Home > Clement's Game > Science Fiction Round 38: Interstellar

Science Fiction Round 38: Interstellar

This movie is beautiful.

And terrible.

And awesome.

And horrible.

All at the same time.  I loved it, but there were parts that made me want to scream and tear my hair out.

I am about to spoil EVERYTHING, and the following post is likely to be long.

And include relativity.

You have been warned.

If you would like to see some other folks’ analysis, here are a couple of posts by Phil Plait, and one by astrophysicist Katie Mack.  (Spoiler alert, of course.  And, to spoil their posts: they’re not super enthused.)

I kinda want this poster, except maybe I want the black hole instead...

I kinda want this poster, except maybe I want the black hole instead…

 The Good Stuff

The film was beautiful.  Absolutely stunning.  I loved it.

They included a Kerr black hole, with an accretion disk glowing around it, and all the myriad complications to it that are caused by the strong gravity near the event horizon.  Beautiful.

Also, the wormhole?  Gorgeous.  Thank you for finally doing a wormhole right — with the entrance as a sphere, and not a flat plane.  Yeeeeees.  And all the warping of stars around the edges.  So pretty.

This is what you get when Kip Thorne is involved from the beginning.

The movie also used the silence of space to excellent dramatic effect, mixing it up with background music in some cases.  There’s a seen where somebody is monologuing about how he’s doing the right thing, and gets cut-off by a whoosh and sudden silence halfway through when he unintentionally evacuates the room he’s in.

This is how it should be done.

And, while fantastical, I did like the presentation of the tesseract.

You Really Should Have An Intermission

This movie is three hours long.

Okay, fine, two hours and forty-nine minutes.

Before you count all the trailers and ads before the movie starts.

Look, if you’re going to have a movie that long, you should have a ten-minute intermission halfway through.

It’s a pretty good deal, really.  People get a chance to stretch their legs and use the bathroom.  The theater has a bonus opportunity to sell more soda and popcorn.  And the people who stick around the the intermission?  Somebody could treat them to some pretty starscapes and good music from the first part of the film.

Everybody wins.


This?  This nearly ruined the entire movie for me.  This is the part that made me want to rage at the screen, shouting acronyms and obscenities.

I restrained myself.

The whole shebang is set in the future — at least fifty years — where, following a disaster I’ll get to shortly, the population has tanked well below where it is now.

NASA has been working in secret to find a new planet for humanity to move to… because politics.  NASA was asked to bomb some places during the disastrous thing and when they refused, they were shut down and took a lot of public hatred.  So, when they started back up again, they had to be funneled their billions of dollars to save the human race in secret.

Meanwhile, the lead scientist (Professor Brand) is working, mostly by himself, on finding a way to manipulate gravity to made space stations to save everyone.  This solution is eventually achieved by one of the other characters.

Problem #1:  NASA does not bomb things.  That’s what the Air Force is for.

Problem #2: NASA does not bomb things.  In fact, they derive a huge amount of their support from good “science is awesome” publicity.  Since when would telling everyone “the world is doomed, but don’t panic, we’re working on a solution,” be a bad thing?

Problem #3: What happened to all the other countries and space agencies?  Roscosmos?  ESA?  JAXA?  The Chinese National Space Administration?  The Indian Space Research Organization?  I mean, the Canadian Space Agency usually collaborates a lot with the US, but… still.  Or did we just nuke them all to death, or something?  This is, frankly, pretty stupid, since those countries would want to save their people, too… and even if they collaborated with NASA, they would want to have representation on those missions.  Kind of like we do with the ISS right now.  Why did that go away?

Problem #4: Without that good publicity, how the heck did NASA convince people to give them that much money?

Problem #5: Scientists do not work in a vacuum.  There’s no way Professor Brand should have been the only person working on the gravity problem, much less been able to keep the secret that he thought the problem was impossible to solve.  No way.

Problem #6: Why do you need super gravity-awesome space stations to move everyone off the planet?  Heck, if you’re depopulated enough, you can do it with conventional rockets, with other kinds of super-futuristic fuel, or even with an Orion Drive, if you still have nukes left.  This seemed contrived.  Cool resulting space stations, but contrived.

And that’s not even the worst of it.

In the schools, to discourage people from being anything other than farmers, they are teaching that the moon landings were faked, in order to get Soviet Russia to spend itself into the ground.


In textbooks.



I ran out of useful words, so here's a double facepalm instead.  (Not sure where the image originates; see here.)

I ran out of useful words, so here’s a double facepalm instead. (Not sure where the image originates; see here for discussion.)

I can’t even.  Yes, they immediately indicated that this was a BAD THING, but I can’t even parse a world in which that could possibly happen.

Okay, where were we?

Oh, right, a world where that could happen…

The Blight

This sounded weird, because I’d just finished playing Dragon Age: Origins.

Apparently, some blight (of unspecified origins) is slowly killing off all the plants on Earth.  I assume this a bioweapon gone awry, somehow, even though something so completely deadly to plants is pretty ridiculous.  Although this is only discussed in the context of crops, it is directly stated that we’re going to run out of oxygen, so it definitely sounds like a complete plant-death scenario.

For bonus points, this “blight” consumes nitrogen the way we aerobic critters consume oxygen.

I am not a biologist, but I can say confidently that having something breathe nitrogen in this fashion is utter nonsense.  The fundamental chemistry just doesn’t work out.  Oxygen is useful because, essentially, you can burn stuff with it to release energy.  Nitrogen?  Not so much.  In fact, nitrogen fixation is an important biological process, where some plants and bacteria capture nitrogen so it can be used in building proteins.  This requires an input of energy to happen — you don’t get energy out that way, like you do from breathing oxygen.

So, utter nonsense.  We need something else to doom the world.

What about Eta Carinae?

Say some astrophysicist figures out that Eta Carinae is going to go supernova in some short amount of time, say 50-100 years, and we’re along the beam line of maximum radiation — very bad for Earth, but not completely fatal unless you throw in some political short-sightedness (which is easier to buy into than this Blight thing).  For maximum drama, make the exact time of explosion uncertain.

Bonus: when Eta Carinae goes, you get to show more pretty things exploding in space, with deliciously ominous background music.  What’s not to love?

Well, yes, fine, you don’t get to have an American engineer-turned-unhappy-farmer, or the whole “Dust Bowl” motif, but you have plenty of other lovely opportunities.  Perhaps, in despair and short-sightedness, we’ve been polluting more and cleaning up less — since we’re all gonna die anyway, right? — leaving all too little time to get away.  Set up a slowly failing city, unclean and dusty from lack of care and declining population, bombed in placed, simply abandoned in others… I think it could work without changing the fundamentals of the plot too much.

But, speaking of things that don’t work…

That Black Hole… what?  IT HAS PLANETS??? What the…

Erm… no.

Just no.

Just… just no.

There’s a subfield of astrophysics, called high-energy astrophysics.  (Wikipedia doesn’t actually have a page for it, but here’s one group of real scientists as an example.)  Shockingly enough, high-energy astrophysics involves high energy phenomena: supernovae, some processes around neutron stars, hot young stars, accretion disks, active galactic nuclei…

Did I just say accretion disks and AGN?

Yup, those are both powered by the simple phenomenon of “stuff falling into a black hole heating up before it falls in, or heating up other nearby stuff as it falls in.”  And by heating up, I mean emitting X-rays and gamma rays, forming one of the most punishing, hot environments you could possibly imagine.

This is, shall we say, not a good place for planets to cool down and form without getting burned up by radiation or smashed to bits by high-speed debris falling into the black hole.

This is a terrible place to look for habitable planets (even thought they find one, bah).

And… it gets worse.

Even without the ice clouds on one planet (Water-ice is denser than air, and will not float, unless you have air that’s way too dense to ever be breathable or you have some natural way to make water-ice into aerogel, which I doubt — and that made even Kip Thorne cringe) and the ridiculousness of planning their approach while the crew is in the spaceship (rather than planning meticulously from the ground years before the ship is ready to launch, as is common with current craft… and they had plenty of time to puzzle it out in the two years it took them to get out there)…

They should have anticipated the issues with time dilation on Miller’s planet.  Mostly, they should have realized that the person who landed there could only have spent an hour or two on the surface, and would not have had time to complete a thorough analysis.  (For that matter, the transmissions should have been severely redshifted, to a lower, slooooooower frequency.)

Plus, they only experienced the time dilation while on the planet.  Since the effect comes from proximity of the black hole, the guy who stayed on the Endurance shouldn’t have aged as much as he would have if he were as far away from the black hole as Earth.

Finally, it’s rather frustrating to watch the people in the Endurance get good video messages from Earth, while, for some reason, not only not being able to send messages back, but also not getting any significant habitability data from the beacons on the ground.

Despite being in orbit.

I mean, we can get more data than a simple thumbs-up from a rover on Mars… or even Voyager, decades old and way far away.  Geeze.

And maaaybe having the folks falling into the black hole would be able to avoid spaghettification — the black hole is, reportedly, 100 million solar masses, making it large enough that the event horizon is far enough away that you don’t die when you cross it — but at this point, I think I’m done.

Look, I’m okay with having science not match up with the reality, but, when you’re hyping the movie as being super scientifically accurate?  And when even the internal logic has issues?  Then I have issues.

Counting, and Bechdel

Low and failed, sadly.  At least they had the daughter be the kid who was super good at physics.  (And, by the way, why are all the survivors from Earth white?)

That, and, well… I’m sorry, but gushing about how love transcends time and space makes me squirm.  Just because you love the guy who landed on one planet, doesn’t mean you’re going to the right place.  Even though you were right in the end, in this case, that’s not a good reason to be right.  Too much cliché.

Just… give me a few more pretty wormholes, okay?

  1. michaelbusch
    2014/11/26 at 4:05 pm

    The racism, the sexism, and US-centrism bothered me to the point that I skipped large chunks of the movie. Apparently, I managed to avoid some of the most cringe-worthy parts of it in the process. But we do not need yet another story that goes “white American man from Midwest leads small team that saves humans from extinction”.

    Also, the trope that goes “the environment of the Earth is suddenly devastated for some entirely unexplained reason and we’re all going to die” is not a cool trope. We understand quite a lot about how the environment works, and pretending otherwise has some serious negative consequences.

    And yet another #InterstellarPlotHole:

    I invite you to consider a hypothetical spacecraft capable of going to and returning from a place that is at a time dilation factor of 60,000 to one relative to where you are currently. This requires changing the spacecraft’s energy by approximately as much as if you were going from zero to 0.99999999986 c and then slowing down again, and some unmentioned technology to prevent your crew and your spacecraft from being reduced to a high-pressure molecular paste by the acceleration.

    If you can build such a spacecraft, why does it take you two years to get to Saturn? And why are you bothering with the entire series of missions portrayed in the movie? You can launch heavy industry into space and turn the asteroid belt into Blight-free greenhouses; terraform Mars; play with all of the real estate in the outer solar system; and send people to however many pleasant exoplanets there are within 50 parsecs of Earth with less than 1 subjective day en route without ever bothering with the wormhole or anything on the other side of it.

  2. 2014/11/28 at 2:27 pm

    You forgot what I consider the biggest plot hole: wouldn’t it be easier to genetically engineer Blight-resistant crops?

  3. 2014/11/28 at 6:39 pm

    Alex, you’re quite right. Although not stated explicity, I had assumed that they were working on doing exactly that — the scenes showing scientists working with plants — and that they expected their adjustments to ultimately fail. (Perhaps something akin to bacteria developing antibiotics resistance, with the Blight shifting faster than they could keep up.)

    I also assumed that they had a seed bank or something untouched by the Blight, and which could be planted on the Plan B colony world to feed the colonists.

    Which brings up another unfortunate question — if you have Blight-untouched-seeds, why not set up massive, carefully sterilized greenhouses for the growing of crops? It seems a lot easier than hauling everyone off the planet and more certain to succeed than the initially-small colony…

    … so many issues, so little time?

  1. 2015/06/13 at 10:57 am

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