Recommended Viewing Situation:
With your dad on speed-dial, a big box of tissues, and a copy of Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons On Physics.
Running Time: 169 minutes.
Format: 35 mm anamorphic and IMAX 70 mm
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Jonathan Nolan
Cinematographer: Hoyte van Hoytema
Awards: Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, Empire Award for Best Director, Empire Award for Best Film, BFCA Critics’ Choice Award for Best Sci-Fi/Horror Movie, BAFTA Award for Best Special Visual Effects, Critics’ Choice MVP Award.
So, 2014 and 2015 were significant years for science in film (and for Matt Damon in space). I’ve got a bit of a sore point when it comes to bad science in films, and while 2014-15 gave us their fair share of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ‘film-science’ (sorry Luc Besson, but we use 100% of our brains already. You really dropped the ball on that one.), there was a notable increase in films – such as The Imitation Game (2014), The Theory of Everything (2014), The Martian (2015) and Ex Machina (2015) – that were clever, visually stunning, and didn’t make me want to write sternly worded letters about perpetuating misinformation.
One such film is Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s Interstellar (2014); the story of a man who, amid panic about climate change and persistent crop failure, agrees to leave his family behind in search of a planet which can sustain the next generations of human life. And, though he’s spent much of his adult life as a farmer, he’s a real, qualified astronaut, not a deep-sea oil driller (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay. Why would you train oil drillers as astronauts when you could teach ASTRONAUTS how to DRILL things much more efficiently? Why?). While the film is based on complex science, it’s easy to follow as Coop (Matthew McConaughey) explains the physics involved to his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain). This relationship between father and daughter is the emotional focal point of the story; as Coop explains to Murph how gravity manipulates time, we realise with her how beautiful, how close to magic physics can be, and, with her, we discard our sense of wonder as secondary to the fact that she may never see her father again. The brilliance of this film is in the way that physics, perhaps perceived as the most apathetic branch of science, is so closely bonded with human tenderness and sorrow. This is the main point which sets Interstellar apart from other films set in space. Though it’s true to the trope of space being lonely and bleak, this is tempered by its exploration of love as a quantifiable, reality-forming force like gravity. We do not yet, and perhaps never will, know what happens beyond the event horizon of a black hole; this left Nolan with a certain amount of creative license. It is to his credit that, while he does not confuse black holes with wormholes or ignore the effects of time dilation, he moves away from science as soon as he can no longer present it accurately, and instead of making up something science-y but ultimately false, he fills that void in our understanding with love and regret and books.
Other science fiction films invent fantasies to show us that science is exciting, filling space with monsters and explosions. Nolan shows us that science is exciting by highlighting what is actually possible. The psychics simulations of the brilliant Kip Thorne (Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech until 2009, and a leading expert in theoretical physics and astrophysics), helped to guide and design the various landscapes shown in Interstellar. This means that the massive difference in the way that time and gravity behave on Miller’s planet is plausible, and a great deal of thought was put into how this would affect the alien world’s vast body of water. Likewise, the wormhole is not only beautiful but also accurate (for the most part; it’s false colour, like almost all of the images we see of space).
While I’ve probably made it clear that this is the film for you if (like me) your idea of fun is a trip to the library, it’s also one of the most heart-wrenchingly emotional films I’ve seen for a long time, so you get the best of both worlds-with-the-potential-to-sustain-life. It even passes the Bechdel test. Now, if 2016-17 could continue this trend with some leads who aren’t white men that would be great.