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Vol. 13, No. 6, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
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perspectives on human awareness

reviewed by


Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. Nick’s reviews are available at

Einstein published his theories on relativity over a hundred years ago. In the past several decades various measuring devices, computer projections and expensive particle accelerators such as CERN have provided storehouses of scientific fact which elevate Einstein’s theories to the level of absolute astrophysical laws and his reputation above the level of Newton, Planck and other physics immortals.

Yet huge parts of the earth’s most sophisticated intellectual populations to say nothing of average college students have no conceptual knowledge of relativity whatsoever. This situation with regard to the lack of human understanding of important complex scientific discovery is not historically unusual. When the great poet John Milton constructed his epic Paradise Lost he followed the Ptolemaic theory of the sun revolving around the earth even though Copernicus had proven that this theory had the facts exactly backwards. Somehow, perhaps seminally influenced by his religious faith, Milton could not bring himself to accept the Copernican discovery even though it had been around for almost 200 years before he wrote his epic poem. In another instance, Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859 and any biologist worth asking will tell you that 150 years later no contemporary biology makes any sense without a Darwinian framework. Yet these days still very few understand Darwin’s science and many not only turn their back on it but oppose it outright in the mad rush to their belief systems.

Aristotle told us 2500 years ago that we could gain deep awareness of complex reality from great art. He knew that total acceptance of natural and human mysteries could never be achieved by the mere publication of ‘provable’ mathematical equations. People gain awareness through emotional, sensate, imaginative and psychological conditioning. Only when their whole being (not just their intellect) has been reprogrammed, perhaps by a dramatic work of art, can their awareness be deepened and their lives concomitantly changed. Only then can they be expected to act on their new awareness.

Presently, such action is needed to support thwarting the climate change, conserving water and other vital resources, and discovering new ways to produce food for a planet which is rapidly overpopulating.

The creators of the original idea for the new film Interstellar were noted astro- physicist Kip Thorne and film producer Lynda Obst who collaborated on the 1997 film Contact. They have known each other since Carl Sagan once set them up on a blind date. Dr. Thorne, like many scientists, environmentalists and thinkers everywhere, is extremely aware and deeply concerned about the future of our planet. But his presence in this decade long project is most significant because of his dictum: no bogus pseudo-science. The film would be produced without any of the usual compromises needed for artistic license.

This was a very tall order from the start because the science involved here is right out of Einstein’s playbook, and we’ve already discussed how far-fetched that is for most moviegoers. Still, despite deep challenges for director Christopher Nolan who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, the essential appeal of the film lies in its firm adherence to scientific theory and probabilities based on that theory.

This theory, as we noted, is indeed complex. It involves such esoterica as quantum gravity, wormholes, warped time and space, the fifth dimension, event horizons, singularities, tesseracts and other astrophysical phenomena that most of us humans couldn’t comprehend even if we somehow magically raise our I.Q.s to 150. But in the presence of artistic film creation, and reliance on the suspension of belief for such creations which is our omnipresent imaginative tool, we can wonder, we can absorb, and even though we certainly can’t grasp many of the mathematical details, we can ‘learn.’

At the end of the film, we leave contemplating its best line - “Humans were not meant to save the planet, they were meant to leave the planet.” Strangely, though we may initially reject this notion; as Interstellar progresses we are made to realize that planet earth, though it has uniquely supplied us with resources which have enabled life to evolve, is after all one of billions of such celestial bodies. Who can doubt that any day now scientists will discover organisms on other planets? As I write this, probes are searching Jupiter’s moon Europa because NASA has reported the detection of phyllosilicates which are often associated with organic material. And the latest Mars lander Curiosity is currently examining sedimentary layers thought to have once housed water . . . And these planets are in our own solar system. At present (as of November 2014) over 1800 exoplanets (planets that orbit other suns) have been discovered, with new sightings arriving daily.

Interstellar tells us that despite all of our efforts to save the planet (and at present there are millions who couldn’t care less) it is necessary to explore other places in order to insure the continuation of the human species.

Accordingly, it is mainly because of the successful dramatization of this crossroads-for human-survival theme that Interstellar commands attention.

There are, of course, elements in the film which are receiving the usual critical byplay – acting, writing, production etc. which is natural because this is, after all, a movie we’re talking about. In this regard, I suppose I must join the critics and attempt some perspicacious comments. This, although as I’ve argued, is of secondary importance. Certainly, Christopher Nolan has delivered a fine production although some have complained that sound editing could have been better i.e. Matthew McConaughey’s mutterings. His words are often muddled and, in a script which abounds with impossible-to-comprehend astrophysics jargon, this is a problem. In addition, Hans Zimmer’s organ music (especially in the IMAX format) has eardrum busting resonation.

The plot line involves several melodramatic, emotional sequences. The love-hate relationship between astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his young daughter (Mackenzie Foy) has been targeted as overly sentimental by some, as has the affection that Dr. Amelia Brand has for her lover Edmunds. In addition there are some suspenseful moments which may cause some to squirm in incredulity. But these portrayals of desperately emoting humans struggling for survival nicely counter the plethora of astrophysical science that we must constantly deal with.

There are some stretches in the probabilities which Thorne injects into the narrative. Astronaut Cooper’s daughter Murph espies some dust patterns near her bedroom bookshelves which she calls “ghosts.” These turn out to be “gravitational anomalies” which cause the coin her father tosses to plunge suddenly to the floor and later are the forces which permit colonizers to lift off from earth. Although evidence of these anomalies originates with Einstein’s equations, the scientific employment of them is based on Dr. Thorne’s speculations. Also, when Cooper and TARS (the prescient robot on board the spaceship Endurance) enter the black hole Gargantua, they emerge in an extra-dimensional “tesseract” where time appears as a spatial dimension and portals lead to Murphy’s childhood bedroom. These are more of Thorne’s speculations but, as with his other suppositions, they follow the aforementioned scientific theories.

Interstellar will have a long half-life and join 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, and some of the Star Trek productions – films which capitalize on serious but prolix science to deliver their narrative magic. Initially, as first geeks and then budding fans acquaint themselves with the ‘cool’ insights that the astrophysical references provide, the film will spawn various cult followings and eventually take its place as a sci-not-so-fi classic.


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