Neil Degrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, and Katie Mack have all commented on the various scientific holes in the movie Interstellar.
I especially liked Tyson’s child-like question “Why didn’t they just build the wormhole closer to the earth?” Great question!
Katie Mack provides a particularly good assessment of the science in Interstellar. She rated it as satisfactory.
Phil Plait did not complain too much about the science but he did think the plot got a little tangled. The only way in which I disagree with Phil is that I thought he was far too nice in his review. I took issue with the movie for a similar reason to Phil, although my condemnation of the movie below is far more harsh.
In discussing this with a friend we came to the mutual conclusion that those who wrote the script–reportedly Christopher Nolan and his brother–failed to tell one coherent story. Instead they attempted to shoehorn a potentially good science fiction story into another story meant to tug at our heartstrings. Think a fusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey with Terms of Endearment.
The problems with this movie, at least from a script perspective, were minimized by excellent performances, fantastic special effects–though not as awesome as I had expected, and the fact that they appeared to get most of the science right while pushing the envelope.
It’s hard to know where to start when it comes to listing why this movie was so bad. I will do it chronologically, and only focus on three things, even though there are many more things that could be criticized.
Beware: If you have not seen the movie the information below may spoil it for you.
WHY IS THE EARTH DYING?
We are told at the beginning of the movie that the earth is becoming an unsustainable habitat, that certain crops can no longer be grown and that all the others will soon fail. In a conversation between old Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) and former NASA pilot Coop (Matthew McConaughey) we even get a little glimpse into why this is happening: not enough nitrogen can be retained in the soil. The audience is left to assume that it is probably global warming taking its final toll. The world is becoming one big dust bowl. There is even a scene in which Brand and Cooper walk past a lab where someone is testing some crops. This appears to serve only as a backdrop against their conversation about how the planet is dying and the only option is for mankind to escape to the stars.
There is another scene involving some disciplinary action at Murphy Cooper’s school. Murphy is the daughter of the main character, Coop. In this scene we learn that history classes of the future will teach that the Apollo missions to the moon were a hoax. Murphy has apparently gotten into a fight with her classmates over this false history. Of course, none of this sits well with Coop, the former NASA test pilot. He rewards his daughter with a baseball game because she has defended the truth. The game, though, is cut short by one of the huge and frequent dust storms that now plague the planet.
All of this, including the mysterious GPS coordinates that lead Coop to the underground secret NASA project, convinces Coop that he must abandon his family and lead one of the NASA missions through a wormhole that was discovered fifty years previous to the start of the movie’s timeline. These missions are meant to find another habitable planet which can be colonized by what remains of mankind, or to implement what is called “Plan B”. Coop goes believing “Plan A” may save his family and many others. Failing that he will have the task of implementing “Plan B,” rebooting the human species through the use of cold-storage embryos and in vitro fertilization.
SO, WHERE DID THIS WORMHOLE COME FROM?
In the movie we are told that a wormhole is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, that it must have been created by someone who knows an awful lot about physics.
The problem, and this is a script problem more than a science problem, is that at the end of the movie it is suggested that humanity itself created the wormhole using information that Coop sends back to them after he allows himself to get sucked into a black hole.
Katie Mack addresses this issue in the article mentioned above, suggesting the enigmatic formula that old Dr. Brand is working on might be String Theory, or something else that unifies gravity and the quantum world. Again, ignoring this scientific peccadillo, the script leads us in a pretty specific direction: the belief that mankind is the source of the wormhole and of the subsequent tesseract that Coop finds himself in when he falls into the black hole.
The problem with this idea is that the wormhole is said to appear fifty years prior to when Coop takes on his mission. So, if the quantum data needed to complete Professor Brand’s enigmatic formula is needed to create the wormhole then we have a timeline paradox in the script, because the wormhole cannot be created without the quantum data and the quantum data cannot be obtained without the wormhole.
There is also the implication that launching the space habitat, which appears later in the movie as it orbits Saturn, will also depend on Professor Brand’s formula. This again suggests that the formula will result in some as yet unfathomable control over gravity. How else would they launch that huge habitat into space without rockets? (This level of scientific understanding raises other question like why mankind doesn’t stay on Earth and use this new knowledge to rehabilitate the planet? But, hey, let’s assume for the sake of the story that the planet is just too far gone.)
One of the biggest mistakes, in my opinion, was not clearly delineating that the wormhole was created by some benefactor who chooses to remain anonymous. Maybe it was put there by the sole remaining individual of an ancient people that can manipulate time and space, an individual “Who” has a particular fondness for the human race? By suggesting, as Coop does while in the black hole, that a future we created both the wormhole and the tesseract by using the same quantum data he is about to send to Earth we are hurled into a logical paradox within the movie’s timeline. Unfortunately, it’s not the only one.
Of course, we could give the Nolan brothers the benefit of the doubt and say that they meant for the wormhole and tesseract to be thought of as a gift from aliens. But if that is true then why not make it obvious? And why didn’t the aliens put the mouth of the wormhole closer to the earth, as Tyson asked? Even more important why wouldn’t these aliens make communicating with the young Murphy Cooper a little easier? Such know-how clearly would not be limited to banging against a bookshelf to communicate, would it?
I suspect it all had something to do with the authors’ desire to create a story where humanity is forced to become their own salvation. The unreasonable adherence to this proposition, though, boxed the writers in and blinded them to the timeline paradoxes they were creating.
Up to this point much could be forgiven, even the odd oral history segments that seemed out of place until the very end of the movie. Though, even then they were too cutesy. However, the idea that is presented next is probably the most egregious intellectual violation of the movie. I speak of the merging of the human love experience with what can only be described as some king of unified field theory. (If you want to know a little more about this New Age silliness read my post about Ervin Laszlo’s Grand Unified Bunk.)
WHAT’S LOVE GOTTA DO WITH IT?
Where the script truly falls off a cliff is when science and the angst of human meaning are forced together like some kind of existential turducken. However, instead of two turkeys and a duck we take human affection, gravity, and quantum dynamics then stuff them into a script called Interstellar.
The love stories that supposedly prove stronger than the force of gravity build slowly–too slowly in my opinion. We are hammered over the head with evidence of Coop’s infinite love for his daughter in the first half hour of the movie. Might it be a love that transcends space, time, and even gravity?
This idea of human love permeating the universe rises in an even slower crescendo during a conversation in which the crew has to decide the fate of another party to the mission. The young Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) is in love with one of the mission captains who left years before the present crew. Should she be able to vote for where they go next if it means she is biased in going to the third planet? By the way, she is pining for a man she hasn’t seen now in 30 years because of a time dilation incident that has just occurred in the movie.
The lovelorn Dr. Brand loses the vote and they end up on a planet where the psychotic Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) is curious to watch Coop suffocate. Will Coop see his family flash before his eyes as he dies? The psychologically unbalanced Dr. Mann thinks he can watch–but no! No, he just can’t watch! Besides, he’s on a schedule. He has to steal Coop’s ship so he can save his own skin. After all, he is a man (Mann) who has lost all hope in the transcendent power of love and he has lied about the planet he is on in order to get rescued. He’s now got to cover his ass by leaving the rest for dead.
The chief problem with the Interstellar script is that the writers did not decide which story they wanted to tell from the beginning. It reminds me of a scene in the movie Wonder Boys (2000). At one point in this movie Professor Grady Tripp loses his 2600-plus-paged manuscript. Asked afterward what the story was about, Grady cannot put it into words. It takes a pugilistic expectant father to point out the absurdity of writing a story that you can’t describe in a sixty-second pitch.
The Nolan brothers should have decided to tell either a love story or a science fiction story. It’s not that the twain can never meet, but one of them always has to take a backseat.
Armageddon (1998), a movie of comparable length, and a somewhat better movie than Interstellar, does not get trapped into telling a story that relies on science or complicated timelines. In that movie the earth is threatened by an asteroid and a ragtag team of heroes is quickly assembled to meet the threat. The asteroid threat is merely a maguffin, a device used to move along the plot, which is really a story about letting go, loss, sacrifice, loyalty, and love.
Interstellar could have been a better movie, and much shorter, had it merely followed the rule of staying focused. For example, we could have met our main characters in space as they were waking up to travel through the wormhole. Matthew McConaughey’s brilliant performance as Coop is displayed when he watches decades of communications from his family in a single sitting. This scene would have been enough to impress on us Coop’s personal sacrifice. Tears would have easily welled up in the eyes of any sufficiently sentimental theatergoer. I got a little misty myself.
Each of the visits to the three planets that were thought habitable could have kept the movie going. The first planet may have needed the ax. After all, it seemed to be there only for the purpose of setting the stage for Coop’s imminent emotional distress resulting from time dilation.
Yes, this would have meant stretching out the timeline a bit once the team got through the wormhole, but I think an older, more grizzled Coop would have been a much better character at the end of the movie. Instead, we get a tanned and well-moussed Coop waking up a further forty years into his own timeline–now about seventy years after originally leaving Earth. He then sets off in search of the dewy-eyed young Dr. Brand, who is supposedly all alone on the third planet. Her lover is apparently dead, at least this is what we are led to believe in a breakaway scene. Is her loneliness calling out to Coop over time and space?
By the way, at the end of the movie wouldn’t young Dr. Brand also be forty years older than Coop, nearly the same age as his now ancient daughter, who looked around eighty? Is this yet another timeline problem? Probably.
It is unfortunate but this movie fails as both science fiction and as a story about love. It attempts to fuse the two in a way that makes science seem a bit silly, much like all the new age ideas about the Akashic field and its relationship to quantum electrodynamics. I suspect the Nolan boys know all about this pseudo-scientific crap.
This movie fails as a story about love too because we do not really get the satisfaction of seeing or feeling how truly broken each character has become because of their sacrifice and suffering, or how renewed they might have been by love. Instead we are treated to a sixty-second reunion between Coop and his now ancient daughter who then tells him to leap back through the wormhole into the waiting arms of young Dr. Brand. Of course, how his daughter knows this woman is even alive or whether Coop and Brand have bonded is never explained. Maybe it is the love of the human heart again, communicating through all of space and time? Or, maybe the Nolan brothers just needed to wrap up a story neither of them really knew how to end?