I first saw “Interstellar” in an IMAX theater with my friend Kaiser. I wanted to see it as Christopher Nolan intended it to be shown. At the time of the screening, there was a big argument in Hollywood about the value of film and the slow but inexorable switch to digital because Kodak had decided to stop making film.
The first few minutes of the screening I attended were not good. The film had somehow been damaged and the colors were all wrong. I was so mad I almost walked out and demanded my money back. But destroyed and damaged film is part of the experience Nolan wanted me to have.
So I had it.
I wasn’t impressed and thought that Nolan’s example of the glory of film added quite a bit of evidence to the digital argument. Digital movies don’t get damaged. They are almost as high in resolution to IMAX’s 70mm film and are more true to the intended color. Digital is already quite a bit ahead of 35mm, in resolution, color fidelity and dynamic range. Any effect that can be expressed in film can be duplicated in digital.
That’s where I stand on that argument.
Film has a nostalgia to it. I won’t deny that. I worked in a theater and I know that I have way more emotional attachment to large canisters of film than I do a single hard drive.
Further, film is a vastly superior storage medium to digital. A well-maintained modern hard drive might last as many as 10 - 15 years. That assumes that the format of the data on the hard drive can still be read in the future, which is a big assumption. We have film that is now near and maybe even in excess of 100 years old. It’s aged. It has issues. It’s not perfect. But, if properly maintained, film can easily outlast digital as a storage medium.
Of course, nothing touches paper except stone. We have 4k year old paper manuscripts. But, movies aren’t on paper or stone, so that’s moot.
All of that is really an aside.
* * *
“Interstellar” probably made it’s money back. It’s a good movie. It’s way better than most of the science fiction movies that have come out in the past 10 years. Nolan does not disappoint there.
“Interstellar” could have been among the greatest science fiction movies of all time.
The problem is that the movie begins in logic and ends with emotion. That’s hard for a decidedly rational people to follow or accept. It is possible, but I’m not sure it can be done in limited runtime of 167 minutes that “Interstellar” was given.
The relationship between reason and emotion is something I’m going to explore in my next project “Beta”, which will probably be thirty-six 60 minute episodes.
But that doesn’t help “Interstellar”.
* * *
I’ve been teaching my wife film criticism so she can help me be better at my job. Sadly, I have no hope of learning Physical Therapy and helping her with her work.
The first major point to learn is that when you’re watching the movie from a really good director, especially one like Nolan who has almost dictatorial control over his projects, the likelihood of any aspect of the movie being a mistake is extremely low. In other words, anything that looks like a mistake is on purpose and that it looking like a mistake is a misperception on our parts. We must recompile our evaluation to compensate for that misperception.
An example of this is when Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey) is confused about his battle between reason and emotion, his face is slightly out of focus. That seeming mistake is the key to understanding what “Interstellar” is really about.
With “Interstellar” Nolan is juxtaposing our emotions with our understanding of physics.
I’ll continue this by breaking down our understanding of physics and then segueing into Nolan’s emotional argument.
* * *
In modern science, our understanding of physics breaks down into two very distinct and entirely separate paradigms. The first is the universe we see. We have a lot of people contributing to our understanding of this but two men stand far above everyone else: Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.
Newton’s contribution to physics is so important that we call the physics we use most of the time to build most of the stuff we use “Newtonian Mechanics.” Newtonian Mechanics define the laws of motion that we see. If I throw a ball, it will travel so far before it comes back to earth. That same math can explain the motions of the planets, the path a rocket will take, the path a bullet will take, or what will happen if two cars crash into each other.
Newtonian Mechanics is very useful.
In larger scales Newtonian Mechanics starts to break down.
The best example of this was the orbit of the planet Venus. Its orbit mostly fit the Newton’s laws, but there was something wrong. There was an eccentricity in the orbit that Newton’s laws couldn’t explain.
Science by design is a self-corrective system. It’s not going to be right all the time, but it’s right enough. When it’s wrong, another scientist will come along with another theory that explains everything the previous science did, and then also explains what science got wrong. That’s how science works. It’s understanding of everything is progressive.
The eccentricity in the orbit of Venus bothered science. Science that seemed to work everywhere else didn’t work on this. That means that the entire understanding of the Newton’s laws could be wrong. Newton could be wrong.
Einstein comes along and answers the eccentricity with Venus’s orbit by a new theory called General Relativity, which is a subset of Einsteinian Mechanics.
General Relativity is best expressed in math, but I’m not a mathematician so I’m going to use words.
All previous physicists had thought of space as just the difference in location of two objects. Einstein realized that space is an actual thing. Further, the objects in it change its nature. Also, according to Einstein, space is so directly linked to time as to make them both basically the same thing. Thus, we have the term “spacetime.”
But it keeps getting weirder.
Einstein realized that the objects in space-time affect space-time itself. The more massive an object, the more it changes space-time. We call this change gravity. Gravity is a bend in space-time, caused by the massiveness of an object.
Everything we normally see has mass, which means everything we normally see has its own gravity. We don’t feel it because Earth is a lot more massive than a laptop. But, they’ve both got their own gravities.
In the previous paragraph I used the term “normally”. The reason I used that term is because there’s another set of objects that seem to conform to a different kind of reality. Newton talked about stuff. Einstein talked about really big stuff.
I’m not getting into special relativity because it’s not necessary to understand “Interstellar”.
Modern science has found another set of objects. The very small. These objects are smaller than an atom. They are the building blocks from which atoms are made. The physics that studies those tiny objects is called “Quantum Mechanics.”
In Quantum Mechanics, things become very strange, very unintuitive. The reason they’re unintuitive is because they don’t obey the laws of the objects we normally interact with. Here’s an example: Quantum Entanglement.
Quantum Entanglement is an observed phenomenon. That means enough scientists have studied it that we can rely on it and say it’s real. Quantum Entanglement states that two particles that are separated by either space or time, or both space and time, that those two particle can interact with each other, as though they’re both right next to each other, at the same time.
We have no rational model to really understand that, but we do know it’s real. It can only be understood in the Quantum Mechanical universe.
And that’s where “Interstellar” gets it’s story.
* * *
“Interstellar” explores the physics of space-time and how our understanding of relativity doesn’t allow us to create gravity wells because, to do so we have to merge Quantum Mechanics and Einsteinian Mechanics, and we haven’t done that yet. We are waiting for science to discover what’s called the “Theory of Everything” or a “Grand Unified Theory” because it will unify everything under a single mechanical theory in physics.
The argument made in “Interstellar” is that the only way to bridge the two theories is to view a singularity.
* * *
Okay. I forgot to define “Singularity”. Stars are really big. They have a lot of stuff that makes them up. They’re also really dense. That means they’ve got a lot of mass. It’s that mass that causes the nuclear reactions at their core, which is what gives us light, heat, and if we don’t wear enough sunscreen, cancer.
As big as stars are, they have a limited number of atoms, and the fusion, the nuclear reaction, that happens at their core uses up those atoms by converting them into other, heavier atoms. Those heavier atoms require more massive stars to combine them.
That means that a star has a limited supply of fuel. If the star is small, as its fuel gets used up, it ejects the heavier atoms into space, which makes it less dense, which means it has less gravity. Because it has less gravity, it swells, eventually exploding in a nova. Bigger stars explode in a supernova.
But, if a star is big enough something else happens. When its fusion reactor starts to shut down, the nuclear explosion that was constantly pushing out loses its force. The remaining mass still causes a powerful gravity. The star collapses in on itself. All of its mass, all the atoms inside, are crushed by its increasing gravity until it becomes a single point of infinite density.
We’re not sure what this means. Things get really hazy here because this is the absolute edge of physics, all forms of it. It also seems to be the edge of the four dimensional physical universe.
Despite the fact that we’re not sure what happens at this singularity, we do have a name for it and what it does. We call it a black hole. We call it a black hole because its gravity is so powerful that almost nothing can escape it, including light. No light = black. Hence the name.
* * *
That’s the physics “Interstellar” is trying to talk about. Very few people in the world have any idea of most of what I just talked about. I haven’t gone to 15 years of college, and my math is bad, so I barely understand it.
To try and make a movie about something this hard to understand is a bold endeavor.
If that were all “Interstellar” was about, I’d give Nolan props.
Nolan didn’t think that was enough. So he took on emotions as well.
* * *
This where we leave the plot of “Interstellar” and get into its story.
While “Interstellar” talks about physics and space and human survival, that’s not what it’s really about. “Interstellar” is about a single question: are humans capable of extending their empathy beyond themselves and their children to encompass all of humanity, and possibly more?
That question is said, almost verbatim, several times in the movie. That’s a good thing because it’s already a very complex movie and sometimes we just need to be told something for it to be clear.
This is where Nolan’s genius really stands out. Not only is he going to talk about physics and emotions, but he’s going to use our understanding of physics to make an analogy to our emotions. He’s trying to give us the key to answer his empathy extension question with a yes.
* * *
Another aspect to Nolan’s work is that he tends to think non-linearly.
This is true with the story too; he starts with the truth of the story being revealed at the end. As close as I was paying attention to the movie, it took me 3 viewings, 2 in the same day, to get it all.
The singularity at the center of the black hole represents the isolated self, consumed and collapsed in on itself, attempting to control everything, but ultimately threatening everything around it with a painful and cruel death.
The singularity of the selfish person can be reconciled to the greater world if the understanding of the self can be merged with the truth that all understandings of self are relative to the individual, and therefore each and every individual is of equal value because they all have relative understandings of themselves. That truth, that our selfish understanding is relative to all of us naturally brings about a state of compassion and love, which manifests in a desire to help others, despite the fact that we appear to have no immediate connection to one another.
But, to truly see the selfishness that is the singularity, we have to look at ourselves. We have to stare into the horror of the blackness that we are and accept it as the true state of things. In accepting ourselves, in seeing who and what we are, we can then have the aforementioned compassion. We are then capable of loving all things, ourselves, other people, all of nature.
That is the argument Christopher Nolan is trying to make with “Interstellar”. It’s not an easy thing to get across, especially to a group of people who have collapsed in on themselves.