2014 (Christopher Nolan) 9/10
I didn’t really intend on posting movie reviews on my blog namely because there are so many movies out there that I did not want to crowd them out of other things that I could be writing about. Anyway, like everything else, I do write my thoughts about all the the movies that I watch up on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), not that I really spend all that much time watching movies anymore. Secondly, I consider a lot of movies to be little more than entertainment with little in the way of deep themes, however once in a while a film will come along that I feel that the 1000 word limit on IMDB simply does not allow me to fully explore the film at hand. Interstellar is certainly one of those films, and I feel it also makes a worthy addition to my previous post where I looked at Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time. However, before I explore the themes in this film, I’ll say a few things about the film itself.
I’ll try not to reveal too much here, and I should also warn you that in the later part of this post there will be a number of spoilers. If you are reading this to determine whether you should watch this film or not, my simple answer is yes, you should, because it is certainly well worth the three hours that it will take from your life. Anyway, the film is set in the future where the Earth is becoming ever less habitable. The world is struck by ever more severe dust storms and disease and many of the crops have long since vanished. It seems as if humanity’s days are numbered. Just in time a wormhole is discovered near Saturn so a handful of humans are sent off in a spaceship to travel beyond the wormhole to attempt to discover a habitable planet that humanity can colonise and thus begin again.
Art and Direction
I normally don’t talk about what I call the ‘nuts and bolts’ of film making because those aspects really don’t interest me. Anyway, others have already said plenty about this masterpiece of film making on IMDB and all I can say is that I absolutely agree with them. Nolan has certainly exceeded his expectations as a film maker and created a film that will go down as a work of art. This is not surprising since many of us have already seen his Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception, however Interstellar seems to have taken him to a new level.
Matthew McCoCounaughey has never really been an actor that has caught my attention, and prior to seeing this film I was a little sceptical with him playing the lead role, however within the first fifteen minutes my doubts were simply blown away. The way he takes the character of Cooper, especially the struggle between him wanting to be an engineer (and wanting his children to follow in his footsteps), and the necessity of him being a farmer really created depth to his character, and the way he stood out from the other big name actors such as John Lithgow, Michael Caine, and Matt Damon has clearly demonstrated that he certainly has matured in his acting ability.
The one thing about the film making that really stood out is the brilliant use of the soundtrack. The sound, and the music, were merged so well into the film that it literally became a living work of art. Nolan has certainly taken the idea of the film out of the the realm of base entertainment and into the world of art.
The Gravity/Time Correlation
It is interesting that I have recently finished reading Hawking‘s book ‘A brief History of Time’ because, even though Hawking is never mentioned in the film, having a better understanding of modern physics helped me see aspects of the story much more clearly than I would have if I had not read it. For instance, Hawking talks about unified physics though we have yet to reconcile gravitational force with the other forces in the universe.
However it is interesting to note (and this comes out in Einstein) how gravity and time appear to be related. This is something that regularly comes out in Interstellar, namely the relationship between time and gravity. This is clearly seen with regards to the black hole: the closer you get to the gravitational distortion, the slower time goes relative to yourself. Where they only spend an hour on ‘Miller’s Planet’, twenty three years have passed on Earth, to the point that it is believed that the mission has become a failure. This relationship becomes even more relevant near the end of the movie where Cooper passes through the event horizon of the black hole and into the singularity. Granted, much of this is poetic license, and also a form of Deus Ex Machina, however Nolan has extrapolated this correlation to suggest that where we get to a point where gravity is infinite (such as the singularity) one can actually step outside of time and see all points in history at once (though one must remember that since Cooper is still a human who exists in three dimensional time, he was still limited in what he could see or do, which was why the tesseract was created).
The other thing that I note with this correlation is that gravity is the only force that does not have an equal and opposite force – all gravity does is attract (that is it sucks): it does not repel in the same way that the other forces do. The same is the case with time – it only ever goes forward – it does not stop, nor does it go backward. The funny thing is that many of us consider time to be a dimension (and it is even stated with certainty in the film that time is a dimension). However, having spoken to my Dad (who is a theoretical physicist), this may not be the case. As far as he is concerned, time is not a dimension in the same way that the three dimensions that we exist within are dimensions, and thus we cannot understand time in the same way (though time is used in equations, such as velocity being distance by time). However, let us consider something else (and I will leave it at that because I am not really able to go any deeper), what if time is not a dimension, but a force, a force that relentlessly propels us into the future. Maybe that is why there is a correlation between gravity and time – they are both forces that act upon each other.
Tyranny of Distance
Many of the ideas that have come out in Interstellar have been explored previously, which is not surprising considering that there is really ‘nothing new under the sun’. The idea of the ‘Tyranny of Distance’ is a term that is often referred to in Australia where it can take at least a day to travel from one urban centre to another by car. Even in today’s society where there is almost instantaneous communication around the world, us Australians still live in a land where there is really ‘nothing close’.
However, when we take this to the world of science-fiction this concept changes dramatically. On Earth this tyranny has held us hostage simply through distance, however if we go back a couple of hundred years we can get an idea of the difficulties that space travel would offer us today. When the first British colonists first arrived in Australia it took them six months to arrive, which meant that a round trip would take a year. If one wanted to send a message from the Foreign Office in London it would take a year for them to receive a response. Moreso, these delays would even occur during war because Prime Minister Pitt of England did not hear about the victory at Trafalgar until 6th November, two weeks after the battle was fought.
We see this tyranny played out again and again in Interstellar. Despite the Earth being on its last legs, it will still take the explorers two years to reach the Wormhole, and once they are on the other side the ability to communicate becomes even more difficult. Take note of the events on ‘Miller’s Planet’ where they are receiving a regular communication that the planet is habitable, however when they arrive on the surface they discover that time has become so distorted that they do not discover the true nature of the planet until it is too late. As it happened, Miller was only able to get out a single message before his ship was destroyed, yet due to the distortion, that for every hour spent on the planet, seven years passes in normal space, the message that comes out is little more than a feedback loop.
I have read a similar book that deals with this tyranny in space called A World Out of Time by Larry Niven. This book explores the relationship between time and distance and how by taking ourselves out of time we take ourselves out of the gradual change in society, so that when we return we discover that we have returned to an unknown world. The protagonist in this book believed that if he froze himself in chryostasis he could in a way cheat death by waiting until a future time when technology had advanced to a point where they could not only revive him but also cure him of his disease. He was woken up, only to discover that the world that he had known had radically changed. Consider the example of a person who goes into a coma in the 1960s and is woken up in 2014. How much would have changed for that person who had effectively skipped 50 years? Would it not be the case that society had advanced to a point where this person would effectively be an alien?
Probably the best film that I have seen that deals with the loneliness and vastness of space would be 2001 A Space Odyssey. Okay, personally I found this film boring, and when I loudly pronounced that at the film society at my university I was loudly booed out. I still think that is the case, but these days I generally try to keep my opinions to myself amongst a group of people that obviously think otherwise.
However, Interstellar also deals with this issue, and uses the analogy of a round-the-world solo yachtsman. The reason the analogy is used is because the yachtsman is effectively cut off from the rest of the world with the exception of a radio transmitter, and when they land up in trouble, as it can be very difficult to get to them, and even if they can swim, when you are stuck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that is probably going to do you little good.
The analogy is a good one because that is also the case when you are travelling in space. You are alone, cut off from the rest of the world with an incredibly hostile atmosphere (or lack of) inches from you. A simple rupture in the hull of the spacecraft can spell doom. This no doubt was also explored in the film Apollo 13.
Yet being out of touch from any human can also be psychologically damaging. We, as humans, need human interaction or else we go mad. We need humans to help steady our moral compass otherwise we loose the distinction of right and wrong. Moreso we crave human interaction, and to be denied that can be incredibly damaging. This idea is clearly played out in Matt Damon’s character, Dr Mann. His desire to return to Earth, to return to a world populated by humans where he can once again interact has resulted in him going to extreme lengths, including murder, to get there. Humans were never meant to be alone.
I will finish this post off by looking at a couple of areas that could be considered to be a criticism of modern society, and that is our treatment of the environment, and the modern education system.
It is raised very early in the film that the Earth is dying. Many of the staple crops, such as wheat, have been destroyed by a plague known as ‘Blight’. The only staple that remains is corn, and even then that is slowly being destroyed. Rain has ceased to fall and the world is plagued by dust storms of ever increasing ferocity. While this is all speculative, it is still noticeable that our environment is degrading. There are reports that the honey bees are dying enmass, which if they were to become extinct would result the the destruction of many plants that we rely on for our food. There is also the debate over climate change, but even without going down that path, it is clear that our rivers and air are being poisoned, and with deforestation dust storms are becoming ever more frequent during droughts as there is nothing to prevent the wind from picking up the top soil and carrying it away, leaving behind parched and infertile paddocks.
The film warns us that if we do not change our ways, if we do not stop living beyond our means, then this future is going to come upon us all to soon. The problem with the world today is that everybody wants to live a first world lifestyle, yet we do not have enough resources for everybody to live that lifestyle. While it is true that food in first world countries is being tossed away by the container load; food that could be used to feed the millions of starving people elsewhere, our demand for electricity and fancy gadgets means that other resources, such as oil, are being depleted at an exorbitant rate. As long as the attitude of economic growth for growth’s sake remains entrenched in our social conscience, things are only going to get worse, not just for the people trapped in developing countries, but those of us in the first world as well.
Nolan even touches upon the modern education system, as system that does not actually seem to be producing anything of value anymore. In Interstellar smart people’s grades are manipulated so that a university education is prohibitive and many are relegated to being farmers because, well, they need farmers. As such society is not progressing normally. Even the textbooks are being rewritten to deny the moonlanding so that people will not chase fantasies but rather learn to do something practical.
The modern education is very much like that, though it is not necessarily marks that determine somebody’s ability to enter university but rather their ability to fund themselves. However there is also a culture that is promoted at university, a culture where people can have fun and socialise, leaving learning to something that you will get around to doing when you have time. I even noticed, when I was at University, that the student union would even offer to lobby a lecturer to raise your grades if you were not happy with them.
To me university is a place of learning, and while I am not one to knock socialising, I still believe that the main reason that we are there is to learn. However, the other problem with university is what is termed the ‘cost-benefit analysis’. What we are seeing is a movement away from the liberal arts towards disciplines that are designed for economic growth. One does not go to university to learn, one goes to university to get a degree so that they can get a job and start earning a lot of money. This attitude brings about a decline in the liberal arts, such as humanities, and funding tends to flow mostly towards career related courses. However, despite all of the criticism of American Universities, at least they do insist that their students take non-degree related topics so as to expand their horizons.
I certainly haven’t covered all of the ideas in the movie, and the ones that I have I have only touched upon. In fact I feel that I could go on for a lot more exploring ideas such as love also being a force and the gravity equations, however I feel that I have probably said enough about this brilliant film to at least help you think about some of the ideas that come out of it, and maybe spur you on to look deeper (and if you do end up writing a Phd thesis on this film, let me know so I can have a read of it).