Science and fiction: It’s (almost) time for Interstellar

Director Christopher Nolan played with time in two previous movies: the riddling film Memento (2000), which was told backwards as a way of simulating the fragmentary experience of a man who could form no long-term memories, and Inception (2010), in which nested mind-trips all took place on different time scales. Nolan is again toying with temporality in Interstellar, it seems.

In the current fashion, everyone wants to talk about the movie ahead of time, before it opens, and a good deal of the advance talk concerns something the trailers don’t even hint at—the importance in the film’s story of relativistic time effects produced by mass and/or velocity. The Guardian may have been first, publishing in June 2013 an interview with physicist Kip Thorne discussing his contributions to the film. That article predicted that “The film will splash one of Thorne’s big ideas—traversable wormholes through space and time—across popular culture.” More recently, physicist Sean Carroll, who has written extensively on the arrow of time, discussed the film’s scientific background in a blog post and observed, “there’s good reason to believe that this film will have some of the most realistic physics of any recent blockbuster we’ve seen.” The Science Channel, which dismayingly has dwelt on chupacabras and demonic possession in its Unexplained Files show, restored some polish to its image with an hour-long documentary last week called The Science of Interstellar. It doesn’t seem to be available online, but according to Carroll, who appears in it to good effect, the program will be repeated on the Discovery channel Thursday night (see his post for details). And Wired magazine got in on the game with a lengthy article in its November issue that’s now online. For anyone with even an intro-level familiarity with physics, the article might seem pretty gee-whiz, but it does include some nifty graphics and (in the online version) a video featurette, as well as a discussion of how Thorne and the visual-effects team discovered something unexpected about how a black hole might look.

If you want to travel to another solar system—in search of another habitable planet, say, which is what Interstellar’s central character is doing—it’s easy to see why a wormhole would be handy: as a cosmic shortcut. This isn’t a new idea even in popular culture; a few decades back, Carl Sagan relied on the possibility in Contact (book 1985, film 1997), as Carroll’s post mentions. It’s less clear why a black hole needs to be part of the story. The only assessment of the film that I happen to have come across, published in the November-December issue of Film Comment and available online here, elegantly discusses that element of the plot without being precise on the details. (Be aware that the article is not a review but a full-fledged piece of criticism, by which I mean that it takes the entire film as its proper subject.) The Film Comment analysis suggests to me that Interstellar may rely on a notion about time travel which proposes that, while you can’t visit the past to prevent your present from coming about, you may be able to cause the present. As Paul Nahin’s book Time Machines put it, you can’t kill your grandfather, but “it is logically possible that you could be the one who introduces your grandfather to your grandmother.”

Despite all the talk about whether and how Interstellar gets the science right, the main question for me will be not its science but its sense. When Stanley Kubrick was filming The Shining, he reportedly responded to Jack Nicholson’s effort to be believable with this retort: “It may be real, but it isn’t interesting.” For my taste, Christopher Nolan has sometimes gone too far in the other direction; New Yorker critic Anthony Lane wrote in 2012 of the filmmaker’s De Mille–like devotion to spectacle and complained of “the curious rule that governs Nolan’s oeuvre: the heavier the emotion, the less it means to us.” Has Nolan finally gotten the balance right? Time will tell: viewers in most countries can see the film this week.


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