Did Interstellar Live Up to its Hard Sci-Fi Hype? Review of Nolan’s Space Opera

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE INTERSTELLAR.

I just got back from watching Christopher Nolan’s new movie Interstellar in glorious, eye-popping IMAX. I’m really torn right now. I’ve written and rewritten this entire article like, three times. But dammit, this is the final draft. After much deliberation, here’s why I think Interstellar succeeded in every way it set out to succeed.

The Visual Effects Hype

Holy mackerel, the hype. I like to think I’m not the type to fall victim to it—especially in the sci-fi realm—but man oh man was I excited when I heard Christopher Nolan would be making an ambitious space-opera. And when I heard that Kip Thorne would serve as executive producer I pretty much had a nerdgasm. The film promised incredible visual effects, generated faithfully from the equations of general relativity. On this front everybody, even the most savage critics, agree: Interstellar lives up to its promise.

interstellar_poster_0

From an advertising point of view, making Thorne’s role in the movie known was brilliant, as was the promise of scientific accuracy that came with his presence. It virtually guarantees that all scientists/science enthusiasts with an interest in sci-fi will buy a ticket, just to see if they can find any errors (or just to catch a glimpse of what these extreme astrophysical objects might actually look like). So how did it actually do on the science end?

The Science

In the true spirit of science, there’s no consensus, and everyone is at everyone else’s throat—in the best way possible. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the spark that lit the flame was Phil Plait’s original review in Slate. In it, he detailed a few major things he found wrong with the science in Interstellar, which you can read here (please do, they’re valid arguments!).

Almost immediately, there was agreement and disagreement. For example, Phil claimed that the suggested factor of 60,000 times dilation was much too large. However, the equations he used to come to that conclusion were for a non-rotating black hole. It was shown here that when one uses the correct equations for a spinning black hole and the correct mass of the black hole (about a hundred million solar masses) 60,000 is about right. There’s still ongoing debate about the tidal forces point, as well as the planets source(s) of light and warmth. Some have argued that the accretion disk would be enough, but that’s not at all clear, because if the disk—which clocks in a temperature somewhere between 1 million and 100 million Kelvin—where hot (and transitively bright) enough to light up the planet, it should have fried Coop instantly when he jumped into the black hole.

But, despite all my yammering in the previous article, the science isn’t the point here. It’s pretty much been established (or at least it feels like it’s been established) that there were no exceptionally bad scientific blunders in the movie. Okay, the ice clouds were pretty bad, and the jury is still out on the tidal forces, but still—all in all not too shabby. Now, since the ratio of movie critics to people qualified to talk about the science is humungous, most of the criticism has been about the plot. So let me address that, in particular the claims of rehashed plot devices and “cheesiness”.

The Plot

Imagine someone who never watches basketball goes to see LeBron James play at MSG. During the game, James dunks over people, sets up and finishes alley-oops, makes incredible steals, etc. To a regular basketball fan, these things are cool, but perhaps not amazing; however, to someone who has never seen these things before, watching LeBron James dunk over three defenders like they don’t even exist is probably mind-shattering.

I suspect a similar thing happens with sci-fi movies: veteran sci-fi fans go to see a huge blockbuster flick like Interstellar and come out feeling somewhat cheated, because they’ve already seen those plot devices used before. Wormholes, twin paradox, science poised again morality, you name it. But to someone who doesn’t regularly watch or read sci-fi, it’s all fresh and exciting. And despite the slightly questionable science, I suspect the movie does more good than harm in the way of advertising, because it at least lets people know that amazing things like time dilation and black holes and higher dimensions really do exist, in a tangible and very real way.

Now for the plot and the cheese. Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of Swiss and Cheddar in the movie. Especially the whole spiel about love being an actual higher dimension that transcends space and time—pure cringe. And the cheap double entendres— like “Dr.Mann is Man’s worse enemy”—wasn’t really helping the movie’s attempt at depth.  The phrase “solving gravity”, which was applied liberally throughout the movie, is also pretty bad. But again, keep in mind the audience Nolan is trying to reach: his purported goal is to revive the mid-20th century enthusiasm people had for space flight. So let’s face it: he needed to pander a little. He needed the cheese in there to hold people’s focus and give them something to vibe with: if he didn’t include the stuff about love and the importance of family, the entire movie would be full of strange and unfamiliar entities, and would most likely just bore non-scifi fans. Not a good recipe for a blockbuster.

Same argument goes for the plot. Some critics are complaining that the twist at the end could be seen from a million miles away. I disagree. It could only be seen from a million miles away if you’re already well versed in science fiction. For example, a lot of the film’s concepts (such as 4+ dimensional being) were lifted straight out of Vonnegut books (such as Slaughter-House 5). So if you’ve read those, you could probably predict where the movie was headed before the non-initiated around you—woopdie doo. Let me repeat: this movie was not made exclusively for sci-fi fans. At least that’s what Nolan says. It if it was made only for sci-fi fans, we would be having a different conversation right now.

Furthermore, I don’t think the characters lacked depth. Specifically, critics are focusing on Coop’s quick decision to leave his family behind and go pilot the ship, but I thought that was a good stylistic call on Nolan’s part. It shows that Coop, despite being an ardent family man, still has an empathy that extends to those not in his immediate life circle. His “rash” decision lets the viewer roughly know the order of his priorities.

FIN

So in conclusion, I don’t know if it’s only because I saw the movie three rows from an IMAX screen, or because I just really wanted to like it, but I don’t care: I loved it. I was captivated throughout the entire film, I was emotionally involved with the character’s main and side missions (i.e Coop wanting to see his family again) and I thought the film offered an overall optimistic and realistic view for our future.

Leo Kozachkov (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Leo KovachkovLeo Kozachkov is an undergraduate at Rutgers University, studying physics and mathematics. He is currently working as an Aresty Research Assistant under Professor Thomas V. Papathomas. He enjoys writing, drawing, creating/playing music, going on long walks with his beloved dog, and reading/hoarding books. His grandest hopes are to discover a new physical law, have a mathematical theorem feature his last name, and to write many books.

5 responses to “Did Interstellar Live Up to its Hard Sci-Fi Hype? Review of Nolan’s Space Opera

  1. I wanted to like it more than I actually did. My problem was the science, and it wasn’t the black hole part, either. I can suspend my disbelief as long as they keep consistent on how science works in the fictional universe of the movie.

    One thing that really bothered me was that their ship took a massive multi-stage rocket to escape Earth’s gravity well, and then required two years to get to Saturn, in cryo-sleep. So they’ve set that up at the start. But then once past the wormhole, they throw out all of this setup. They have a lander that can take off without extra stages, not just from an Earth-size planet, but one in the gravity well of a super-massive black hole! They are also travelling between planets that aren’t even in the same star system, and not using cryo-sleep to get there. I would have been OK with all of this, if they hadn’t been so realistic at the start. Just have their lander take off from Earth like a plane, and handwave the trip to Saturn down to a few weeks, and at least the rest would have fit. As it is, I was facepalming just too much to really get into the movie.

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    • I had the same problem, but I watched the movie twice at the cinemas, and I have to say that Nolan didnt mention the planets in that they were visiting were from different systems. In fact all the 13 planets from the lazarus mission were surrounding the black hole, and that the Edmunds planet was in the “Goldilocks zone” of the black hole, so whatever light was around that black hole would be suffice. About the fuel, I thought they were quite consistent about it. They didn’t use fuel, but the centrifugal force from the black hole to escape it’s gravity. Thats why it takes 51 earth years for them to escape black hole.

      Thats just my thoughts on science in the movie, yea some of the things were still a bit iffy- but oh well, it’s a sci-fi. Whatever doesn’t fit science, it fits in fiction.

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