Interstellar: more accurate than the typical sci-fi movie, but still had issues

Interstellar posterThis week, I watched the movie Interstellar, the Christopher Nolan film about travel to another galaxy, a black hole, a wormhole, and other exotic environments.  I enjoyed it immensely, although I also had some issues with it.

In the film, at some point in the future, the Earth is dying due to a global crop blight.  With society gradually falling apart, a wormhole to another galaxy suddenly appears near Saturn, created by an unknown intelligence, and the last vestiges of NASA send desperate missions through it to find viable worlds.

Based on the limited data from those missions, three worlds look promising, and NASA sends one last mission to find out which of the planets is the best candidate.  The movie is about that mission, led by the main character, Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), and the efforts of those on Earth, including Cooper’s daughter Murphy, to develop the science necessary to manipulate gravity and allow transport of large numbers of humanity to the new worlds.

Much was made leading up to the film’s release about its scientific accuracy.  I found the film to be far more accurate than the typical science fiction movie, but given the appalling science in most science fiction movies, that isn’t saying much.  Still, although it does take scientific liberties, it is still a cut above common space movies.

So first, from a science perspective, here are the things I liked about the movie:

  • The exterior space scenes happen without sound.  Since there’s no sound in space, a fact which most movies ignore, that immediately scored points with me.  The only thing we hear in space scenes is the musical score.  I’m hoping that with the success of this movie and Gravity, that future film and TV will be inspired to get their act together on this.
  • The only artificial gravity in the movie comes from spinning the spaceship.  A lot of movies have done this of course, but this is the only one I can recall having one of the characters get sick from the coriolis effect.
  • No background stars.  In space, when the sun or any similar source of light is visible, the background stars can’t be seen, just as they can’t be seen on Earth (although in space there’s no atmosphere to make the sky blue).  It’s only when something, like a planet, is blocking that source of light that the stars can generally be seen.
  • Although it required plot holes, I liked that Nolan made this a movie about exploration.  That rarely happens in space movies anymore and it’s a setting I miss.  (Yeah, I know, this one isn’t strictly about science, but I liked it anyway.)
  • I liked how much general relativity figured into the story.  It was a major plot point throughout the movie.  This is science fiction as its best, when it exposes the audience to scientific concepts they may not be familiar with.
  • Along those lines, I liked that the wormhole and black hole are shown to be spherical, as opposed to the usual two dimensional holes in space depicted by Star Trek and other science fiction media.
  • At one desperate point in the movie, the crew uses an orbital slingshot maneuver and an ad-hoc staging system.  This is unusually well rooted in actual spaceflight logistics (for film science fiction).
  • In general, the limitations of fuel is an ongoing issue throughout the movie.  Since most space movies (and space fiction in general for that matter) ignore fuel constraints, this is a welcome change.
  • I thought the AI robots in the film were very well done with a physically cool design.  I was apprehensive that one of them might turn out to be evil or something, but the film completely avoided that trope.
  • There is some good philosophical and scientific perspective dialog in the movie.

Ok, so, here are the issues I had with it.

  • At the initial launch, a multi-stage rocket system, similar to modern launches, is needed.  However, at the remote planets, the shuttles are able to land and relaunch back into orbit, including on worlds with gravity near or greater than Earth’s.  Not exactly consistent.
  • The operation of the shuttles seemed too much like the traditional space movie conception of something between an airplane and a boat.  The movie also implied that they flew this way in space, seemingly ignoring the actual Newtonian dynamics of spaceflight.
  • While I enjoyed the exploration plot immensely, realistically, given their capabilities in the movie, the whole thing could have been done with just the robots.  The idea that an extremely resource strapped NASA wouldn’t have seized this option is implausible.  Of course, that would have made for a far less dramatic story.
  • The ice clouds on one of the planets which are solid enough to land on, is implausible, at least as something that would remain above the ground.  (A thick layer of frozen atmosphere on the ground would have worked, but been far less cool.)
  • There was a neutron star in the black hole system.  I was sad that we never saw it.  (Although I have to admit to having no idea what it should look like.)
  • The philosophical dialog mentioned above was coupled with some nonsense dialog involving the power of love and higher level dimensions, which eventually becomes a plot point.  I suspect I’m in the minority, but I consider it lazy writing when true love is used as a plot device to have characters do something impossible.  I’ve learned to tolerate it in flighty Doctor Who episodes, but in a film which ostensibly is trying to be scientifically accurate, I found it grating.
  • I linked to a post on the plausibility of wormholes (or lack thereof) just before this film was released; the TL:DR is that wormholes require the existence of exotic mass and the regular mass of millions of stars.  The film actually dodged this issue a bit, by having someone else create the wormhole.  But it also raised the question of why the wormhole creators didn’t just help more directly rather than requiring mortally perilous missions to another galaxy.  (Maybe they were expecting robots to be sent.)
  • I was disappointed that the one character that discusses human survival instincts and the distinction it provides between us and robots, does so in a context that seemed to discredit what they were saying.

While I geeked out to the science aspects of the movie, I found the actual story to be a bit uneven.  The first half of the movie felt slow to me, although it picks up dramatically in the second half.  The dull parts annoy me, because it’s an ongoing source of frustration that the few films that have tried to be scientifically accurate have historically been dull.  Anyone familiar with science fiction literature knows that there’s no reason, other than laziness, for this false dichotomy to exist in movies.

That said, I enjoyed the movie enough to watch much of it a second time (fast forwarding over the dull spots).  As I mentioned above, I’m hoping the movie sets a new bar for space movies in general, in the same manner that Saving Private Ryan inspired most war movies to be more realistic.  Only time will tell.

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17 Responses to Interstellar: more accurate than the typical sci-fi movie, but still had issues

  1. Brett says:

    The weirdest thing about it is that from a human survival stand-point, the space exploration in the movie is unnecessary. They’ve already built (and are building) habitats that are apparently capable of being self-sustaining in space with only energy and resource inputs required, and just need the Gravity Equation so they can figure out how to launch them into space.

    So why aren’t they just building them in order to live in them on Earth? Even an Earth whose ecology is completely moribund and atmosphere unbreathable without breathing masks would still be vastly more useful and habitable than outer space.

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    • That’s an excellent point. They could have just built domes or something to isolate themselves. Or gone underground. Or lots of other options that would have been far easier than living in space stations.

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  2. “The philosophical dialog mentioned above was coupled with some nonsense dialog involving the power of love and higher level dimensions, which eventually becomes a plot point. I suspect I’m in the minority, but I consider it lazy writing when true love is used as a plot device to have characters do something impossible. I’ve learned to tolerate it in flighty Doctor Who episodes, but in a film which ostensibly is trying to be scientifically accurate, I found it grating.”

    When the junior Dr. Brand (Hathaway’s character) started talking about love transcending space time to convey truths I literally put palm to forehead. Such embarrassingly lazy and contrived writing. In an attempt to perhaps give the film more heart (which I thought it had plenty of with Cooper’s conflict over missing time with his children) it insulted one’s intellect in this scene.

    On your point that the explorations could have been done by the robots, I quite agree, in fact, I think the whole mission is under-motivated. In the movie, the only way to get humans off of earth is by reconciling quantum mechanics and special relativity, which don’t exactly contradict but are difficult of being fixed together in a theory of everything. My first question is, do we need to know about quantum mechanics to launch a space ship, or rather, why do we need to discover the theory of everything to launch a space station? I’m not sure what would be needed to be done on the quantum level in order to launch a massive space station, as I really do not know anything about quantum mechanics or rocket science, but it still seems to me that if what is holding you back from saving humanity is launching a giant space station from the Earth’s surface, give up on launching that big of a space station and launch something smaller. Start building a space station up in outer space and transport people to it. Once that’s complete fly the space station through the wormhole and take them to the other planet (on that note, why, at the end of the movie, is the space station just hanging out near Saturn, near the wormhole, and not going into the wormhole to get to the Brand/Edmund’s inhabitable world?). Or what is more, just shuttle people from earth to the other planet and junk the giant space station idea. Of course, this all sounds crazy, but not because we need to uncover the theory of everything to shoot a giant space station with all of humanity on it into orbit, but because it is generally preposterous to think we can evacuate everyone off of the planet. As such, we should see that plan A is doomed to fail, not because of the difficulty of cracking some equation, but just because of the difficulty of getting however many billion people off of the planet. If Cooper actually thought such a plan is workable then the bigger issue is not being lied to by Brand, but that he actually thought plan A might even work with a flying space station. How big would that space station have to be? Whatever its size, how could something that big be lifted off the ground with all of humanity on it? Why would “quantum data” make the essentially impossible, possible?

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    • Well said on the younger Brand’s love speech. The speech itself could’ve been chalked up to a desperate lover convincing herself of something, but when it gets pulled back out later in the movie to explain Cooper’s ability to connect with Murphy, ugh!

      On quantum mechanics, I think the idea was to figure out how to manipulate gravity. (I’m guessing to produce anti-gravity.) Regular general relativity gives little or no clues on how to do that, so it must have something to do with a realm where we don’t yet understand GR, which is on the quantum scales. The only place where relativistic effects can be observed on quantum scales is in the singularity of a black hole. The problem, of course, is that once you go in, even if you can avoid being turned into subatomic vapor, you can’t get back out or communicate with the outside universe. The movie probably could have done a better job of explaining that line of reasoning.

      Of course, as Brett mentions above, the whole space part of the story was really not necessary anyway. It would have been easier to set up sealed habitats on Earth than to do the same thing in space stations. No gravity equation would have been necessary. Of course, then we wouldn’t have had a thrilling space story.

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  3. Wyrd Smythe says:

    You’re the first person (that I take seriously) to say much good about the movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but from everything I’ve heard, my bar is set awfully low on this one.

    Unlike a lot of people I know, I don’t really give “E for Effort” points when other parts of the movie are as appalling as what I’ve heard described. I do appreciate that science-y things may spark an interest in science, but I’ve always felt you can make really good SF without having to resort to bullshit. The authors I revere sure did a good job of it to the point where a lot of my early (factually correct!) science knowledge came from science fiction.

    And, full disclosure, the need for glitzy BS to get people’s interest is a particularly big stick in my craw. Really ticks me off, it does. 😡

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    • My bar was set low as well. I think that’s why the movie ended up working for me. If I’d gone in expecting a modern 2001 A Space Odyssey, I probably would have been disappointed. That said, on a scale between 2001 and, say, Armageddon, it’s much closer to 2001.

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        2001 is a pretty high bar in my book. I see it as a work of sheer visual poetry in addition to being a close to flawless SF space movie. Especially for its day.

        That “power of love” crap, for me, requires a whole other way of looking at it. Armageddon is a pretty good low bar, though! And how about Moon as a highly accurate excellent space adventure movie for the high bar?

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        • I like ‘Moon’ as a psychological drama, but I think it’s a bit too easy of a movie to set as a high bar for scientific accuracy. It compromises by not accurately showing movement in moon gravity. Not that I begrudge it that compromise, since even 2001 made that one, but 2001 had a lot more stuff it could have compromised on but didn’t.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Oh, you’re right! I’d forgotten that aspect. (They did so well with most of it, especially given the shoestring budget, I must have blanked it out!)

            2001 is a fine high bar if we’re just talking scientific accuracy. (To me it’s so much more that it seems like it’s its own category.)

            That might make an interesting blog topic some time… rating SF movies on their scientific accuracy. Europa Report, while I didn’t care for the film itself, would get high marks as one other example. Sunshine, on the other hand, was a film I liked, but which I’d have to give a dismal accuracy score.

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          • I’ve never watched Sunshine except for the first few minutes. Those first few minutes just turn me off. I’ve never been able to get past them.

            I enjoyed Europa Report, and see it as a good example of how a film can have a story while still being reasonably scientifically accurate. That’s another area of hope for me. Small independent filmmakers who care about story AND science.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Understood. And I agree in principle.

            It’s just that they were so bad at actually telling the story (and it turns out to be a story with such a wretched payoff and which I might argue wasn’t a very good story in the first place), that I had to give them a ‘fail’ mark. [shrug]

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  4. I think Sci-Fi movie makers should consult you next time!

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    • 🙂 I fear if they didn’t listen to Kip Thorne, they’re not going to listen to anyone. Actually, they did appear to listen to him, more or less, on the black hole (although not all astrophysicists were happy with the result). Any hard science fiction author could have told them about the rest.

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  5. I think a lot of the problems in making an entertaining SF movie that’s scientifically accurate is that a lot of space falls under the “reality is unrealistic” trope. You can only ask a director to fight so much of that before the movie looses half the audience.

    In books the audience is smaller, geekier and willing to engage with the material for much longer than 120 minutes. At least, that’s what I assume is going on.

    Thanks for this fun article. 🙂

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    • Thanks! I know every director (and every author for that matter) has to live in the tension between pure realism and an exciting story. Veer too much on the realism side, and you lose the audience, veer too much the other way and you earn their disdain.

      But I think there’s a big difference between a movie that makes necessary accommodations to the audience’s lack of knowledge, and one that either doesn’t care or even plays up to that ignorance. The latter doesn’t age well (it’s why most movie sci-fi from the 50s and 60s is unwatchable today), even if it can often be successful in the short term.

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  6. Pingback: Interstellar was . . . less than stellar

  7. Pingback: Honest Trailers does Interstellar | SelfAwarePatterns

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