I keep meaning to blog about “Interstellar,” but it feels like I’m launching a dandelion seed in a hurricane. One’s own platform, the little digital squirt gun, seems unequal to the Death Star that is the Hollywood publicity machinery. Cover of TIME magazine, that kind of thing. Matthew McConaughey is on all the other magazine covers, in addition to being in those Lincoln ads. A couple of weeks ago the movie-makers rented out the National Air and Space Museum for an IMAX theater premiere, with dashing director Christopher Nolan and his top line of movie stars in attendance. I staked out a prime seat in the back row, near the exit, in case I couldn’t survive the entire 167-minute movie. I did — and enjoyed it, in the main, though may have sprained my eyeballs from rolling them so violently.
We’re talking a big movie, about big topics: Human destiny. Colonization of the universe. The fate of the Earth. I’m not sure the world needs to know why I think that this movie, despite visual virtues and some fun parts, is flawed and fundamentally silly. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown. In space no one can hear you blog.
But just to get a couple of points on the record here and thus into the archive: The film strives for scientific credibility (Kip Thorne, the famous Caltech theorist, is a producer), but indulges in all manner of engineering implausibilities. It’s an odd mix: The filmmakers want us to think this might really happen, because, in terms of relativity theory, it’s straight out of a textbook. Thorne, for example, has long said that time travel is possible but you can’t change the past: There’s only one version of spacetime. You can go into the past but only do what you already did, if that makes sense. Fine, but the movie also includes all this space-cowboy stuff, with McConaughey channeling Han Solo and Chuck Yeager, feeling the air as he flies into a completely alien planet, not to mention into wormholes and black holes and somehow never getting spaghettified. At one point he steals a spaceship when no one’s looking. Really? Each plot twist seems unlikely, and then, in the spirit of more-is-better, the movie keeps twisting and turning and juking and jiving, and your implausibility factor gets into scientific notation. I kept thinking to myself, watching McConaughey zoom through the universe,that NASA astronauts are government employees and OSHA would NOT be pleased at some of the risks he was taking. Violations of regulations all over the place.
You’re thinking: Shut up and eat your popcorn.
I’m thinking: Fine, it’s only a movie, but don’t tell me it’s scientifically nutritious.
The movie has some other problems, like a mathematician shouting “Eureka!” at a crucial moment, which is subject for a whole ‘nother blog item sometime (contrary to popular belief, science and technology generally progress collaboratively and incrementally — sorry to be such a bore about it but that’s the truth). I will confess that I didn’t grasp a couple of the plot elements involving the secret to quantum gravity and Morse Code and whatnot.
But the thing that gnaws at me the most is the film’s terrestrial defeatism, the whole Earth-is-doomed scenario. I know in fashionable circles this is considered highly plausible, with climate change the go-to culprit. The movie invents a “blight” that somehow is going to suck much of the oxygen out of the atmosphere and suffocate humanity; such a thing is ecologically impossible over the kind of short time periods depicted. More broadly, among would-be star trekkers and planet-colonizers (Elon Musk et al) there’s often an implicit message that our goal as human beings ought to be survival on another world after our own is ruined. In “Interstellar” we see an O’Neill space colony where kids can play baseball but where, I’m guessing, the elephants didn’t make the cut, nor the whales, nor most of the other species from Earth.
Really? That’s the best we can do? That’s the happy ending? If Earth dies and humans wind up somewhere else that’s not a W in my book, it’s a big L.