starlady: (moon dream)
[personal profile] starlady
Interstellar. Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014.

This movie got such mixed reviews from Twitter I nearly didn't go see it, but I'm glad I did. It's my favorite Nolan movie in a while, but I think it's his most genuinely felt movie in years, or possibly ever. And as a science fiction movie, I think it's pretty great. I think opinions about science fiction movies tend to be pretty mixed among SF fans, and it's certainly true that I haven't seen every SF movie that's come out since Contact (hey wait, both those movies feature Matthew McConnaughey, in diametrically opposite roles), but for me it was definitely worth mentioning in the same breath as that movie. Indeed, if anything, I'd say it's our generation's 2001.

At the outset, let me say that what I liked about the movie was the performances, the score (holy shit, the score. I don't think Hans Zimmer has ever done better, and that's saying something), and also the fact that it was so intensely emotional. This is a movie that always relates the consequences of its grand concepts back to the emotions of its characters, and as a consequence, I cried at multiple points, for the first time ever at a Nolan movie. I don't cry easily by any means, and for that reason I tend to use it as an aesthetic judgment. By those measures, this movie was great.

I don't even know if I want to bother talking about the plot, because it's the sort of thing that's difficult to spoil imo, and also because I feel like at this point everyone's either seen it or read enough reviews to have a general sense. What I wanted to talk about was two specific charges I saw against the movie, both of which, after seeing it, I felt were to some extent unfair. The first was that Nolan gets metaphysics in his science (ew!), and the second was that the science in the second two thirds was hand-wavey and fake.

On some level I think the question of whether you find the movie sentimental or not is more of a Rorschach test than it is an actual matter of the film's content. My own judgments on all these matters changed radically after my mother died--I almost never cried at art before then, but in the last five years I've become a comparative waterworks. There's a line in Lyra's Oxford, where Lyra thinks that after her parting from Will it's as though her heart is permanently bruised, and to me, that's a pretty good way of putting it. So to me, the complaints about mixing metaphysics and science fiction are just sort of on the wrong game board. Love is stronger than death, not in a quantifiable way that can be reduced to cold equations on a blackboard, but on a way that we can feel around us and within us. And if the movie is going to hang humanity's survival on the actions of a few people in a spacecraft in another galaxy, then I don't think it's a failure of art to be talking about love, and about how the characters' personal feelings affect their actions and their choices. And I don't think Anne Hathaway's character's speech is out of character for a scientist, either. I know scientists who would say the same thing, and others who would recoil at the very notion. Scientists are by no means all one thing (except on the question of climate change. Only quacks disbelieve it).

All of which sounds like I am making a value judgement about those who found it mawkish; I'm not, but I do think that at least some people are making that critique from an old school "hard SF" position, which is notable among many other things for its delusion that thought and emotion were separate and that rationality was to be valued more highly than feeling. That isn't true; emotion and cognition are one and the same, and that fact is something that makes us human. (Matt Damon's long speech about the survival instinct actually makes this same point in the movie, in a very roundabout way.) So to people who say that "real science fiction" shouldn't have feelings in it…I have nothing remotely complimentary to say. Human beings aren't robots. The robots in the movie were great, though.

I also didn't think the science was that bad, especially for a Hollywood film. The thing that I found the fishiest was the notion that they could just park the space station unit at a preset distance and so easily predict and define the time dilation effect on Miller's planet--from what I understand (and it's been a few years since I've read up on this), I don't think it would work like that, and you'd also need to be going much closer to the speed of light to get such radical apparent time differences. Even next to a black hole, it would not work like that (or at the very least, the effects would not be so predictable, at least not without much more observation!). But all that being said, although it was handwaving, it was definitely handwaving of a higher order, for which I give the Nolans props. And I also think that the notion of a five-dimensional civilization coming along and making it possible for humans to save themselves (because they'd already done it) isn't as far-fetched as it could sound. Here I may be stretching into the space where people are going to argue with me, but if we could manipulate gravity, as Murph uses her father's data to figure out how to do, we could lift our entire civilization out of Earth's gravity well. (Indeed, the unchanging reality of the cost of getting a pound of stuff above escape velocity is the reason we're not all living in orbit now.) Now, of course it's true that as things stand we can't manipulate gravity, we have no notion of how to measure the fourth dimension (i.e. time), much less exist in five, and we can't reconcile quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. But if (or when) we have a paradigm shift in our understanding of the universe akin to that which occurred upon Einstein discovering general relativity (or Newton formulating classical mechanics), a lot of things that seem inconceivable now, or that we can't even imagine, would become not only thinkable but possible. And I'm not willing to discount that possibility based on the state of our current knowledge of the universe. There are more things in heaven and hell, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy--and from what we do know, moreover, gravity seems as likely a candidate for leaping that next chasm as any.

All that being said, I do think part of the reason the film got me so hard is because I've more or less lost all hope for humanity. The film tells, at its heart, the comforting lie that our future is still something we can control, which I really doubt is true at this point. I think it's all over in a hundred years, more or less, and so like Kierkegaard's knight of faith, I've decided to act like there is hope while believing that there is none. And maybe the grounds for criticism that I would find legitimate is that Nolan chose to tell this story, rather than a more despairing one. But I also think it's true what Cooper says, that hope takes courage and despair is the coward's way out. So, courage. Do not go gentle into that good night.
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