to an incomprehensible situation, and that's what Interstellar does best.