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.

The movie ‘Interstellar’ and wormholes

The other day, I did a post on interstellar exploration which linked to one by Sten Odenwald on the problems with interstellar travel.  Well, he posted some follow-up remarks, expressing some surprise at the response, doubling down on the aspects of the limitations of interstellar travel he identified, and urging people to be optimistically realistic.  (I predict he’ll get a similar response to this post.)

One thing I wanted to add to the remarks I made in my post, is that I don’t oppose research into possible faster than light solutions.  I just think we have to realistic about their prospects.  This subject is coming up again with the release of the movie ‘Interstellar’ tomorrow.

It sounds like a big part of the movie’s plot is going to involve wormholes.  These are actually theoretical concepts, and the movie had a heavy weight physicist, Kip Thorne, consulting to make sure they got it right.  (Thorne is actually releasing a book about the physics of the movie.)

As I said in my earlier post, these faster than light concepts are extremely speculative.  To understand how speculative, you might be interested in this write up by Paul Halpern at the Starts With A Bang blog.  The TL;DR is that traversable wormholes require something called “exotic matter” to produce “negative energy” to keep them from instantly collapsing.  Exotic matter has not yet been observed in nature.  Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that it couldn’t conceivably be manufactured.

But then there’s this:

Even if exotic matter is identified and put to use, there is another obstacle to traversable wormhole construction — the enormous amount of ordinary matter required. Researchers estimate that one would need a glob of mass comparable to millions of suns. Clearly, wormhole construction is not in the cards for the foreseeable future.

It’s always possible someone will find a way around these difficulties.  We don’t know what science will discover in centuries to come.

But if we’re doing scientific speculation, the probabilities are that exploring the stars will happen on far longer time frames than we’re used to now, and our best bet may be engineering ourselves to cope with those time frames.  Far out?  Sure.  But anywhere near as far out as harnessing the mass of a million suns to create a wormhole?