Was Interstellar Inspiring?

Christopher Nolan, the director of Interstellar, popped up this week, talking about the science in his epic space opera. He told the BBC:

I got a lot of fascinating insights into the possibilities of the universe and so we felt a real responsibility with the film to try to inspire young people in the same way.

He also said:

It feels like the time to try and inspire another generation to really look outwards, and look to the stars again.

And went on to state:

We really hoped that by dramatizing these ideas, by dramatizing science and making it something that hopefully could be entertaining for kids, we might inspire some of the astronauts of tomorrow… that would be the ultimate goal of the project.

I listened to the interview, and was perplexed. It never occurred to me that Interstellar might be considered an inspiring story. Dispiriting? Yes. Depressing? Quite. Desperate? Often. Inspiring? Hardly.

Inspiration motivates action. Its wellspring is the belief that the individual can shape the future. As such, inspiration is the mortal foe of fatalism. Whilst the heroes of Interstellar travel through a wormhole to exotic new worlds, the film drowns in its own sense of destiny.

Interstellar begins with the human race in a state of irreversible decline. A blight forces the burning of crops, making it increasingly unlikely that people will be able to feed themselves. Science provides no solution to this most fundamental of challenges. Nobody has a credible plan to save the planet, or to improve the quality of life here. Everything hinges on an improbable bid to relocate the human race to another world.

By the time the film finishes, we learn that everything was bound to work out the way it did, thanks to the literal engineering of loopholes in time. Whenever the protagonists face an insurmountable problem, they only need to wait for their fifth-dimensional descendants to provide the solution. This may take the form of an Einstein-Rosen bridge. Or it may be scientific data not obtainable with the technology currently available to humans. Or it may be a tesseract within a supermassive black hole, which catches the hero and lets him communicate with his daughter by flinging books from the shelf of her childhood home. I assume that few scientific equations were crunched to develop that last bit of the plot.

Without the help of the mysterious, powerful and benevolent future humans, the film’s prot-agonists are not even agonists. They may shuffle small pieces around the interstellar game board, but only because superior beings have invited them to play. And the consequence of each move deviates wildly from the protagonists’ plans. If they had known how to win the game, their first ship would have flown straight into a black hole, so they could phone a friend and explain how to solve the mumbo-jumbo-who-wants-to-be-a-millionaire-and-save-the-species equation. The end. That way, poor old Matt Damon would not have ended up so homicidally lonely on his crappy ice world.

The story blurs physics with metaphysics, riding an escalator of increasingly goofy principles that starts with the utterly respectable phenomenon of time dilation and ends with the cliché that love conquers all. I can accept that love might defeat an army of orcs, or wake a sleeping princess, or move a mountain, or cheat death. But it is too much to expect love to also transmit the gravitational equivalent of a telegram. No communications technology that combines love with morse code is ever going to catch on, whether in this universe or any other.

Heroes are inspiring, because they effect the change they want to see. Science is inspiring, because it can empower transformation. It is not inspiring to rely on our great great grandkids to clean up the mistakes we make, and cannot fix for ourselves. However, that has become a common theme in our profoundly hopeless era. I agree with Nolan that we need new stories which use science to inspire the heroes of coming generations. But Interstellar was not that story.

For those who disagree, this was the interview that Nolan gave the BBC.

This entry was posted in movie, philosophy, Science and tagged , , , by Ray Blank. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ray Blank

Ray Blank is one of several identities deployed by a confused cosmopolitan who splits his time between navigating the internet, wandering the countryside, and flying overseas to give talks about using the phone instead. The other identities are responsible for a book about flawed communications, a film about losing your mind in Arabia, and a website for professionals who worry about risk. The Ray Blank identity
writes science fiction stories and ceaselessly toils to subjugate the others.

  • dgarsys

    I submit that you misinterpreted how love was used in the movie (hint, not as some mystical force) AND the decisions made by people caught in the time loop who did not know yet that they were in such a loop, and that thus, that some of their actions were foreordained by what had already happened.

    The destiny part is an issue with any “hard time loop” style of SF. But other forms of time travel become far more problematic. I think he dealt with the issue well.

    • @dgarsys, thanks for your comment. Please expand your analysis – it’s obvious that you’ve put some thought into this topic, and we’re only scratching the surface of how you’ve interpreted this film.

      On the topic of love as a mystical force, I’d argue that interpretation follows from a straightforward reading of the screenplay. These are the relevant snippets:

      “When I say that love isn’t something we invented, it’s observable, powerful. It has to mean something.”

      “Maybe it means something more, something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s, some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade. Who, I know, is probably dead. Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.”

      “I thought they chose me. But they didn’t choose me, they chose her!”
      “For what, Cooper?”
      “To save the world! All of this! In one little girl’s bedroom. Every moment, it’s infinitely complex. They have access to infinite time and space, but they’re not bound by anything. They can’t find a specific place in time. They can’t communicate. That’s why I’m here. I’m here to find a way to tell Murph, just like I found this moment.”
      “How Cooper?”
      “Love TARS, love! It’s just like Brand said, my connection with Murph, it is quantifiable.”

      I’d argue that we start with an ambiguous exposition about love by Brand. She says love transcends time and space. Brand might be saying something fairly mundane: that it is possible for one person to feel love for another person who is elsewhere, or dead, or yet to exist. Or she might be making a metaphysical statement where love is a power/artifact that can manipulate the physical universe across extraordinary distances as measured in space and time. When arguing with Brand, Cooper takes a practical view of love, ignoring Brand’s metaphysical overtones. But in the tesseract, Cooper changes his opinion, and tell us that the love between him and Murph is the reason he was chosen for the mission. Love is a connection that has an effect which the 5-dimensional beings cannot mimic, and which they need in order to enable communication of important data to a useful person who is at the right time and place. To use a crude analogy, Cooper’s love for Murph is like a phone number. The use of gravitational waves to communicate with Murph is only possible because Cooper has the correct number to dial.

      If we suppose Cooper’s insight is relevant, and not just daft babbling, then I struggle to conceive of any interpretation of this quantifiable connection created by love, except by classifying it as a mystical force. Clearly this application of love isn’t derived from any current science, so I must default to calling it ‘mystical’ for want of a more meaningful description.

      However, I’d be keen to hear an alternative interpretation of the role of love in the scene where Cooper is in the tesseract.

      I’d also be glad to get a better understanding of how you think a loop in time, where a person’s actions are determined by what had already happened, disqualifies my interpretation of the influence of the 5-dimensional beings. It is suggested the beings suffer no limit to their knowledge of what occurs in space and time. Hence, it is irrelevant to them that humans can be predestined to do anything, just because of a loop in time. As 5-dimensional beings that can observe time and space from outside it, they can surely choose to influence events (for example, by creating a wormhole) with full knowledge of the consequences this action will have. What matters is not whether humans, from their relatively limited perspective, could choose to act otherwise. What is important is that the 5-dimensional beings, as far as we know, have the freedom to determine what outcome they want. Free will may be an illusion for Cooper, but per the script, the 5-dimensional beings chose Murph.

      • dgarsys

        Black holes exist. it may have changed recently, but they were originally filed under “we cannot directly observe it, and can only locate one because of the impact it has on other things.”

        They are hardly the first thing to be discovered not by direct observation of the thing itself, but by the impact it had on other things (Pluto, etc…..)

        Are abstract concepts, and engineering principles real? They are not material, yet they exist, they can be transmitted via material means, and their impact can be measured.

        Love exists. it does have an impact on human behavior. That existence can be determined through how people behave when they say they love someone. Their willingness to sacrifice, extend trust, to retain memories. Those all exist within the person experiencing those feelings, and stay with that person across time (years and death may diminish it but do not have to destroy it…) and distance. One does not even have to meet the person (note, I’m using the four types the greeks list out, not just the more obvious eros and familial…). That knowledge, and knowledge of another’s love, can and does impact decisions and choices made.

        No new age fluff required.

      • Anthony M

        But pretty much every single thing you quote argues AGAINST is being a mystical force. It is:

        . Quantifiable

        . Observable

        . Able to be manipulated

        . Understood more completely by the humans of the future

        It’s just science that the present-day humans of “Interstellar” don’t, yet, fully understand.

        By your logic, if we don’t know how something works, that makes it a mystical force. But all it means is that we don’t know how it works. Just because the ancients may not have understood exactly how to harness the power of electricity or the specifics of what it was capable of didn’t mean electricity was a mystical force.

        • I don’t want to get hung up on the word ‘mystical’, because I didn’t use that word in the original post. However, one of the meanings of this word allies to ‘mysterious’ or ‘unintelligible’. No spiritual or religious belief is needed to observe that the method used by Cooper to contact Murph is unintelligible to us. Indeed, the vague language used by Cooper suggests the method is unintelligible to him too, even though he’s trying to explain it.

          Saying something is currently unintelligible is no bar to it being intelligible in future. However, from our current point of view, we can only speculate as to what might be intelligible in future, and what will never be intelligible because of the finite limits to human reasoning.

          I drew attention to the reportedly observable and quantifiable nature of love, as used to communicate with Murph, to indicate this isn’t the kind of love that Brand was talking about when she emphasized how a human can love a dead person very much. We know about the latter form of love, but we don’t tend to use it to manipulate gravitational waves! The observation and the quantification relates to an objectively measurable phenomenon in the physical universe, not the subjective experience of love. (Please let us put aside the fact that our subjective experiences may influence our own physical bodies, and consider that as a special case which should not be confused with a more general argument about the way love may interact with the universe.)

          Whilst I quoted from the script to show that the protagonists used a property of love not familiar to us, we didn’t see a lot of evidence that the protagonists were observing or quantifying love in a scientific way. It’s a film, so we shouldn’t take it too seriously, but these astronauts are very sloppy in their use of scientific concepts! For example, is there an SI unit for love? 🙂 So I’m not arguing that forces which can be quantified and observed generally tend to be mystical. I’m only observing that this particular use of love isn’t one the human race is currently familiar with, and is beyond my understanding. However, if there are wiser people who can explain how to use love to send morse code messages across many light years, and back decades in time, I’d be very keen to learn their method 🙂

          • Anthony M

            Well, apparently there are people. They’re just from the future!