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A love letter to Interstellar

Interstellar was one of the epic sci-fi blockbusters of 2014, and I daresay it has become my favourite sci-fi movie of all time. With such critical acclaim, how did it manage to sway the heart of science?

This movie has made the top of my list. And when it comes to sci-fi, that is no mean feat. Oh, Interstellar, where do I begin? Can it be the deep, moving orchestrations of Hans Zimmer’s organ-dominated soundtrack? Can it be the all-too-believable vision of what might happen to Earth’s environment in the future? Can it be the stunning visuals? The great portrayal of science as passion?

Whatever it was, a combination of these things, it had my eyes brimming by the first ten minutes. The attitude of Murph’s schoolteachers towards science, and the Moon landing in particular, made me sad, the public decommissioning of NASA made me sad, and the attitude towards the environment as unfixable without any way for us to fund adaptation to it – only to suffer, to withstand – seemed all too real, all too possible. The fact the creators chose to focus on blight in an American setting calls to mind the Californian drought that has been underway these past four years, severely impacting their agriculture to a terrifying degree.

When they finally get out into space, watching the docking scene of the module connecting with the spacecraft Endurance made me tear up, because now we live in an age unlike the one I grew up in. This is an age in which we can watch livestreams of real space shuttles docking onto real space stations via an internet stream. I’ve been watching SpaceX’s livestreams as often as I am able, and to then watch this fictional fantasy where they’re doing the same thing, it’s so familiar – I’ve seen this in reality, I think, as I watch it and I marvel. Look at what humans are capable of. Surely our potential is great enough to stop such an environmental catastrophe in the future? Surely we could stop it now, if we all felt this passion?

L:et's play the 'actual footage from SpaceX or scene from Interstellar' game!
L:et’s play the ‘actual footage from SpaceX or scene from Interstellar’ game!

And the point at which I knew I was sold, utterly and completely, was the way they handled Miller’s Planet. (spoilers incoming, so beware – just click on the text to reveal)

I studied tsunamis, and the coupling of the atmosphere-ocean system pretty intensely for my dissertation, and let me tell you, from the instant we get to see out the window of the Endurance to Miller’s Planet below, my hackles were raised. What a strange distribution of cloud, I thought to myself. I wondered at the time if it were just done on the whim of the animators, because to me, this sparse cloud cover and striated patterns seemed to indicate that there weren’t many landmasses on this planet to break any waves. Which, if you know how crazy the Southern Ocean (the only place on Earth with this unique feature) can get, is a bit scary when it comes to the prospect of landing the craft.

So they land, and the incoming shot you see lots of wave patterns. Small, close-together, little ripples really. They’re distributed like they’re refracting from, or drawing back from, something. Where have I seen this before? It feels wrong. Then the craft lands in the water, and it’s revealed that the water is only a few inches deep!

Things piece together, uncomfortably in my head. My companions beside me in the cinema are not looking worried, but I’m getting the feeling that what I am looking at is a large wave, of incredibly long wavelength, like a tsunami, but if covering the circumference of this world based on the cloud-cover no-continent indication, it would be a swell, and greatly influenced by the strong tidal forces of the planet, being so close to a black hole. And I’m thinking they’re in the trough and are about to see the peak.

When the large wave looms on the horizon, although it doesn’t quite happen the way I’d expect, I’m chilled but also vindicated to find out I’m right. My palms are even sweating a bit. Afterwards, I joke with my husband that they could have done with someone like me on that expedition. But, that might have ruined some of the drama!

After all this epicness, I want to let you know that I only found one other thing wrong with the movie from a geosciences point of view, and it’s such a minor thing that it hardly bears mentioning. It’s the way they modelled the particles in the dust storm at the start of the film. A dust storm, or haboob, is far more likely to have the top of the frontal wall appear more bubbly, like the top of a cumulonimbus calvus cloud rather than a cumulonimbus capillatus, because dust storms aren’t high enough to form a fibrous top. I mean, this really is minor – it’s barely noticeable, just a bit too much blow-off at the top (aren’t scientific terms a delight?).

Now before anyone starts thinking there’s a petty scientist inbound, here’s a thing. When scientists start critiquing a sci-fi movie at an incredibly in-depth level, picking on minute little things rather than ground-shaking faux-pas, it means the movie’s done pretty damn well. So when Neil deGrasse Tyson gets into the nitty-gritty in his critiques of how science is portrayed in Interstellaryou know this movie’s onto something good. And when the largest straw I can clutch at is the modelling of a CG dust storm, you know I’m actually well chuffed with the film I’m critiquing!

It might be said that the film advocates leaving Earth rather than dealing with Earth’s problems. But the film’s narrative scares me, because by this point humanity has gone past the point of adaptation and has to rely solely on retroactive mitigation, which is kind of like palliative care rather than prevention when it comes to disaster response. I for one am always inclined to keep trying – maybe something to do with being a geologist and loving the earth – but it’s more than that.

I think of Brunei, where I grew up as a young child. We lived on the border of the rainforest, a twenty-minute walk away from forest pools where sometimes crocodiles played but we swam anyway. Where soil richer than any I’ve seen elsewhere feeds a canopy higher than the skyscrapers where I live now. It’s barely been two decades and that particular forest is gone now. In fact, 50% of rainforest on the entire island of Borneo has now disappeared. So when Cooper gives Romilly his MP3 player as they approach the wormhole near Saturn, about to leave the Solar System forever, it plays ambient rainforest sounds and I, too, think of a home I can never go back to.

But that it’s gone is all the more reason to ensure the safety of other places, other living creatures, other people. In real life, it’s what made me choose to specialise in studying natural disasters, and in this film it’s powerful to see these people’s dedication towards saving as many people they can.

Their humanity is not lost either. While Dr Brand Senior has two plans for recolonisation – one in which they transport humans from Earth to whatever viable planet they find, and one in which they leave people to die and merely take frozen embyros to recolonise with – his daughter Dr Amelia Brand and Cooper are vehement supporters of the first plan, calling it all for nothing if they can’t save the people that are already alive. The crew of the Endurance show emotion, even breaking down when things go wrong.

Murph Cooper’s relationship with her father might strike a chord for those of us who grew up with our parents having to go away for long periods of time. Whether military families, or families of research scientists or the like, we might feel all sorts of conflicting emotions (like, how do you react to the thought your father might die any day in a dangerous environment? It never gets easier), but at the same time as it being conflicting, it also is normalised, and you have to forge ahead with your own life, your own contributions to various problems. I find Murph a tremendously relatable and strong character in this, and I just wish I could have even a fraction of her intelligence, for the ability to create positive change alone.

Now we can’t wrap this up without discussing that soundtrack. Irreverently described by some as ‘Oops, looks like Hans Zimmer fell asleep on his organ,’ which granted is pretty damn funny, I think it might be the best soundtrack ever, bar Clint Mansell’s work for Requiem for a Dream. I have a sneaking suspicion that Zimmer may have spent a lot of time listening to Rick Wakeman’s keyboard work for prog rock band Yes, particularly his dramatic organ solo in Awaken. Watch from the marker until around 13:30 for the full experience!

And here’s a link to Hans Zimmer’s stuff while we’re at it. They’re very similar. Actually, I’m pretty sure my bias towards this soundtrack is based solely on the fact that Awaken is my favourite Yes song. So maybe you folks will feel differently. This is my love letter though, so I declare this soundtrack the best.

I wonder if Interstellar causes such emotions within me might be because it takes a familiar story structure – the ‘epic journey’ of Homer’s Odyssey, of Dante’s Divine Commedia – and places it in a context that begins as immediately real and believable to us today, and then extends to the fantastical, allowing us to partake fully, immersively, in the journey.

I remember when we first saw it – in a movie theatre in Oslo where they cranked the volume up extra loud – and came out of the theatre, my friend said to me, ‘I’ve never seen you look like that before.’ I may have been reeling a bit much to take it in, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to show such intensity. The film certainly immersed me, and inspired me to not give up on my passion of studying the earth. And even if others didn’t like it, it’s amazing to see such rich dialogue surrounding the science of this film! There are so many conversations being had, that even when I see someone dissing it, I can’t help but be happy. This is a good outcome.

In the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “If a science fiction story can’t hold up a mirror to what’s going on in the world in which you live, I think the story fails.”

So this is my love letter to you, Interstellar. I don’t want a sequel, but I do hope that others will be inspired by your intensity, and your beauty. As with Gravity before you, I hope you’re an indication of more of these sorts of sci-fi films to come. I know you’re not for everyone, but you’re exactly my cup of tea, and I’ll be damned if that ever changes!

Comments

    • Hi Sara,
      Thanks for your reply. It’s great to hear you enjoyed the film! Hopefully we’ll have more movies like this to positively critique from a scientific point of view in the future 🙂

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