Stellar Science

The Science of InterstellarThe Science of Interstellar by Kip S. Thorne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While it takes a book like this to remind us how cutting-edge and accurate Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar really was, author Kip S. Thorne (predictably) ignores what is perhaps the biggest idea of the movie.

This idea has also proved the most polarising, with a range of critics and viewers labelling Nolan as sentimental, goofy and on a New Age trip as a result. I am, of course, referring to Dr Amelia Brand’s Big Speech near the end (played with deadpan earnestness by Anne Hathaway):

Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful, it has to mean something… Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.

Many critics have commented that the strong father-daughter relationship that drives the emotional engine of Interstellar is a vestige of the script/story when Steven Spielberg was still on board to direct it, as far back as 2006.

The only time that Thorne refers to the human elements of the movie is when he talks about Mann’s planet and the explosion of Endurance, adding (apologetically) that Dr Mann’s murderous actions lie outside the remit of science (instead of a mad robot as in 2001, Nolan presents us with a … mad scientist. Gee, how original.) Thorne then launches into a detailed, gleeful account of the Endurance explosion and how accurate it is, as enamoured as a Boy Scout with a ball of string.

Of course, the first time that Hollywood tried to depict a black hole was Disney’s 1979 movie, prosaically entitled The Black Hole. Thorne gives a compact account of how much our knowledge has changed in the interim.

The first time that the concept of a wormhole entered Hollywood as an SF staple of time/space travel was Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (1997), starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey (John Lithgow in Interstellar was also in 2010), based on the book by Carl Sagan (Thorne worked with both Sagan and Zemeckis on the science).

Flash-forward to 2014 and Nolan’s answer to Stanley Kubrick: a rigorously scientific and accurate SF movie, based upon (and extrapolated from) the latest research and data. Everything from Dr Brand’s equations on the blackboard to what Cooper sees within Gargantua, from the crop blight which decimates the earth at the beginning to the space colonies at the end, is either plausible or completely accurate.

Apart from Thorne himself, a crop of eminent scientists, theoreticians and academics were called upon for their two cents’ worth (though the final decision always lay with Nolan, Thorne points out constantly, especially when he has a quibble or two with the director’s artistic licence).

Needless to say, you should only read this book after you have seen the movie. If you attempt to read this first, I think you will have no desire whatsoever to see the movie, because it sounds like a graduate-level quantum physics lecture.

If you have seen the movie and then read a book like this, you will be amazed (as I was) at the amount of science you would have absorbed. And quite painlessly, all with state-of-the-art CGI and a truly thunderous Hans Zimmer score to boot.

My only quibble is that Thorne is a much better teacher than he is a writer – there are some wince-inducing instances here that could have used an editor’s cudgel. Apart from that, Thorne’s enthusiasm for his subject matter shines through every page, making this a truly memorable companion piece to a great movie.

Is it the greatest SF movie ever made? I would have to say it is probably the best American SF movie ever made, as the idea that the whole concept of space travel is simply to replicate the American Dream among the stars is singularly depressing.

There is no inkling here that base-line humanity will have to change; that evolution and transformation go hand in hand. One only has to look to great SF writers like Paul McAuley and Stephen Baxter to read what lies in store for us; hopefully Hollywood catches up soon.

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Science fiction is to blame

When the scything debris cloud from the exploding Russian satellite kick-starts the plot of Gravity, I was reminded of an even bigger explosion in an earlier Alfonso Cuaron movie: that scene on the beach, appropriately entitled Heaven’s Mouth, that concludes Y Tu Mama Tambien. How far Cuaron has come, from the raw sensuality of Y Tu Mama Tambien to the hermetic claustrophobia of Gravity.

Surreptitious observation of an audience reveals much about the impact of a particular movie. With Gravity, I discerned initial restlessness at the gorgeous opening pan of a lambent earth shining in the void like God’s own Christmas ornament. As the shot went on … and on, one could hear random chatter begin to break out. We have become so jaded due to the frenetic jump-cut editing of modern superhero blockbusters.

Even when the camera eventually gets to focus on Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the cinematography still seems untethered from, ahem, gravity, due to a soaring, constantly shifting POV. The fact that the earth is hanging below you at some unfathomable distance, with the relentless dark of the void lurking all around, is subtly underscored by the 3D, which keeps the audience constantly unbalanced and gripping the sides of their seats. (It is for this reason you have to see Gravity on the biggest, loudest cinema screen that your nerves can stand.)

The cinema gradually quietened down to the point where you could hear a pin drop. The tension was palpable as the audience became totally immersed in the life-and-death struggle playing out so far above the shining earth. There was the occasional gasp or indrawn breath; also groans at those moments when serendipity failed our intrepid cast.

And these are not superheroes whose death or injury is never in doubt. These are flesh-and-blood people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. It is a movie that subtly invites you to partake of the spectacle of their agony and ecstasy; then it grabs you by the scruff of the neck and rubs your face in the messy, sweaty, fear-drenched account of their survival.

Star Trek glosses over the particularity of space travel with its concept of the warp drive, which reduces the impossibility of space travel to something as mundane as accelerating a sports car. The universe is so big, space opera tells us, that the leap from planet-side to interstellar vacuum is beneath consideration. At the end of the day, science fiction is to blame for turning this miracle of our technological development into such a banal non-event. Gravity does to space what Jaws did for the ocean: it takes a perfectly ordinary element, and transforms it into one of terror and wonder and infinite possibility.

The audience’s imagination has atrophied due to the over-use of CGI. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the horror genre, where the traditional elements of suspense and terror have been largely replaced by gore-drenched implausibility. Gravity is that peculiar animal: a cross-genre movie that invigorates the essence of cinema itself. It is both a horror movie and a science fiction one; it is also a meditation on meaning and the miracle of life.

While the technology deployed by Cuaron and his team has been likened to the paradigm shift introduced into the industry by Terminator 2 and Avatar, what is particularly interesting with Gravity is that these breakthroughs have been developed in service of a story as elemental as story-telling itself. And such are the performances delivered by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and such is the spectacle that surrounds them, that we totally believe, for a heart-stopping 90-odd minutes, that these are two astronauts fighting for their lives. The SFX and CGI never lose sight of the heart of the story and the spectacle, which is precisely why it is so believable and terrifying.