Tuesday, December 09, 2014

"Interstellar" redux

The website iO9 finally catches up with me and publishes an article titled "Stop Putting New Age Pseudoscience in Our Science Fiction," which makes the same complaint I'd made about the spooky way in which the power of love is referenced in Christopher Nolan's new movie. An excerpt:

But there's a difference between wormhole travel, which is depicted superbly in Interstellar, and the idea that love is a "fifth dimension" that can allow a man to jump inside a black hole and travel backwards in time to communicate with his 10-year-old daughter. This is what we are asked to believe in Interstellar, whose climactic scene involves Cooper flying into the black hole Gargantua. Once he's gone inside, he's rescued by mysterious, fifth-dimensional beings who put him inside a tesseract box where time behaves like space — we can see millions of versions of his daughter's room around him, each representing a slice of time.

So far, we're on weird but still relatively solid ground when it comes to speculative science. Physicist Kip Thorne, who consulted on the movie, writes in a book called The Science of Interstellar that he could imagine such an event being plausible. Other physicists disagree with him, but that's not the problem. The real issue is that Cooper figures out how to contact his daughter by recalling what his colleague Brand told him — that love is a "force" that transcends dimensions just like time does. Using the force of "love" to guide him through the bewildering array of time-rooms, he finally finds the exact right version of his daughter to communicate with. And then he sends a message to her through time.

This is an example of confusing physics with metaphysics, or assuming that observable phenomena like gravity are the same as psychological states like love. Put another way, it blurs the line between science and spirituality without ever admitting that's what's going on.

Anyone who has seen the movie The Fifth Element is no stranger to this idea. The "fifth element" of the title is, in fact, love. Which turns out to be a physical force that can save the world. This idea is hinted at in widely-condemned pseudoscience documentary What the Bleep Do We Know, which suggests that quantum mechanics have revealed that anything we believe can come true — because our minds affect quantum reality. That is most definitely not what quantum physics suggests.

Again, the issue here isn't with saying that spiritual beliefs can intermingle with scientific reality. The problem is with category confusion. Just because two things are equally important does not mean they are the same. There is absolutely no evidence that love transcends time, but there is significant physical evidence that other dimensions do.

I'm not sure I agree with the writer's accusation that Nolan is never "admitting that's what's going on." I think the love thing was a conscious part of Nolan's agenda. It was hokey and definitely pseudo-sciencey, but Nolan knew what he was doing, and he knew that audiences would pick that up as one of the movie's central messages: the transcendent power of love. As I mentioned in my own review, though, I felt Nolan may have done a disservice to love by abstracting it from the spiritual and reducing it to a mere physical force:

The biggest problem for me, though, is tied to the movie's central theme. For my money, "Interstellar" descends into sentimental mush when it takes a concept like love and turns it from something metaphysical into a mere force of nature that—thematically, at least—resembles gravity. What exactly is the movie trying to say about love, and the ability it supposedly gives us to transcend time and space? Does love make us psychic, telepathic, prescient, or telekinetic? Is love truly one of the fundamental forces that bind the universe together? Is love a quantum-entanglement homing system that allows a father to find the right moment at which to contact his daughter from across the stars? This is, I felt, the point at which Nolan took his otherwise profound sci-fi film and handed the story over to religion. He was obviously trying to use gravity as a metaphor for the all-pervading, all-transcending power of love, but I'm not sure it worked. In fact, by reducing love to something merely physical, he may actually have cheapened the concept. Nolan succeeded at evoking a proper sentimentality early in the movie when he showed us Murph's sadness about her father's departure, but I feel that, the closer the director got to the ineffable, the more he stumbled.


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