Review: Interstellar [2014] + A few (short) Conversations About Physics

a review by the Crow.

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OPENING THOUGHTS

Interstellar is the latest movie by director Christopher Nolan (until Dunkirk next year!), but unlike most of his recent projects, it isn’t a product of his (and his team’s) own creation.

Originally envisioned by Kip Thorne and Lynda Obst (who the late, great Carl Sagan brought together on a blind date!¬†ūüėĬ†), the movie was originally meant to be directed by Steven Spielberg. After a long and arduous pre-production process, the movie switched hands and fell into the hands of Christopher Nolan.

All that said, Interstellar is a movie which speaks to me somewhat personally. Like my own background, our protagonist Coop comes from the discipline of engineering. Of course, he’s primarily a pilot, and that’s something I never did (hey, I’m a crow, we fly anyway!), but I have many a friend who’s been through the ropes. The character of Romilly also happens to be very relatable to me, since I’m usually the one explaining physics-y thingamabobs to people (I know, I’m such fun at parties!). Some of the concepts explored in the movie also line up with ideas I’ve tinkered with in my upcoming novel¬†Transcension.

And by being so close to home for me, this movie’s perfectly positioned for immense scrutiny. See, I quite like Christopher Nolan and his work, but the movie he made before Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises, was quite a disappointment. Not really a bad movie, but it wasn’t what I’ve come to expect from the man.

So, what did I think of Interstellar? Well, come here under my wing and let me tell you.


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DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS

The movie, after a brief flash of a test flight gone wrong, opens with two things: one is a documentary looking back on earth-that-was from the future; and a love letter to Terrence Malick.

Long story short: the earth is dying. Crops are failing and this thing called Blight is essentially ‘undoing’ the soil. Coop and his family (father-in-law Donald, and children Tom and Murph) eke out a living as farmers, making corn since it’s quickly becoming the last crop to weather the storm of blight. After some strange occurences (some of which Murph insists is the “ghost” in her room), Coop is led via co-ordinates to a secluded location in the middle of nowhere, with Murph stowing away in his car for the adventure.

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Trying to cut through the chained gate facing them, the pair are apprehended by a voice cloaked in lights. It turns out that they’ve found the last remnants of NASA. Led by the ageing Dr Brand, one of Coop’s old associates, NASA have been working on plans to “save the world”.

With blight beating all human efforts against it, the plan comes in two forms: Plan A involves finding a new home where everyone can escape to while Dr Brand stays at home and tries to figure out how to beat gravity and propel whole populations into space (our biggest problem when it comes to spaceflight); and Plan B involves sending a small couple of teams out to new homes and starting over with frozen human embryos, in the case Dr Brand fails.

How exactly, are these saviours going to solve the incredible problems presented by interstellar travel?

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Gravity.

Gravity, gravitygravitygravity… oh, how mysterious you are! Of the four fundamental forces of nature, gravity is the one which presents the biggest questions.

Now, the question of why gravity is so different has¬†sort-of been answered. Just look up the work of Kaluza and Klein. However, it’s not been answered in the dimensions in whose sway¬†we¬†are held. In the three dimensions of space and the one of time, it’s nigh impossible to resolve what gravity is¬†in any way which makes empirical sense.

Now, this crow is fond of ideas like MOND, and Large Extra Dimensions (the ADD model). Not string theory as much, although some stellarheh! work has been done in the field.

Just past Saturn, a wormhole has been spotted (been around for 48 years, no less!), which offers travel to a potentially habitable planetary¬†system. Twelve women and men have ventured into it, and have identified at least three¬†potential worlds for humanity to prosper on, led by the “brilliant” Dr Mann.

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Brand convinces Coop to pilot the starship Endurance, the last ship capable of making the journey (and what a gorgeous babe the ship is, but we’ll get to that later), to go out and explore these new possibilities. Coop reminds Dr Brand that he has a family now, in reply to which Dr Brand says: “so go out there and save them.”

See: with Blight consuming Nitrogen and all, not only are people on Earth going to starve; but in time, they’ll suffocate, too. And so Coop must go out to help save humanity, for not only his children, but for the children of millions of families the world over.

Together with Dr Romilly, Dr Doyle, Dr Brand (the older Dr Brand’s daughter, played by Anne Hathaway), Coop sets out aboard the Endurance as its pilot, following some drama with his daughter Murph (she wants him to stay, damnit! Even the ghost says so!). They cross through the wormhole, and they reach some of the habitable worlds. And that’s where the movie¬†really comes into its own. The family dynamics are written exceedingly well, but when the adventure comes up to the front, it’s hard not to be hooked into it.

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Things go wrong, things are not what they seem, communication between the team gets topsy-turvy, they go surfing (after a fashion), but the adventure must be had. Apart from visiting worlds and dealing with the heart of the new system¬†‚Äď an older, bulky black hole aptly named Gargantua¬†‚Äď the¬†story truly visits the lengths Interstellar was always meant to venture into: the limits of human experience.

The balance between the human element and the epic scale of the universe is handled with a deft touch. The movie restrains itself from turning science into magic; and yet manages to show off the scales involved in interstellar travel to locations yet uncharted on a scale that can still affect our earthbound minds.

Have you ever considered what it would be like if instead of¬†droplets of water, that rain could be made of iron? How about a planet which is (possibly!) one giant frikkin’ diamond? Have you ever considered a planet where the clouds are solid ice? Well, Interstellar goes to such extents, and even beyond.

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After an epic “chase” sequence to catch up to a crippled spaceship, the movie begins to edge closer and closer to the unknown. What happens after is best viewed for oneself. This is the bit which seems to confuddle most people, but I implore you to listen closely. Of course things aren’t going to be easy beyond the event horizon. We have nearly zero clue what happens there; and so, we make up what we can to keep the story going.

Just like Primer, and even Inception, this movie is again best followed by the¬†plotlines the characters go through. The science is solid, but please don’t get so tied up in the technical stuff if you end up not “getting it” on a first viewing. Follow the people. At the end of the day, this is a story, not a paper.

Apart from perhaps poor Doyle, who’s barely around, each character is written well.

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As a matter of fact, it’s all excellently written (all hail Jonathan Nolan!), and masterfully put to film. This is a great story (despite the whingy “love” thing, which despite working goes on a bit too much), and is a real rollercoaster of a ride. Whether or not you’re a physics geek/nerd, or a family person, Interstellar covers both bases to a point where one of either type of person can find something to relate to. And even if you’re not part of¬†either type, the movie is a great ride throughout. It’s marvellously accessible and raises enough questions to garner interest.

This is linear storytelling done well.


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SCIENCY STUFF & THIS CROW GOES ON (a little) ABOUT HIMSELF

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

(Click here to skip to the next section)

Many¬†years ago (and I promise this is relevant!), this crow took part¬†in a¬†contest organised by NASA Ames (thanks, Al and Bryan for the win!) after many years of participating in Anita Gale and Dick Edwards’ competition. In the light of these experiences, having grown up with space settlements and the prospect of living off-planet as a thing I thought about every year of my teenage years, certain parts of¬†Interstellar hit very close to home for me.

For instance: I was absolutely gutted that at the end, we’re on a cylinder-based design.

While¬†I’ve lost all my original projects and most of the¬†associated files (all those nights stayed up were not in vain, though!), I must say: the¬†torus, as expensive and daunting as it might be, is the ultimate design base for a space settlement. One of the things I love in this movie is that the Endurance¬†exhibits a micro-scale version of the all-powerful torus. The design of the ship is lush, and it works in all the ways it’s meant to.

(If you’re at a future ISDC, let me know, I might just be popping by!)

The ending, while venturing into physics unknown, handles the questions of gravity and time in a way that isn’t too outlandish. It even makes sense if you stretch what you know. One the question of “them” is answered (and it is), you just kind of have to give yourself over to the movie and let it take you up in its flow.

After all, once we cross the event horizon, we’re in the realm of the unknown.

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All of the science in the movie is treated with respect. The prime figure (aside from gravity) being time. Nolan’s movies have recently become further and further concerned with time. And in this movie, time is displayed in its full glory.

See: time isn’t as firm a thing as most people would like to think. Time changes.

Just like space, time is one of the fundamental aspects to our reality. It’s part of the underlying fabric of what we live in. And no, seconds and minutes and parsecs(!) aren’t always the same everywhere. Depending on things like where you are, what the gravitational field around you is, and even how fast (or slow) you’re moving,¬†time changes. And Interstellar showcases changes of those type to a degree that I don’t think movies of this scale have shown yet.

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I mean, just look at Sergei Krikalev. Imagine what it’d be like to travel as far in time as he’s done.

While perfectly lined up with the storytelling, the funny bits to do with¬†time showcase some of the horrors of leaving our little home. It’s like¬†movie is about how venturing out from our parents’ shadows when we’re young is daunting because the world is a far more complex place than we’ve ever known.

Okay. Wait. That’s exactly what the movie’s about. We’re not numpties destined to be hanging around our locale forever. It’s about the human spirit. We’re meant to go out there and do things.

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As¬†Coop says, in a line that I’m¬†very fond of:

We’ve forgotten who we are: explorers, pioneers; not caretakers

All that said,¬†Neil deGrasse Tyson (who I met briefly following one of those¬†space contest thingies, despite not having a clue as to who he was at the time, although I liked his tie a lot), helmsman of the new Cosmos¬†(following the footsteps of the great Carl Sagan), which the Raven and I had many a fun hour watching on her last visit to my nest, has¬†featured in a video talking about the science of the movie.¬†I’d recommend giving the video a watch once you’ve watched the movie.

A little nitpick I have with the movie is: even though it’s done for the benefit of the audience, Coop would know why the wormhole looked like that.


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OLD AGE BURNS AND RAVES AT CLOSE OF DAY

Shhh. You’re safe, here.

As with all Christopher Nolan movies, the craft to the movie is a thing of beauty.

We all know how Nolan loves the cinema of Mr Malick (and who could blame him?), and the scenes in the dustbowl are a tribute to the man’s work. Usually, with Nolan, storytelling efficiency overcedes art. In¬†Interstellar, however, he manages to let the landscapes linger just that little bit longer.

Visually, it tries to be as true to what we know in science to a tee up until we enter the unknown. At that point, all bets are off the table. But even the “magic”al flights of fancy beyond the known are done with an eye for visual presentation. I thought it was damn-near perfect, given what the movie is trying to achieve.

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The robots (T.A.R.S., C.A.S.E., and¬†K.I.P.P.) are amazingly handled. Their design is by far the best of all robots in fiction. They’re just so damn useful. And the two we get to hear from have such great personalities (T.A.R.S. takes the top spot, here “knock-knock”).

A brilliant bit of work is using the vehicles (space stations, rangers, landers, etc.) as fixed objects to¬†show how things are moving. This might not sound like much, but¬†it’s an elegant solution to present how the relative motions work.

The movie pays its respects to what is established. The scenes of the Endurance floating away from the Earth, spinning away; the scene in which Romilly is¬†soothed by the sounds of Earth by Coop; the scene in which Coop learns why a wormhole appears as a sphere (even though he should know!); the scenes in which they realise what those frickin’ mountains are; the scene in which Romilly tells the others how long he waited… they’re all handled with a generosity towards the limitations of human experience in the face of the “out there” laid bare.

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Amazing job, as always. Nolan and his crew’s grip on the technical aspect of movie-making is iron tight.

The only problem this crow has with the movie is that in the theatres, the sound mixing didn’t quite come off right (and more than two years later, I still remember this, so it must’ve been bad). It was certainly weird when the movie won the Academy Award for Sound Mixing. I’d felt that the soundtrack overpowered¬†the other audio elements in the movie.

That said, the soundtrack is amazing. No Time For Caution is by far my favourite single element, but every single piece of the soundtrack is amazing. The parts of the score¬†during the “leaving”, the “rescue”, and the “black hole” scenes are all high points as far as scores go.

And I can not leave this review without mentioning the great performances. Not a single performance in the movie is underpar. 10/10, everyone. Great job.


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CLOSING THOUGHTS

Interstellar is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, and is one of the best science fiction movies of all time.¬†After all, this movie appeared on the Crow’s Top 10 SF Movies¬†list. Who could argue against the case?

I consider it an upgrade to¬†even the legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001, I always considered a little too vague to qualify as one of the best¬†science fiction movies (despite its appearance on the list), but Interstellar nails the balance between complexity and simplicity. 2001, as far as I know, is also one of director Christopher Nolan’s favourite movies, and it’s a movie that needed a successor somewhere down the line. Interstellar fits those shoes perfectly. And what a worthy one it is.

A scientific-minded movie; a great story about adulthood, childhood, and parenthood; a tear-jerker; a movie about moving on (in more ways than one)… Interstellar¬†ticks more boxes than one. It’s restraint, however, stands in stark contrast to those high ideas. And this restraint both colours and adds a sense of grounding to the movie.

There’s very little to fault in the movie.¬†But¬†before I score it, I’ll just let you know that I’m docking the movie a 0.5 for being so close to me, personally.

I’ll see you on the other side, slicks.

Final rating: 8.5/10

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Let me leave you with the following:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Interstellar [2014] + A few (short) Conversations About Physics

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