So far, I have seen five of last year’s Best Picture nominees — Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game and Whiplash. I’ve also seen a few other 2014 films — Gone Girl, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Edge of Tomorrow — that rank well on IMDB. I’ll have a post at some point about all of them when I look at 2014 in film. But right now, they would all be running behind Interstellar, which I watched last night.
I try very hard to mute my hopes for movies but I was anticipating Interstellar since the first teaser came out. I’m glad to report that it’s yet another triumph for Nolan. The film is simply excellent. The visuals are spectacular and clear, the characters well-developed, the minimalist score is one of Zimmer’s best so far. The ending and the resolution of the plot could be argued with but it’s unusual for me to watch a three-hour movie in one sitting unless it’s Lord of the Rings. I definitely recommend it, especially to those are fans of 2001 or Tree of Life.
That’s not the reason I’m writing about it though.
One of the remarkable things about Interstellar is that it works very hard to get the science right. There are a few missteps, usually for dramatic reasons. For example, the blight affecting Earth works far faster than it would in real life. The spacecraft seem to have enormous amounts of fuel for planetary landings. The astronauts don’t use probes and unmanned landers to investigate planets before landing. And, as I mentioned, the resolution of the plot ventures well into the realm of science fiction and pretty much into fantasy.
But, most of the film is beautifully accurate. The plan to save Earth (and the backup plan) is a realistic approach. Trips through the stellar systems take months or years. Spacecraft have to rotate to create gravity (including a wonderful O’Neill Cylinder). Space is silent — an aesthetic I notice is catching on in sci-fi films as directors figure out how eerie silence is. General and special relativity play huge roles in the plot. Astrophysicist Kip Thorne insisted on being as scientifically accurate as possible and it shows.
And the result is a better film. The emotional thrust of Cooper’s character arc is entirely built on the cruel tricks relativity plays on him. The resolution of Dr. Mann’s arc is built entirely on rock solid physics including the daring stunt Coop uses to save the day. The incredible sequences near the black hole could be taken right of a physics textbook, including a decision that recalls The Cold Equations.
We’re seeing this idea trickle into more and more of science fiction. Battlestar Galactica had muted sounds in space. Moon has reasonably accurate scientific ideas. Her had a sound approach to AI. Serenity has a silent combat scene in space, as did, for a moment, Star Trek. Gravity has some serious issues with orbital dynamics, but much of the rest was rock solid.
I’m hoping this will continue, especially if the rumors of a Forever War movie are true. A science fiction movie doesn’t need accurate science to be good. In fact, it can throw science out the window and be great (e.g., Stars Wars). But I hope that Interstellar blazes a path for more science fiction movies that are grounded, however shakily at times, in real science. This could breath new life into a genre that’s been growing staler with every passing year.
I don’t say this as an astrophysicist (one available for consultation for any aspiring filmmakers). I say this as a movie buff. I say this as someone who loves good movies and think great movies can be made that show science in all its beautiful, glorious and heart-stopping accuracy.
Post Scriptum: Many of my fellow astronomers disagree with me on Interstellar, both on the quality of the film and its scientific accuracy. You can check out fellow UVa alum Phil Plait here, although note that in saying it got the science wrong, he actually got the science wrong. Pro Tip: if you’re going to say Kip Thorne got the science wrong, be sure to do your homework.