I have tried hard the past week to keep myself from writing about Interstellar, but it’s come to the point where I give up, and will indulge myself. I consider it indulging myself since I have never actually written a blog entry about a single sample movie, using just one case as a subject. The only time I have come close is a spectacularly ill-received rant two years ago where I related Christopher Nolan’s depiction of Batman to the role of the United Nations in international relations (if you didn’t like that, you sure as hell won’t like this!). Interstellar is another Nolan movie, and that is no coincidence. Rather surprisingly, his big-budget movies resonate long after the credits roll, and the fact that they are blockbusters makes it all the more powerful, since you don’t really expect to see any meaningful ideas put forward in this type of loud, effects-heavy movie. Interstellar indeed had some idea that linger in the brain and that I have ended up liking rather a lot. By saying that I like these ideas of course really means that I agree with the line of thinking, and consider it close to my own ideas and opinions, and naturally I am a big fan of those (they are my favourite). Just to clarify, this blog is about the ideas put forward in Interstellar, rather than actually the quality of the movie, which has proved quite divisive: some people love it, some people hate it. I am not discussing here whether it was a good movie or a bad movie, nor am I ranting about the scientific legitimacy of the theoretical physics writ large that dominate the movies’ dramatic beats. This isn’t about the science of Interstellar, it is about Interstellar and Science. That’s because Interstellar is all about the idea that science, specifically the pursuit and accumulation of knowledge, makes us immortal.
The importance of science dominates the early earthbound portion of Interstellar, where Matthew McConnaughey struggles to give his children a scientific education in the face of opposition from their school teachers, who don’t see the value in overeducating people in this different, desperate post-World War III world of theirs. Similarly, NASA has had to go into hiding in order to continue working, as the US government fears public revolt if tax money that could be spent on food production is wasted on far-flung theoretical research. As the plot moves into the second phase and the astronaut crew leaves earth, this theme is subtly reinforced by the constant stream of technological and theoretical achievements that enable the mission to travel between galaxies. The power of science is so great that in all the worlds visited, the protagonists never encounter anything that truly surprises them: all has been predicted using generations of cumulated knowledge. The team failed to predict Matt Damon’s demons, which is something we can all understand, as it is human nature to be unpredictable and selfish. The only other event that catches them off guard are giant, crushing waves caused by an immensely strong gravitational pull. This is explained by a simple calculation error in applying Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to an actual physical world: bad science. Even the mind-bending events of the movies third act are predicted and explained by Anne Hathaway (who explains the idea of a plane of existence where time can be transcended) and the giant Swiss army knife that is the TARS robot, who, using his computer brain filled with the entirety of human knowledge, can predict possible outcomes of travelling too close to a black hole.
This leads us of course to The Tesseract. McConnaugheys character is pulled into the theoretical realm that transcends space and time. He can here see various stages of his daughters childhood through the shelves of books on her wall, and eventually learns to communicate his experienced knowledge using gravity to manipulate the clock hands of a watch into storing Morse code. Yes, a man, completely outside of any sense of space or time, communicates with the next generation of humanity through a library filled with books and the knowledge contained within. He can travel to any point in time, but can only look out through the library in his daughters room, through the books he has helped her accumulate. To question the theory behind this extra-dimensional encounter completely misses the point. Although this time transcendence tesseract is actually a perfectly viable scientific theory (many astrophysicists argue that it is actually more real than anything we perceive in our everyday existence), its inclusion here serves as the climax and central metaphor in Nolan’s message for Interstellar. It’s a long aul movie, and an hour before The Tesseract, we have Anne Hathaway, in her function as Expositioner General, batting away the idea that time is a constant thing in the universe, and all in existence is subject to its laws. On some dimensional plane, she explains, it may be possible to walk through time just as we can climb a mountain. Again, this idea is theoretically sound: it just does not matter to us because time is just such a powerful force in our plane of existence. In a similar way, I don’t think too much about surface tension in water: our bodily mass makes it quite irrelevant to us, but it sure as hell matters a lot to billions of tiny water-dwelling insects. That world of walking on water is all these insects know of, yet a person could go through their whole lives quite easily without ever knowing that surface tension exists: it’s irrelevant to everyday existence. So don’t think too much about extra dimensions, they probably will never affect you.
But Nolan does go there, and his human version of a time transcendence dimension involves a man shouting at his daughter through the books on her shelf. The protagonists here are important, as from a biological point of view, procreation is simply a mechanism to transfer DNA from one generation to the next, ensuring its survival ad infinitum. Because we experience time so profoundly, we experience our own lives as if they are something very profound and specific, but in the grand scheme of things we are just a link in a long unbroken chain of DNA transfers. We can do what we wish in our lives, but there will always be that urge to shuttle our DNA through to another generation before it dies with us. That’s quite a depressing idea, implying that all existence is meaningless, we are merely passenger vessels for directionless DNA that only cares about surviving. But there is a way that we can transcend our mortal existence, which is by using our short years on this earth to discover and accumulate knowledge, knowledge that is passed down and used by generations to come. Nolan’s tesseract represents the science, art, literature and accumulated knowledge of humanity, and argues that as well as preserving the immortal DNA, we are also transfer vessels of something more profound, we are vessels of humanity. And this humanity, this long, unbroken chain of the existence of humanity can communicate with us from any bookshelf, in any place, at any time. Science therefore, is our tesseract.
Now I can well understand if I have lost a few readers in this past thousand words. As I explained, it was an indulgence, and one that should have been much shorter. After much deliberation, I finally decided to write it because I realised that this interpretation was hidden in a movie that had key elements from the Theory of General Relativity as major plot points, and has inspired public debate in popular culture about the validity of these scientific claims. That’s not bad from a $170m Hollywood Blockbuster. If every big budget Hollywood movie contained half the level of intellectual consideration that Nolan injects into his projects, popular culture would no doubt be in a better place. My last blog entry was concerned with the coming domination of megafranchises within the Hollywood movie studios, and this provides much to contrast with the movies of Christopher Nolan. No $170m Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is concerned with more than expanding the plot to facilitate more and more characters that can later launch their own $170m movie, and there is no reason to believe any of the other megafranchises will be any less derivative. The megafranchise era also signals the end of one of my favourite eras in the history of Hollywood Blockbusters, that of the existential superhero. The shining example in this era was Christopher Nolans Dark Knight Trilogy, an interpretation of Batman that some eminent scholars argue relates the morose superhero to prominent supra-national organisations. This era is gone however, and now superheroes are simply employees of some giant corporate-controlled universe, one whose only purpose is to expand. By the looks of Interstellar however, it still seems like there is solid financial backing to the movies of Christopher Nolan, and I hope this continues into the future for probably the most ambitious filmmaker ever to be given over $100m to make a movie.
Coming next week: The Moral Ambiguity of Thor: The Dark World