Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Interstellar - Science and Fiction

 

Spoiler : (Biggest shocker for me:) Matt Damon’s character scientist/explorer Prof Mann is a negative role in the movie. It is his treachery which kick-starts the  third act of the movie. I didn’t see that coming, never expected Damon's 'small' role to have such a huge impact.

I watched this movie yesterday evening with my wife at a theatre in Bangalore, and I enjoyed it, though not thoroughly. I have been following this movie eagerly, ever since it was announced in 2009. When I heard the screenplay had been leaked, I scrounged the interweb for a copy, and read through. This version was before the Nolan's where involved, and I put this up on my blog so I could share the link with some like minded close friends. In a way , I am glad a big bulk of the original had been removed, the  whole part of the Chinese station, and two blackholes instead of one in the movie…but even the final trimmed version had excess baggage. Too much to explain in even 3 hours running time.

Enough has been said of the science of Interstellar, with experts and novices on both sides debating if the story holds credibility. I have no new thoughts on the matter, as physic and math were not my stronger subjects anyway. Nolan never made movies which where easy to understand, each one of his movies required careful rewinding and rewatching in order to fully grasp, except maybe for 2002's Insomnia. His movies are drenched with science fiction , gadgets and hero-improvising-at-the-last-moment, they are definitely not for the commoner. But here, I felt the movie was stretched too much, over space and time. Interstellar is not a movie about space travel, it is a movie about time travel. And relativity. And the director's vision that love is a fifth (or is it sixth?) dimension ,which can span across space and time. It is a beautiful work of art, and sound. I am sure the second and third acts were shot completely in a green screen, except the icy planet scene, which was shot at Svínafellsjökull glacier.

So here is the story: Prof Brand Senior wants to save the human species. He asks Cooper to take his daughter Amelia Brand and team on a  space mission to find another planet which can sustain life, so that humanity can populate it and continue. The assumption is that he can find a way to transport millions of humans over space-time to the new planet , after travelling back and forth through a wormhole. This he calls plan  A. And like any brilliant scientist, he has a plan B too. Plan B: In the highly unlikely event that the explorers cannot travel back via the blackhole, they drop a population bomb. They are to carry millions of fertilized eggs with them, which they will incubate..and reproduce via surrogates…and grown on the new planet, so that some part of the human species will live and flourish, but not the existing population alive on earth. Exactly how these eggs will be used is not fully explained, it was not in the original script either. But this ridiculous plan is just a failsafe, he assures them, by the time the mission returns, he would have solved the grand equation and found a way to travel both ways easily.

On his deathbed, he reveals to Murphy Cooper, that there never was a plan A. It would never have worked. The only way for humanity to continue was to populate the new planet with the fertilized eggs. There was no return journey possible. But he greatly under-estimated his pilot Cooper, and his fatherly affection to his children, and his gut determination to get back home. Cooper finds a way to survive the long journey, sends a message home to his daughter, thereby providing Murphy with the quantum data to solve Brand's equation completely, and by the time Cooper is found by earthlings again, his age by earth time is 120 years. What felt like days and hours for him in space time was decades back home. He meets his daughter on her deathbed, and then leaves on a final adventure to find Amelia Brand, who has by this time found an earth-like planet capable of sustaining humanity and life.

Review: Interstellar is not Nolan's best work. It lacks cohesiveness, and the polish seen with his previous works. The movie starts slow, too much time is spent on earth, establishing his family background and current condition on earth. I guess that part was to emphasize that his son Tom was not academically inclined, while his daughter Murphy is brilliant and tom-boyish (tom-boyish means , like Tom, right?). But again, too much time there, by the time the mission is launched and the first spectacle is put-up, (travel through the wormhole), we are nearing the halfway mark. During the launch process, the craft never contacts NASA ! So now we have a trained NASA pilot and some scientists in the spacecraft, but instead of sticking to scientific jargon, as one expects them, they revert to casual everyday talking in layman's terms. Romilly explains to Cooper how a wormhole works using a paper and pencil trick we first saw in the 1997 movie Event Horizon, which is not required because Cooper is a engineering wizard and a bookworm(remember his library back home ? and the original copy of a textbook which Murphy's school no longer follows?). All the scenes in outer space have no sound, accurate , because sound cannot travel in space. But by blanking out the sound it felt disconnected from the rest of the movie which had loud organs and synthesizer music. When they land on the first planet, which is too close to a blackhole, we see daylight there. But surely, it can't have daylight, because the planet is in orbit around a blackhole, and light cannot escape from a blackhole, right ? The gravity levels on the planet where one hour on the surface equals seven years elsewhere would crush all human life. The astronauts would also be squished and “spaghettified” by their proximity to a black hole.The robots TARS and CASE are robots, but they speak with undeniable sarcasm like humans. And even in an ultramodern spacejet, Cooper decides to fly manually to save fuel, even with all the computing power available to him. Surely the computer could have calculated the most fuel efficient path to the planet ? When Cooper and Amelia get back to Endurance, Romilly is there and has waited 23 years for them to return. How can a human wait 23 years locked up in a zero gravity environment, alone ? With no other human to talk to ? And the same question to Mann, alone on this frozen planet, locked up for decades. Anyway, Manns' first reaction on being awakened and seeing another human face was priceless, few actors could have pulled it off. Edmund's planet had better data, but they go to Mann's planet, because he was still transmitting. They just found out the Miller was still transmitting only because of the gravity distortion due to the blackhole, but Miller is already dead. Caution anyone ?

But what got to me most was the ending, the closure, or lack of. The part where Cooper falls into the blackhole into a tesseract, which connects to their library back home, and how Cooper communicates via gravity….it is the most stunning set pieces in Interstellar, with reality-bending visuals reminiscent of Inception. But it's also a ridiculously contrived cop-out twist, illogical, incoherent and profoundly unscientific. I know that the original script didn't have any of this gibberish. There, Cooper loads the quantum data onto a probe and sends the probe back to earth, which is the probe Cooper and family find at the start. That was so much more better. There was a question of matter travelling back, but at least there was nothing supernatural about it.

 

My best part in the movie would be after the explosion on Endurance, when Cooper tries to dock his ranger onto the Endurance. The graphics, sound ..it was all perfect, and had us audience tightly hugging our seats and holding our breath. Of course we knew Cooper would dock the ship, but the build-up to it was spectacular.

 

 

Point of Interest: The probe Cooper finds at the start of the movie is from India ! It was supposedly from Delhi Mission Control. Clearly India has made giant leaps as a space superpower, but by the time they do it, the planet is dying !

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Tailpiece: I am going back to my favourite space travel movie: Apollo 13. Again, the movie was ahead of its time, but it was simple and concise. And long shelf life too. I have already watched it some 50-something times. And time to revisit.

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