For those who don’t know me, I am an amateur astronomer and also a writer, drawn to scifi.
I’ve been waiting for Interstellar for a very long time because of three reasons. First of all the director, Christopher Nolan. I like the world of, so not the plot of Inception, the movie gave me a lot to think about and I still think about it though I will not watch the movie again. It is better this way. A second reason is Hans Zimmer, no need to explain this. And of course the promise that Interstellar will be one of the greatests of space sci-fis. Needless to say I had very high hopes for this movie.
I checked out all the trailers and found pictures of the black hole that resembled a neutron star rendition I have on my wall so I looked it up and found a backstage where the creators explained how this is the most accurate rendition of a black hole in movie history. This is why I thought: finally, a great, hard sci-fi, where fuel is expensive, movement is slow, humans are fragile yet a great story can unfold. I thought – based on what the trailers and the science videos promised – that this movie goes beyond cardboard stages, that physics has a central role.
Then I watched the movie. Despite the visuals I was disappointed for the movie itself deceived me.
I’m going to speak mostly about this deception, the main reason I didn’t like this movie, and avoid subjects like plot holes, cheesiness, probably treated by others – of which I am well aware, just don’t want to write about.
Let’s say I have to mention Gravity as a recent movie in the sci-fi genre that claims to be trying to be realistic and is very visual. I mentioned it, so let’s move on.
What is beautiful in Interstellar
Anyone can see pictures sent back by the Cassini space probe currently orbiting Saturn. There are some astonishing pictures, with tiny or not so tiny moons being dwarfed by the ringed gas giant filling the entire frame. Cassini is not sci-fi, it is science fact. The Saturn scene where the space ship Endurance drifts in front of the planet must have been inspired by these Cassini views. I withheld my breath at that point. However, I knew Jupiter is the real king of the planets, though not as emblematic, and Jupiter is associated with Kubrick’s work, so is taken… so OK, let this movie’s planet be Saturn.
The water planet with the sea being knee high is just pure visual poetry. It is like a dream, people being more isolated than in space. It is like a lucid dream, consciousness ending with the outer layers of the space suit humans are wearing. Time is also distorted, like in a dream. The void looks like air, our natural habitat, while water is something alien despite the fact that we drink it – Nolan knows his way around dreams and the subconscious, as he proved in Inception. A man in the middle of endless water is much more lonely than a man floating in space (to our senses, not in a scientific way). That planet is poetry.
The black hole is beautiful in a very complex way. It is visually appealing and I feel intellectually safe because I feel the shapes are distorted in the right way. There is no conflict between what I see and what I know about black holes. (Let’s forget about such details as there should be some red shift near the event horizon making the accretion disk look more like an X-ray to long wave radio full spectrum, visually a rainbow, than an orange hued flow.) There is a citizen scientist project asking people like you and me to identify Einstein-rings on space photos, ie. one has to find patterns of distorted light, a fenomenon occuring when a foreground object bends the background object’s light. This is how Interstellar’s black hole looks like. Beautiful.
In an intellectual way I find it beautiful that the movie – the beginning of the movie at least – depicts humans as being small when compared to the forces of nature. The movie is set in the near future, cryogenics is real, artificial gravity can be made by making the space station / space ship rotate. Yet huge amounts of fuel and at least two rocket stages are needed to get people out in space, so it’s not like turning a key and hitting the gas pedal. Thrusters operate in a Kubrick-style silence telling the viewer that he doesn’t have to cancel his scientific knowledge. This movie tries to be real. Reaching Saturn in two years? It took Cassini 7 years and three planets to reach Saturn, Endurance accelerates only at Mars, but let’s say they are hurried and have more fuel than present day NASA has. After all, they are not planning to drop a probe on Titan, they are saving mankind.
Saturn is where the logic is left behind
So the things above made me believe that the movie will try to remain realistic. That it won’t violate the most basic laws of science just to get a plot device. That Interstellar will remain faithful to the rules the movie itself set up in its first part. On the contrary, hence my disappointment.
I feel the need to state this again: I don’t have a problem with movies bending or disregarding science facts. I don’t have a problem with the sounds space fighters make – cause those movies don’t pretend to be somethign they are not. I don’t have a problem with people travelling through intergalactic wormholes powered by a one inch capsule which is even safe to touch (Stargate SG-1) if technoblabla dilutes the scientific rigour. But I have a problem with a movie that claims at first that you can’t leave a gravity well without firing your rockets like hell, and then without any notice the characters do just that. I mean can’t walk on water then I can – without becoming a superhero/saint.
1) The black hole. As I said, it’s beautiful both visually and intelectually. Time dilation, SG-1 did this before, so not new but nice. However, the black hole has an accretion disk which has no source (like a nearby star). Remember, the movie itself invites you to compare it to science facts, or at least science facts stated at the beginning of the movie. OK, carry on. Accretion disks emit mainly X-rays which are by any measure just deadly (see Cygnus X1), so it’s silly the protagonists can wander around without getting fried. OK, carry on. Is Gargantua a stellar massed black hole? They say it’s huge and stable, with a planet orbiting right next to it’s event horizon. So, a back of a napkin math shows that a stellar mass compacted to a point had an event horizon of about 4 km. Place a planet at 10 km from the center, 6 from the horizon (just outside, right?), make the planet Earth sized (about 10k km) and call the unit of gravity Gargantua – since it has a G. You get 1 Gargantua on the far side and 1 million on the side facing the black hole. Noone liked this planet which got spagettified anyways. OK, carry on. So it must be a supermassive black hole, like in the center of our galaxy which, in theory, allows one to pass the event horizon without getting spagettified. Our own supermassive black hole is about 4 million solar masses, this means an event horizon corresponding to a sphere of about 24 million km in diameter which is indeed of planetary orbit size though well below the orbit of Mercury. So it has to be a supermassive black hole. But let’s shelve this idea.
They use the rotating black hole in a slingshot(?) manuever. Uhm… No matter how big or small a black hole is, near the event horizon acts the same amount of gravitational force, by definition. One that pulls back everything, even light. So we have a space ship capable of accelerating to about 85,000 km/h (see later) overcoming the 1 billion km/h speed space itself is falling into the black hole near the event horizon. And it does this by firing some rockets (enough to overcome Earth’s minuscule gravity) and detaching some modules. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I calculated all this in the theater – but after a two year Earth-Saturn journey the movie depicts, and after two stages needed to launch their spaceship into orbit, this scene made me sigh and roll my eyes. This is like claiming – invoking Newton – that if I throw my backpack away with a not so great force, I can fly to the Moon in no time. And I am not exagerating.
There is no red shift at all in the movie, the signals from the time dilated planet are just echoed. OK, carry on.
I don’t care about what the inside of a black hole looked like. That’s pure fantasy and it is up to the director. And he did a great job at showing us hints of how time looked like if it was a spacial dimension. But interacting with it in the way the movie shows is just… qualmish. See later.
So let’s take another look at our black hole from the perspective of time. One hour being translated to seven years, the movie claims. This means there is a huge difference in the gravity involved. So either the distances are huge (from the space ship to the planet), and I mean huge, dwarfing the Earth-Saturn travel time; or the black hole is small, gravity changing with each step you take. OK, carry on. Most of these are just itches and can be scratched by a good movie.
2) The planets. These are Earth-like planets with masses comparable to those of Venus and a super-Earth (surface gravity is claimed to be 130% and 80% on the two planets the crew visits). Yet no heavy duty rockets are needed to get off these planets, a light shuttle is suitable for even a planetary car chase. I mean come on, the movie itself stated you need heavy rockets for a liftoff and now you suddenly don’t. If they left Earth with some sort of usable miracle engine, it would have been consistent. This way it is just a plot (black) hole.
By the way, a surface gravity of 1.3 G means a 70 kg naked human carries an extra 21 kg, like a backpack. But the astronauts are not naked, space suits weight 21-54 kg, meaning that the worst case scenario is a 156 kg weight for a skeleton and muscles designed to support 70 kg. Even their head had an extra, like a water filled 2 kg helmet, all the mass wobbling on a neck not designed for this stress. Don’t try this at home, just imagine you slipped having this heavy helmet, carrying a sack of flour and a sack of sugar. Note they had no powered exoskeletons according to the movie.
3) Distances. The journey to Saturn takes a realistic two years. This means a minimum of (I rounded the values) 1.5 billion km / (730 * 24 hours ), 85,000 km/h. Note that not all the speed comes from the rockets, for they execute a manuever near Mars. But our solar system is just a backyard. A supermassive black hole where you get a huge factor of time dilation means a huge, a really huge neighborhood not only in distances but in fuel costs.
4) Causality. This is an itch that cannot be srcatched. What the movie claims to have happened is this: future humans change the past for a present human to change the past to get to the past modifying upcoming future in a way that future humans could change the past… In other words there is a future coming from nowhere which creates its own past. This is an ontological paradox (the bootstrap paradox) and is similar to asking a young man with no work experience to show work experience in order to get a job. Without the time travel, no future gets unfolded where (when) time travel gets possible. Remember, the movie claimed to be scientifically accurate on its beginning. So either the whole plot is based on fate, past cannot be changed to avoid paradoxes, thus the future is set, thus no drama at all, or it is complete bullshit.
What if it is fate with no time paradoxes and we are shown the already set events as a drama because of our limited knowledge? A question raised by the way the movie starts with the documentary flashbacks we get to know by the end of the movie that are placed in a museum aboard the space station. Well then, what do you need love for??? This is pure physics at a sub-particle level, no human stuff, no free will and no matter how much you love or hate or ignore or whatever, all events are set, down to the atoms involved in the plot.
Either way, love does not transcende anything.
By the way, yesterday during the Philae landing a guy said: Hollywood is good, but ESA is better. To my surprise I have to agree this time.
Long story short, this movie is a liar hiding behind authority
It is not the contradicitons with the external world that make me dislike Interstellar, but those incoherencies it drags along or throws, without remorse, into our face. The movie promises to be a hard science fiction then not only forgets about this but forces the viewer to swallow enormous stupidities just to see a father and a child together.
Movies that don’t claim to be hard scifi, are like OK, I sit back and enjoy the plot, be it a time travelling robot with a strange accent, wanting to kill us all, or some tall, laboured breathing, twisted dude with lightsabers or a bunch of workers from an oil rig saving the world. For these movies do leave the veil on the details and politely ask me to believe them and don’t ask questions. Interstellar tells me it is factual future reality, fuel is far from cheap, leaving the planet is far from cheap, interplanetary travel is painfully long. Then slaps me with an interplanetary car chase.
So it is a good movie. It’s cheesy, the world needs to be saved, epic, the little girl cries. It’s a movie where you can pass a wormhole, but the decisive fight is still with your fists. It’s a movie about far future Americans saving near future Americans, for which you need a huge egoed good guy, a cowboy, captain Kirk… I mean Cooper. It is a movie where human stupidity and the sheer power of will is greater than the time dilating pull of a supermassive black hole. And for this plot they rendered 800 terabytes of data, some frames for 100 hours, just to get an „accurate” look at a black hole.
In my humble opinion just any cheap black hole rendition would have done the job, without being scientifically pretentious, without wasting the time of physicists, cause after all, all they do in this movie is ignore their own rules, pull up their socks and save the world.