Big Science, Big Screen: Interstellar Brings Theory and Thrills to Hollywood


Article by Alison K. Lanier | 839 words

Love it or hate it, Christopher Nolan’s freshest blockbuster Interstellar made immediate, quantum box office waves. Hollywood has made plenty of blockbusters, but what sets this one apart is the stunning array of scientific ideas that the film has brought to light for its millions of viewers.

If you haven’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey, you might miss a good deal of Interstellar’s reverent references. From the acceleration of the famous docking sequence to the rich humor of how Hal and the alien monoliths were drawn in, along with overt recreations of shots and animations, Nolan wasn’t shy about using his canonical allusions. Not to mention the film’s reinvention of the original’s more abstract concepts about humanity and its place among space’s mysteries. Nolan, who has been called an auteur director, may be making a gentle nod about the status of his own career by reimagining quintessential auteur Kubrick’s 1968 vision.

Interstellar movie poster

The Votes Come In

The film’s main problem, in terms of critical response, was Nolan’s apparently shifted focus from his cinematic, edge-of-your-seat Batman and Inception flicks. While those movies blended Nolan’s innovative filmmaking with the sweeping, fast-paced excitement of a thriller, Interstellar is less about easy entertainment and more about anxieties that draw strongly on Kubrick’s 2001. That being said, the action and the adventure are still very much in play with Interstellar.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, a darling of the online science community, gave a cheerfully positive edge to the film’s reception. With a stream of tweets and some CBS commentary, he emphasized the movie’s sound scientific points. He mentions that the massive waves (visible in the trailer) would be exactly what you’d expect on a massive planet beside the massive tidal force of a black hole. He also noted that Einstein’s theory of relativity had never been shown in a movie quite that way before. Plus, one half of the lead scientists in the film were female (a very generous estimate, to be honest, but accurate at least among the top-billed cast).

That being said, much more fundamental science takes enormous—if not disastrous—liberties for the sake of catalyzing the plot. Wormholes, for one, suddenly become ridiculously accessible early in the film. As points out, there are no concrete pieces of evidence that they exist, beyond theoretical equations.

Spotlighting the Science

The film’s representation of Gargantua, the fictive black hole portrayed with a great deal of IMAX gusto on screen, made waves in scientific communities. Gargantua is reportedly the most accurate visual depiction of a black hole ever, according to Wired. Kip Thorne, the theorist and executive producer whose name is reproduced as one of the movie’s spectacularly quippy robots, commented to Wired, “Why, of course. That’s what it would do.”

A black hole, an area of intense gravitation around a singularity of extreme density, sure doesn’t have much scientific certainty around it. Theoretical science surrounding relativity, as Wired so aptly phrases it, “is superweird.” The movie takes full advantage of all those theoretical twists and turns, including time running differently according to relativity theory beside the black hole.

From Content to Context

The movie’s science-accuracy debate has been bouncing back and forth ad nauseum among enthusiasts and curious moviegoers all across the Internet. Yes, the horizon of a more massive planet would appear to curve up at the edges, just as Nolan shows it. For all the obsession over accurate details, the bigger topic that critics are just starting to explore is the cultural impact of all this big-screen big science.

Time had a lot to say—enough to merit Interstellar’s cast appearing on the magazine’s American cover the week after the film’s release. But Time’s Jeffrey Kluger didn’t explore exactly how accurate the depiction of Gargantua’s accretion disk is. He was more interested in how we’re actually debating this science.

In conjunction with another, later article in which he speaks to Tyson, Kluger forges the idea that Interstellar’s scientific merit lies in more than just its ability to convince us about how relativity might feasibly work. Rather, it reminds us that this world of scientific wonderment is somewhere we viewers are plenty happy to flock to.

As he says, it “defies understanding… But never mind, because we believe in it all—and oh, how we love it. Big cosmology has become our secular religion, a church even atheists can join.”

Both Kluger and Tyson inch toward—and then state explosively—that Interstellar might signal the end of the unfortunate political trend of politicians “wearing their lack of scientific credentials as both populist badge and political shield, allowing them to deny what the real scientists are telling them without actually saying so.”

Cosmology, relativity and other scientific realms once thought to be shut off from the public might not be so foreign to laypeople after all. This could reflect a growing interest in science as a whole, which has huge implications for the future of our culture.

It’s not every day a Hollywood blockbuster gives us this much food for thought.

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