INTERSTELLAR, the movie

It’s complicated, but that happens when you start messing around with time and space. Complexity, though, can make for an interesting plot, and that’s why I found this movie frustrating. The fabulous scientific accuracy with which Interstellar portrays travel across unfathomable distances and uncomfortable lengths of time is not matched by an equally sound scientific understanding of what might compel us to traverse the abyss between stars in the first place.

Opening video vignettes of mature citizens tell a tale of Earth’s decline. I could imagine each of them straight from Oklahoma or Texas during the Dust Bowl era. Earth’s climate has reduced the planet’s ability to supply food, and it’s only going to get worse. Dust storms threaten the health of the increasingly valuable as well as seemingly rare family farmer. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) works hard and creatively to be a productive farmer, and passes that ethic on to his son. But the planet is in a downward spiral. And here’s my gripe. Climate change will undoubtedly affect our ability to grow food in the future. Our offspring will suffer hardships, some severe, if we allow climate change to proceed apace much longer. However, it is very difficult to imagine that the preferred solution will ever be emigration to another star system (whether the movie’s Plan A or B). As my wife is quick to point out, this is where “the willing suspension of disbelief” comes in. The basic plot makes sense only if you’re willing to ignore the fact that even travel to Saturn, much less through a nearly miraculous wormhole to another star system, would never be a viable solution to climate change on Earth. If you’re willing to overlook that little problem, and I highly recommend doing so, Interstellar is an entertaining and scientifically sound representation of what we know, or can reasonably guess, space travel, even between the stars, might be like.

Groundbreaking scientific visualizations inspired by the work of astrophysicist Kip Thorne (see The Science of Interstellar) lead the way. As an aside, Thorne has reported that the visualizations done for the movie actually led him to findings that he believes will support two new research papers in astrophysics. But before we get to the wormhole that enables interstellar travel, we have to reach Saturn. This is done with entertaining engineering acuity from the conventional rocket launch to the docking with an interplanetary ship designed to rotate to provide artificial gravity for the several-year trip out to Saturn.

Another bright spot for the film is the demography of its scientists. The leading bright light is Coop’s daughter, Murph. Chosen to lead humanity to its best future, Murph shines as a precocious young girl (Mackenzie Foy), an accomplished scientist (Jessica Chastain), and a family’s beloved matriarch (Ellen Burstyn). And she’s not alone, sharing the female science spotlight with Brand (Anne Hathaway), another daughter following in her father’s footsteps.

Of course, and unfortunately, it seems that few Hollywood endeavors touching science can leave out the mad scientist, and Interstellar is no exception. Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) plays the part here, and I’d prefer to believe he was also the author of the alternative scenarios presented to Coop and his fellow astronauts, the infamous Plan A and Plan B. Could the elder Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) have hatched this plot, perhaps. To avoid any more detailed spoilers, we’ll just leave it at that.

If you’ve read any other reviews, undoubtedly you know things get strange near the end, but time and space do get strange around the edges. But it is at the very end that Interstellar’s scientific credentials once again shine. When Cooper walks along the curving inside surface of a colony-ship, I was pleasantly reminded of physicist and space enthusiast Gerard O’Neill, who explained in the 1970s how cylindrical space colonies could become the off-planet future home of choice for humanity’s more adventurous. At the very least, consider solar power satellites in Earth orbit à la O’Neill’s vision in his book, The High Frontier. Built on-orbit or on the Moon with raw materials provided by asteroids or from the Moon itself, these space-based power stations could readily beam down to our home planet an ample supply of carbon-free energy that would allow us to avoid the worst scenarios of future climate change. It’s a solution one can imagine without a willing suspension of disbelief.

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