[This post contains SPOILERS for Interstellar.]
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is now playing in theaters and although the film has proven to be more divisive (read our review) than the Dark Knight trilogy director’s last original sci-fi movie, Inception, it’s already given rise to post-viewing discussion on the level that Nolan’s dream/heist thriller did four years ago (for more on that, read our own Interstellar ending and space travel explanation post).
Interstellar deals with such concepts as the science of black holes, relativity, and space travel, to be exact, which is why renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has now weighed in on the film. However, as was also the case when Tyson offered his thoughts on the movie Gravity in 2013, he’s not focused on Interstellar‘s artistic merits as a work of storytelling but, rather, in the way that it treats scientific ideas (theoretical and proven concepts alike).
The Interstellar narrative follows a team of astronauts, led by the former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and scientist/astronaut Brand (Anne Hathaway), as they undertake a dangerous space mission in the hope of finding a new planet for humanity to survive on (now that Earth’s suffering an agricultural collapse). The team ends up traveling through a wormhole to another galaxy, where they visit alien planets where strong gravitational forces affect the passage of time, among other scientific phenomena.
On his Twitter account, Tyson praised Interstellar for visually realizing such concepts as Einstein’s Relativity of Time and Curvature of Space “as no other feature film has shown.” Caltech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who received executive producer credit for his contributions) helped provide the information necessary for Nolan and his production team to portray these concepts through cinema – and when interviewed by NBC, Tyson singled out the movie’s vision of a black hole as more complex than that in one of the film’s more obvious influences, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“When you approach a black hole, the black hole is distorting space in its vicinity, and this was captured beautifully. I enjoyed watching the surrounding imagery get distorted. … It’s a sophisticated ray-tracing problem, and if you’re a movie producer and you can get it right, then why not?… At the time of ‘2001,’ the mathematical formulation of black holes was not fully explored, so all they could do was play with the space and time dimension without being anchored to actual gravitational physics.”
Tyson also compared the science of Interstellar vs. 2001 through his Twitter account, noting that in Nolan’s film “They reprise the matched-rotation docking maneuver from [‘2001’], but they spin 100x faster”, and cited Thorne’s book, “The Science of ‘Interstellar'”, as being a useful tool for understanding the film’s scientific aspects.
The first alien planet that Cooper, Brand, and their fellow space explorers land is a world where not just the passage of time is different (relative to everything outside the world), but also humongous, seemingly mountain-sized, waves continually crash along the surface. As Tyson noted during his NBC talk, “That was not ‘Let’s just throw in a wave, there was an orbital physics motivation to make that happen” and he later re-emphasized on Twitter that tides of that magnitude are the kind that “orbiting a Black Hole might create.”
“Might” is the key word there, as Tyson made it clear that he was fine with how Interstellar gets its facts straight first – and then runs with them. Perhaps the best example is during the film’s third act, when Cooper goes beyond the event horizon of a black hole and finds himself in a “Tesseract” – a structure that allows him to view time as though it were a spatial dimension.
This, in turn, lets Cooper reach out and contact his daughter (who is played as a child by Mackenzie Foy) in the past – revealing the mystery behind “the ghost” in the movie’s first act – and provide her with the necessary information to save the humans back on Earth, twenty-three years later as an adult (portrayed by Jessica Chastain). As Tyson put it during his NBC interview, “How you portray [time as a spatial dimension], we don’t know, so you let the producers and visual artists figure something out.”
Tyson also voiced appreciation for how Interstellar represents the science community, having noted on Twitter that of the four principle scientists/engineers featured in the film – played by McConaughey, Chastain, Hathaway, and Michael Caine – “half are women” and (in his NBC talk) indicated that he was glad that none of them adhered to the “crazy [and] wire-haired” scientist archetype (or, rather, stereotype) often featured in sci-fi B-movies from the second half of the 20th Century.
“It’s about husbands and wives, sons and daughters and grandparents. There’s very strong relationship-building in this film, and they’re all scientists. It’s evidence that somebody recognizes that scientists are people, too.”
As Tyson emphasized on Twitter, even his comments about the human drama in Interstellar aren’t really a critique of how well the material was presented, but rather the picture that was being presented. He didn’t hesitate to take a playful jab at one of the more scientifically questionable elements either, as he rounded out his Twitter talk by stating that in the movie “They explore a planet near a Black Hole. Personally, I’d stay as far the hell away from Black Holes as I can” (and made a crack about how even in another galaxy, “two guys get in a fist fight”).
Interstellar is now playing in theaters.