Monday, November 17, 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar (Some Spoilers)

Hey, Christopher Nolan? I'm calling you out.

Interstellar was not a terrible movie. It was a good attempt at being thoughtful science fiction rarely seen on the big screen.

The plot itself was not bad. Four astronauts - the white guy hero, the woman, the black guy, and the Guy Who Dies First go off in Earth's last spaceship to fly through a wormhole created by mysterious fifth dimensional beings to catch up with the scouts sent through ten years ago to look for habitable worlds. See, Earth's dying because a blight is killing all of our food crops (and possibly other plants as well - there's certainly no wildlife or livestock around, not even dogs). So, we need a new home.

(And yes, I did call one of the characters The Guy Who Dies First - he's so boring the rest of the crew forget he existed only a few minutes after he dies).

Here's the problem. The slow pacing (in a few places too slow for me) would be off putting to action viewers who can tolerate bad science.

And...the science...the science. This was a movie clearly targeted towards intelligent people and readers of Analog, yet it failed utterly. I'm going to highlight three areas:

1. Biochemistry. The blight (unclear if it was one rapidly mutating organism or a group of them or what) "thrives on nitrogen" and, because of that, the oxygen content of Earth's atmosphere would drop and everyone would suffocate.

Nope. Nothing thrives on nitrogen. Did they mean that it was somehow turning more of the free oxygen into nitrogen oxides? Can't be, those aren't stable at room temperature.

Now, if a blight was killing most of the plant life on Earth then it's entirely possible that carbon dioxide levels would go up and oxygen levels go down...possibly even to the point of killing off large animals. Which is a perfectly decent apocalypse. (Heck, you had a perfectly decent apocalypse with all the food crops dying - although it was done first and better by John Christopher in The Death of Grass - a classic which seems to be unavailable on Amazon, sadly).

2. Starship design. First of all, Nolan, sensibly, realizes that on a long trip people will need gravity. So he designs his ship as a centrifuge. That's fine. That's a standard thing. Except, he has the bridge spin as well (causing a character to reach for the dramamine). And has the bridge also at 1G. Nope. The gravity would be much lower at the center axle and in any sane design the center axle would remain stable so you could dock and undock.

Oh, and the same character complains that only a "few inches of aluminum" protect him from empty space. On an interplanetary ship. Maybe this explains why an airlock explosively decompressing after a failed docking destroys part of the outer ring (to which you wouldn't be docking anyway). But I'd want more than that between me and cell destroying radiation - like, say, a couple of feet of titanium and maybe the water tank. Which brings me to...

3. Radiation. And black holes. The black hole is rather central to the plot, but... First of all, they're investigating planets orbiting the black hole as "promising" to be habitable.

Quick physics.

The only thing that gets out of a black hole as far as we know is Hawking radiation. Hawking radiation is thermal radiation. Heat. This might keep a planet warm enough for liquid water and some kind of life, especially combined with tidal heating, but where is the light?

One of the planets they visit is covered in water. It's so close to the black hole that relativity affects time such that one hour there is seven years on Earth. And they're considering this as the new home for mankind? If there was that much gravity, then you wouldn't be able to get out in a ship. The planet itself supposedly has a gravity of about 1.3G - punishing. And...that world would get pulled into the black hole, sooner or later. There's no way it would be stable. Or have an atmosphere. Or, after any significant amount of time, an ocean. And I don't buy that steep a time gradient either.

I'm not Dr. Stanley Schmidt, but I wouldn't buy this story.

P.S. I'm not perfect, but found some math. The 7 year to an hour time dilation thing is possible, the orbit may be stable, but the standing wave that nearly drowned them all is not I suspected but wasn't sure on enough to give them, the planet would probably be tidally locked or, at the very least, there would be a much more gentle bulge flowing around it.