Interstellar, or why deus ex machinae in science fiction are a bad idea

030 December 20, 2014 -- (video)

I'd like to start this by stating that this isn't about how Interstellar is a good or a bad movie; it's a pretty good movie and it also has its bad parts, obviously, but all that doesn't matter. What matters is stripping it down naked in front of everyone and whipping it until we get down to its core, assuming that it is more than form without substance. I know how these kinds of discourses, dialogues and debates are frowned upon more and more in various parts of the "civilized world" nowadays, but I don't see how that's gonna stop us sane people doing it.

I went to see Interstellar more out of curiosity than anything else. Once the news about Kip Thorne and the accurate simulation of a black hole became public, and later, when people started discussing the movie's more or less sciencey stuff, I became interested, despite having to go to the cinema and sit through all the 3D "immersion" crap, because this fad hasn't gone away yet.

The movie's action takes place in a not-so-far-away future, when the population growth and other important stuff such as, y'know, "global warming", forces the move from an industrial society to an agrarian one, where people are mostly farmers and all the military is gone from the face of the Earth. This isn't such a bad scenario, but it's a highly optimistic one: I for one would rather see a couple of big wars happening before this shift, reducing the population to only a few billion, making the poorly industrialized agrarian approach more or less realistic, but bleaker than it's represented in the movie; I know that this is below humanity, but you really don't see the worst in humanity until you see it. Hunger will make people kill each other and that's that.

This scenario brings forth several other "issues of humanity", namely that the climate has changed to dust storms, probably inspired by Mars, and wheat crops are extinct, while corn crops are on the way to extinction. Probably most of the animals are dead too, since I don't remember seeing any in the movie. So our main character, Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), is a farmer and an ex-NASA-pilot-engineer-whatever with a dead wife and two kids, one of whom becomes a brilliant scientist later in the movie, and is called Murph, played by three actors. As things go in American movies, out of nowhere our Coop is re-recruited by ex-NASA, which is now actual NASA, a secret organization attempting to launch a rocket through a wormhole that suddenly appeared somewhere in our Solar System, leading us to another galaxy with potentially habitable planets and, fuckety-fuck, a black hole that does nasty stuff with time and mind and matter.

There are more or less relevant details regarding the movie's plot, more specifically the "Plan A" and "Plan B" which are bound to be forgotten by most people until the movie is over, due to what I suppose is pretty bad writing, but the more spoilery part is that Coop goes, wastes a few of humanity's decades, goes into the black hole, breaks relativity a few times, somehow manages to escape, meets his daughter who's now older than him and then goes off to find his, I didn't get it, was that chick played by Anne Hathaway his girlfriend? No she wasn't, but that's not really relevant.

Science meets bullshit

One of the key aspects that the movie tries to emphasize, and that are part of Cooper's character, and that make up one of the scenes at the beginning, is the so-called love of, or for science: Murph tells her father that she has a ghost in her room, and at that point he tells her that that's not a ghost, and that the essence of science, and indeed, of truth, is to question everything and come to truth through critical thinking. The movie doesn't emphasize that enough in my opinion, but I liked the fact that it actually tried to do that and it shows that at least some of the writers are tired of the pseudo-scientific bullshit going on in the previously mentioned "civilized" world.

This issue is also brought up in another one of the first scenes, when apparently we are presented with what seems to be a good dose of revisionism taught in American schools. This is nice and all, but it falls into the classical Hollywoodian problem of presenting an issue of the US as a global one; I like to think that the rest of the world, or at least a big part of it, likes to value truth versus the propagandistic "documentaries" about the Moon landings being a hoax and other absurd crap, as we've had our share of bad history with falsifying knowledge, what with the communism and all.

Other than that, the movie aims to give pretty accurate scientific facts, at least up to some point. There's no sound in space, for one; the facts about the black hole and relativity are mostly true, although I don't get how people could survive in an environment so near to a black hole, where the time dilation factor is 1 hour to 23 years, given that the gravitational pull would be immense; heck, I don't get how a planet can exist that close to a black hole, but I guess we'll leave that to speculation. Also, later on some of the scientists there keep saying some stuff about how "gravity can go back in time" or something of that likes, which is obviously false, given that the only way of achieving this would be managing to break the energy-mass equivalence somehow.

Of course, we'll never know how Cooper survived the pull into the black hole or how he got back, or how he actually managed to transmit information into the past, but that's the "fiction" part of science fiction; it's okay, the writers went full "2001" there and we're all okay with that. Still, I think that if an advanced humanity living outside of time were able to conceive such a paradox, I think that this kind of occurence would have been more common in nature, which makes the feasibility of such a phenomenon extremely improbable. But then again, so are dinosaurs in the center of the Earth.

The thing that bothered me the most however is why the government would spend so much money in secret to attempt such a risky mission, when I'm sure there would be better solutions available. Those that have read Dune are probably familiar with the actual science of ecology, versus the nasty, political, almost religious ecologism occuring nowadays: since we assume that humans have a hand in "global warming", then it's conceivable that humans could devise controlled climate modifications, so that the ecosystem would be properly regulated. This is in my opinion a much more efficient course of action, given that we already have the means to modify weather. But meh, I suppose sending people in space is cooler, and it is indeed a good idea, but only after we've learned how terraforming is done, which doesn't happen in Interstellar.

Oh, and I want a robot like TARS. Really, that's some nice AI, despite that small chance of them wanting to kill all humans.

Deus ex machinae in science fiction are a bad idea

Despite the whole black hole thing being a perfectly good element in the world of science fiction, I think it's a pretty bad plot device, especially given the science fiction-ness of the movie, moreso that it's its central element: at some point in the future, humans become a super advanced race being able to spawn black holes that let people send bits of information to the past, which constitutes the thing that saves humanity in Interstellar. Don't get me wrong, it's pretty damn nice, except I don't think it is.

First of all, sending information to the past gives rise to this mind-bending paradox which is hardly explainable by any science fiction author: humanity is on the verge of extinction, which leads some people to the desperate act of going into a hardly achievable quest which eventually leads them to a black hole where they're able to modify the past in order to lead them there in the first place, thus creating a time travel loop; well, we don't really know who created the time travel loop, the dying humans or the super advanced humans who were beyond time, because we assume that humans survived anyway. So yes, this breaks any temporal logic that we know, but on the basis of what? "Quantum"? Come on.

Given this time travel weirdness, I have to say that the black hole is no more and no less than a deus ex machina. No, it's not that humans saved themselves: the god from the machine saved humanity, which from a writer's point of view is nothing more than cheap storytelling, more suited to fantasy settings like The Longest Journey universe, where the problem is actually solved a lot more gracefully. Yes, I am aware that these elements appeal very well to the average viewer, but I'm really, really curious what mister Nolan has to say about it.

Finally, the events in the movie's conclusion confirm the western writers' obsession with happy endings, whereas in my book Cooper could have just as well died there without making the story any less richer; meaning that his survival didn't make the story any more richer, just packed with more irrelevant details.

Hollywood and The Problemâ„¢ redux

Looking back at the whole thing and at the thing before it, it looks like Hollywood has the same fundamental problem as the "music industry", quite probably as the "book industry", the "game industry" and all other industrialized forms of art, namely that it has expectations, and more specifically that it has the wrong ones and the wrong kinds.

Interstellar is a mash-up of good scenery where predictable clichés happen: the world is in danger and needs to be saved by its saviour, who goes far and beyond to ensure the survival of ever-lasting humanity, manages to outsmart all the bad guys and doesn't stop caring for the otherwise worthless characters, that is, if they don't die. It's nice, it makes a small attempt to keep the spirit of science alive and another small attempt to criticize the lack of initiative of sheep and the abuse of stupid people, but they're only small attempts that the sheep will overlook anyway.

It's not that the movie is bad; also, it's not that it has no substance. Yes, it does have some deeper stuff, but that stuff is so blandly put together that it makes you wonder if the Hollywood guys are even capable of writing a good drama anymore. I'm looking back at the other dull movies and the few outstanding exceptions, and boy, do I miss movies such as Contact... which Interstellar does not manage to reach, by far.