Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Interstellar is awesome, People are depressing!

I just watched Interstellar this weekend. I went in with very low expectations, even lower than the cautious intrigue I express in my previous post, thanks to a flurry of negative reviews on my various newsfeeds. I did not read any of them before I saw the movie for fear of spoilers, but I was prepared to be disappointed.

But I was not.

By far the best movie I have seen in quite some time, Interstellar solidly redeems Chris Nolan from the ghastly TDKR. I am just going to forgive him that one and never mention it again.

In the aftermath of the movie, I unfortunately let myself devolve. Out of morbid pitiable curiosity, I wanted to see what all the negative reviews were about. A precious few of those critics have anything worthwhile to say. I almost wrote a massive rant in answer but then thankfully caught myself. So I will just briefly mention the broad classes of irritating Interstellar criticism and not waste my too much of my time on pointless banter.

1. The Petty Fault Finding

"What causes the food to go scarce, why can't the blight be cured? Won't the X-Rays from the black hole killed the ships and life? How can a planet with frozen clouds be stable?"
The people who watch movies and notice "bloopers" like "the table cloth was a different color in the two scenes" come out in full force to greet every science fiction movie.

Science fiction, by its very definition, takes liberties with science and shows things we may not think are physically or practically possible. As I read on Twitter, "the plot holes of a science fiction seem to be just the fiction part". One of the reasons for this attitude might be the proliferation of hard science fiction, sci-fi where the science is used accurately. The reason hard sci-fi has become a separate genre in the last few decades is because fiction that details any science, accurate or inaccurate, is now too complex for mainstream fiction readers. Some of the hard science fiction can be called just fiction. But this is just semantics and not important. 

What is important is that existence of hard sci-fi does not take the license of true 'soft' science fiction away. Interstellar is not a documentary, it is fiction, art. Would you say you do not like Van Gogh's screamer because the person's head is not realistic? The painting is not intended to be realistic, it is meant to make the artist's point. Sci-fi is allowed to imagine worlds or rules that may differ from the rules of real life because it is just that, imagination.
Then there are other "plot holes" which are not holes at all, but opinions. "Scientists don't talk like like they do in the movie", "Love transcends space and time" speech is so stupid, "If Cooper loves his daughter, why does he go to space/to Brand at the end". These are the dumbest plot holes because more often than not these opinions are wrong and misinformed. Or they go away when you think deeper into the subject - e.g. the "Love" speech is brilliantly done to expose Brand's own emotional frailty and willingness to say anything, even compromise rationality to see her lover. It never seemed like a stupid and sappy attempt to prove that love is a physical force of the universe.

There are bunch of other non-scientific plot holes like "if entire video communications could be sent to Cooper's ship, then why couldn't the Lazarus ships send more information about the planet back to Earth than just a beacon signal" and "who made the tesseract" so on. I admit, some of them do seem like contrivances, but not large ones. Suspensions of disbelief this small are fairly easy for me when so much else is going right. If you can't swallow even these tiny incongruencies for the sake of a larger story, well, good for you.

I will not go through other "plot holes" since mentioning some of them is an insult to a reader's intelligence.

2. The Lazy Entertainhog

One review I read says, "His movies are numbingly sexless...Characters gabble on about taking risks, about needing oneanother, but they never leap toward anything so dangerous as intimacy."
Nolan's three most famous movies, Inception, The Dark Knight and Interstellar are indeed 'sexless' and are clear examples of why they must be so. All three movies are set in a setting where the bulk of the action happens within a few days of constant action (the long travel years in Interstellar are spent in cryo-sleep). All the protagonist are (Cobb, Gordon, Cooper, Brand) were married or committed (or dysfunctional like Bruce Wayne) and are brought together for a short intense mission. Whether by design or coincidence, the story does not require "sex", or more broadly, intimacy.

Scientists, mercenaries, police commissioner and vigilantes don't really feel the need to build intimate relationships when on a fast-paced mission to save the world. Hot single ultra-skilled prodigies do not really hang around waiting for the most dangerous moments in history to form intimate relationships with other conveniently paired hot single prodigies. If the story makes said intimacy work within its framework, good for it. But the idea that nothing in this world happens without deep intimate relationships forming between complete strangers shows an extreme myopic view of movies and reality. Given my experience of everyday American life, the necessity of intimacy in a story reveals a level of hypocrisy that I thought did not exist outside Bollywood's depiction of "real Indian women".

3. The Snooty Art Critic

These critics are harder to please, because they are right in their own way. Yes the character development is not too great. And the musical score sometimes overdoes it a bit. My personal opinion is that the setting of the movie did not have any scope for character development. Most characters in the movie have defects but they seem to be aware and in acceptance of their character flaws. So while the characters don't really evolve (except perhaps Murphy) and grow through the movie, they are still multi-dimensional. Not much time was wasted in the 3 hour movie and so any more development would put this story beyond the scope of the movie medium itself. So there is some truth in the decree that the movie was perhaps ambitious for the medium, but I liked it for that very same reason.
2001, the art critics' fav sci-fi. Interstellar has suffered the most being compared to 2001, a pity we are not allowed to like both.
To the movie's credit however, it does not try to bamboozle the audience with physics. Every physics term is mentioned in the shortest words possible - time dilation, black hole and wormholes. No MichaelBay-BigBangTheory-ish fake words like Lepto-Chrono-Transmogrification. The movie tries hard to be accessible and if its not, it is just a reflection of how far the common populace is from hearing, much less understanding, basic truths about how their GPS-Facebook-LED world works. If you still think the movie is too laden with science, I would only say that you go easy on this critique because they tried and this is the best they could have done. Banishing such topics from ever entering the public zeitgeist will only further the divide. If you could not follow the movie even on its face value as a piece of fiction, then the movie is perhaps not for you and you can take solace in that only a Nolan is allowed to do something like this once in a while.

4. The Juvenile Revolutionary

Of course a movie with such overt socio-political theme atleast in the first half of the movie will attract its fair share of "intellectuals". Many of them might find their beliefs validated by the movie, while others might simply be picking and choosing. However, I do not think it entirely fruitless to find validation in art, since Nolan clearly did want to just make a summer blockbuster. I do believe a true artist can't help but make ideological statements which can certainly influence the public opinion.

The obvious one is environmentalism, and they will find validation in Nolan's imagery of a bleak future for Earth. The anarchists and libertarians will find great joy by their paranoia of suppression of speech by big govt being given its due by Nolan's schools rewriting the history of Apollo lunar landings, calling them a hoax operation intended to bankrupt the Soviets. I have written before on why I agree with these groups about some of the problems in society, but disagree on their proposed solution so I will not extol it here.

But I was quite amused by another review I read which said "If there is anything that Christopher Nolan represents, it is the belief that technology trumps everything else. ...I think that Bezos [advancing space tourism, super-rich in space]... should be encouraged but not exactly for the same reasons. Given the bestial behavior we can expect from the super-rich bent on destroying just such a rational system, there will be a need to quarantine the Koch’s and Bezos’s of the world. What better place than a colony in outer space where they can live in comfort and be of no possible danger to the rest of us?"
Millionaires who are pushing for space travel.
Wow, that's the stupidest thing I have read in a while. Where did the rich spring out of? I decry the hyper-capitalist system of inequality as much as the next guy, but to pretend that the rich are somehow evil and separate from "the rest of us" is just as juvenile as hippies and anarchists. The rich are just like everyone else, some are good, some are bad and all just respond to the socio-economic system we build around us. Even if you managed to vaporize all of the rich, it would not save the Earth, other people would just take their place. Science, technology and education is the only way any progress has ever been made in any direction. Whenever there is any form of scarcity, someone will always try to exploit it, whether it is a capitalist, socialist or any other form of society. And the only way to mitigate, and hopefully someday eradicate scarcity, is technology.

5. The Misguided Educator

The last class of critics is the hardest to stomach. Various newsfeeds are full of people who are science literate and lambast the movie for being scientifically inaccurate. These people are not petty or lazy, they are intelligent people who understand some if not all of the science in the movie and are simply misguided imo.

The goal of a science educator is to broaden the horizons of a person by exposing them to what humans have discovered about the universe. Technology is the second step of harnessing said knowledge to invent tools to benefit humanity. Together they show how beautiful and awe-inspiring our universe is and at the same time how powerful a force human ingenuity and curiosity is. Anyone who believes that science/technology is the key to the future, regardless of whether they themselves are in the field, I will bunch broadly in the category of science educator.

The critique that most annoyed me was Phil Plait's (science writer at Slate) review. Apparently he "really really did not like the movie". And then in his post he goes on to "debunk" the time dilation construct and numerous other scientific leaps in the movie. He says that such a large time dilation would only literally on the edge of the horizon of the black hole and could not be a stable orbit for a planet. Stable orbits around black holes must be at least 3 times the size of the black hole and therefore cannot have such strong time dilation.
Another one - Where is the matter for the bright accretion disk coming from, no other star is visible?
That is your problem with a movie? Phil Plait, I have been a follower of your science journalism for a while and I find it quite enjoyable, but this is far out. Firstly, Nolan is not educating people on where stable orbits of black holes can be. As I have already said before, its fiction, so get over it. 

Secondly, when challenging an art form on the basis of unrealistic depiction you have to be careful. The art form has no onus to be accurate, but you the critic of said accuracy, do. Are you confident enough in your claims that your knowledge is so sound and true that you cannot even admit the remotest possibility of such a thing being invented or is covered or happening? Remember, any sufficiently advanced technology might seem like magic to the unimaginative. 

Just over a hundred years ago, no one would consider that anyone or anything could walk through walls. Yet today, we know that particles passing through walls is possible and happens every day, a.k.a. quantum tunneling. I personally work with quantum teleportation and particles that are in multiple places at the same time every day. Are you sure there can never be an untreatable blight? Are you so absolutely sure, so unshakeably sure that not stable orbit can exist with a large time dilation can exist for a black hole? As it turns out, Phil should not have been so sure. He later learnt that his calculation had not accounted for spinning black holes, which would allow such orbits and he had to issue a retraction.

But I wish Phil Plait was not wrong. Because now he can apologize for not checking his math. The point I am making is that even if Phil had been right he was still wrong

So does the qualification of fiction give complete freedom to show anything with no regard to reality? Well yes, because freedom of speech ideal gives every idiot the right to say whatever wrong things they want to say. However, the same freedom also gives other sane people the right to call the idiot an idiot. So when you should you exercise that right?

Every one will have their own opinion here for sure. In my opinion, a science educator should only be critical of science-fiction is the fiction does harm to science education. The reason is very simple.

Science is intricate, with many prerequisites necessary to reach the frontier of current knowledge. If scientific concepts were taught as currently understood, no kid would ever learn Newton's gravitational law or Bohr's model of the atom. Saying half truths is not an incorrect method of instruction, it is often necessary because the complete truth might be beyond the scope of the current method of instruction. If a movie that exposes millions of people to concepts such as time dilation and wormholes for the first time used an exaggerated time dilation to make the effect interesting, I don't think it is not doing anything wrong. Educators such as Phil Plait should use this opportunity and point out the correct intricacies of the scenario without saying the movie was bad because of the inaccuracy. This shows off their knowledge and educates those who are capable of following the calculations to learn even more without bashing the movie that tries so hard to make "nearly" accurate science interesting to the people. 

But if a movie uses artistic license to spread a patently false message, then the above excuse obviously does not apply. Say a movie introduces the idea of black holes and then tries to scare people saying false things like the LHC might make a black hole tomorrow and destroy us all, sure criticize the movie for using bad science to spread fear and discredit. Even if a movie is positive using ridiculous excesses like heroes throwing black holes to fight villains and running faster than light to bring back their one true dead love, the criticism would be well deserved, even if hilarious. If someone made a documentary or an educational movie with bad science, that would be worthy of the exact criticism leveled by Phil. 

But Nolan is not doing any of the above. He is staying close to the rules of science we know while bending some to make a entertaining, fictional movie. Educators and science literates who do not realize this and try to score cheap points rather than use the opportunity to educate have lost sight of the reason why they do what they do. 

In fact the movie does something far more valuable than just educate about science or entertain. It portrays science as the savior of mankind, but not scientists. Every scientist in the movie except maybe Murphy, is fallible and given to bad, sometimes irrational, decisions. The fallacy in the argument against science is that scientists are somehow different than non-scientists, which leads to either elitism or irrational opposition to reason, depending on where you stand. The movie treats scientists as humans and science as the key to the future, and manages to separate the two, something not many movies can or even aspire to do.

Anyway, that was the massive Interstellar rant I thought I was not going to write. You don't want to read when I do rant. I pity my wife for having to listen to many of my diatribes.

On more movie news, The Imitation Game looks promising.

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