Thursday, November 6, 2014

Interstellar's physics

Interstellar, which comes out tomorrow, just might be huge. Gravity, although a damn fine picture, was hyped beyond belief yet is rarely talked about anymore less than a year later. Something about Interstellar—if you'll allow my gut instinct a moment to speculate—tells me it might have more of the staying power that 2001: A Spacey Odyssey did. I think it's less of a gut instinct and more of an educated wager: consider Christopher Nolan's filmography up to this point. I think it's pretty obvious he's been building towards a really huge movie all along now. Is it so hard to believe Interstellar might be that movie?


Then again, it might just bomb, so there's no point in reviewing the movie before the movie's even out. So far the only "review" I've heard was from the lead actor himself, telling the media he cried all three times he watched it. Reviews be damned, Interstellar is one of those very rare movies for me: the kind I've gotta see on day one, something I haven't done much of since I was a kid. (The next movie I have to see on day one is Star Wars Episode 7, and that's more than a year away.) Naturally, I'm rooting for it.

What I think is interesting is how the film is being promoted. The marketing material has focused on the drama while revealing more and more of the plot's technical side as we get closer to the release date. We don't have to see the movie to talk about that.

When the teaser trailer for Interstellar premiered nearly a year ago, I immediately wondered how director Christopher Nolan would create a believable story in which his human characters travel to another star system. When you think about all the space travel films so far, they tend to fall in one of two categories (and forgive me for simplifying because I am not saying one category is better than the other). It's typically "serious" filmmaking if it's set within our own solar system (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Right Stuff, Blade Runner, etc.) or it's "leave your brain at the door" space fantasy if it's set anywhere else in the universe, specifically if it includes FTL travel (Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy, Galaxy Quest, etc.). The closest we've gotten to a movie that closes the gap between the two categories is the uneven and overproduced adaptation of Carl Sagan's Contact, which some argue was a classic, but I beg to differ if only on the basis it included a CGI Bill Clinton.

A second trailer of Interstellar revealed "[Earth] ran out of food" and had us believe Matthew McConaughey and friends were setting off to find a suitable planet to colonize ("We're not meant to save the world," Michael Caine says during the preview, "We're meant to leave it."). Yet the film doesn't seem to be set very far into the future, which is possibly a warning sign that this is typical Hollywood science. Nothing wrong with Hollywood science, it's just that I would be very surprised to see Nolan's brand of human drama work within the confines of such a film, even if it did play nice with Batman.

Now, do I doubt scientists and engineers (and despite what one trailer says, the world will always need engineers, particularly in this scenario) would kick into high gear if our home planet was in serious trouble? Not at all. But traveling to another star, not to mention promising your kids you'll be back before they're dead of old age, is a bit of a stretch. All I'm saying is you don't see that kind of space travel (in other words: the all-but impossible kind) promoted in films with scenes as potentially heart-wrenching as the one in which McConaughey tells his daughter, "We have to fix this before I leave."

Then we got the third trailer. In it, McConaughey's character said something that simultaneously excited and worried me: "Are you ready to say goodbye to our solar system? To our galaxy?" And at that moment we knew beyond a doubt: this isn't just a space film, it's a drama with FTL travel in it. They're not only talking about going to another star system. They're talking about going to another galaxy. (I guess "Interstellar" makes a more poetic title than "Intergalactic," and the latter term certainly encompasses the former in this context, so we'll let that slide.) Now, I have my doubts humanity will accomplish such a thing in the next million years, much less in the near future. Then again, I sometimes have my doubts we won't.

Nonetheless, the idea intrigued me. While I try to stay clear of the promotional material of a film I've already decided is must-see, Interstellar was one that lured me in too much to stay entirely away. There were just too many questions. I couldn't help but peeking at the Wikipedia article and I'm pretty pleased there's already an entire section devoted to the film's scientific accuracy. I'll post an excerpt, but check out the entire "scientific accuracy" section here. I don't believe it contains even minor spoilers unless you're extremely serious about going into a movie "fresh."

In creating the wormhole and rotating black hole, Dr. Thorne collaborated with visual effect supervisor Paul Franklin and a team of 30 computer effects artists at Double Negative. Thorne would provide pages of deeply sourced theoretical equations to the artists, who then wrote new CGI rendering software based on these equations to create accurate computer simulations of the gravitational lensing caused by these phenomena. Some individual frames took up to 100 hours to render, and ultimately resulted in 800 terabytes of data. The resulting visual effect provided Dr. Thorne with new insight into the effects of gravitational lensing and accretion disks surrounding black holes, and will lead to the creation of two scientific papers; one for the astrophysics community and one for the computer graphics community.[54]

"Dr. Thorne," by the way, is the theoretical physicist Kip Thorne who worked on Contact, which also starred Matthew McConaughey and dealt with wormholes. This time, Thorne also serves as executive producer on the picture.


And I'm cool with that: that the film is about exploiting natural wormholes. That still leaves a lot of questions (For one: how does one find a natural wormhole, then get there and back within a lifetime?), but that's already a lot more plausible than, say, "World was messed up so a bunch of scientists got together and invented an FTL drive just in time to save the planet." In the context of a (presumably) near-future movie, I think what they've got going on is very exciting, not to mention a step in the right direction for big Hollywood films. I can't wait to see it. Man, I really cannot wait.

For more on the subject of Thorne's work on Interstellar, check out this article from Wired. I haven't read it all yet for fear it's going to spoil too much of the movie, but I plan to check it out as soon as I'm back from the theater.

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