Saturday, November 8, 2014

Time is/is not of the essence

Spoilers about Interstellar to follow, but not before I give you another warning, so you can read up to that point if you want. If you don't want, well ... why did you even browse over to my site today, anyway?

Last night was a real rarity and a real old-school moviegoing experience for me. Not only was it seeing a movie on a night other than Monday or Tuesday -- the discount nights at various theaters near me -- but it was also seeing a blockbuster on (or close to) opening night. The fact that it wasn't actually opening night was a technicality blamed on the fact that movies open here on Thursdays, not Fridays.

So I prepared for it like an old-school moviegoing experience ... or at least, new old-school. I bought the tickets online at work that morning, and arrived 15 minutes before the show to ensure there were no problems claiming my ticket (there were, as the machine would not read the bar code on my confirmation email and I had to type in a code instead) and that I didn't get stuck in the front row.

Well, no need for that.

I watched one of the year's most anticipated new releases with only about 25 other people, even at a 9 o'clock show on a Friday night at a reasonably popular theater. That's the point we have reached as consumers of cinematic entertainment, I suppose. Either that or the recent muting of the Interstellar buzz has had its ripple effect.

At least I had very good luck Christmas shopping, which was what brought me out to the Highpoint Shopping Centre on a Friday night in the first place. See, Friday is one of only two nights a week (with Thursday) where the shops are open until 9, meaning I can shop without it impacting my childcare responsibilities. Every other day it's 5:30 -- even Saturday. And I'm aiming to finish all the shopping for the American wing of my family by Thursday, so we can travel with the full complement of their Christmas presents rather than having to pay the ghastly price of shipping from Australia. With the good luck I had, I didn't even need to worry about cutting things 15 minutes short for my unnecessarily early arrival at Interstellar.

Time may not have been of the essence for me, but it definitely is for the characters in Interstellar, as I now get into SPOILER TERRITORY.

As you may have heard by now, Christopher Nolan's space opus is a combination of hits and misses -- some people think there are more hits, while others think there are more misses. As it turns out, I think there are more hits, but I just told someone that I would grade it a B+, so my enthusiasm for it is not overwhelming.

Still, there are parts of the movie I found incredibly effective, and particularly chilling.

Chief among those is the movie's use of time. We all know that astronauts age differently than we do when they're away from Earth, but historically, this effect has been minimized by not being very far away from Earth. When traveling through wormholes to other galaxies, it's a different story.

It was only slightly problematic -- and this is the kind of thing that mildly reduces my overall enthusiasm for the movie -- that one of the most chilling aspects of the story was also something I did not really understand. At a key point of the narrative, the crew searching for a new home planet for human beings makes the difficult decision to check in on a candidate planet that exists very close to the gravitational pull of a black hole. While that alone would rule it out for me -- I mean, what if that planet gets closer to that black hole, or the black hole moves? -- I'm not an astrophysicist, so I'm glad I'm not the one making those decisions.

The main problem with this planet being so close to the black hole is not that the planet will be sucked in, but that time is seriously warped on that planet. It has something to do with relativity, and it's a shame the movie did not explain this one better because it did a very good job simplifying the concept of the wormhole. In any case, the result is that for every hour the astronauts spend on that planet, they lose SEVEN YEARS of Earth time. I believed it even if I didn't understand it.

Unfortunately, due to the unforeseen arrival of the biggest tsunami (but is it really a tsunami if there's no land for it to crash on?) ever captured on film, the crew experiences tragedy and a technical setback that causes them to spend more than three hours on the planet's surface.


So yeah, when they are finally able to return to the main craft orbiting the planet -- which is somehow not subject to the same time warping -- the crew member they left behind has been waiting for them for TWENTY-THREE YEARS. I'm getting chills even as I type this, though my bullshit detector is also going off a little bit. After 23 years by himself in a space station, only small portions of which are spent in deep sleep, not only is the remaining crew member still sane, but it's almost like he's not even all that surprised to see them show up. Because of that skewing of the time ratio, he has had no way to keep tabs on the crew, whether they were alive or dead, but his commitment to the possibility of them being alive has caused him to stay the course, staying afloat, I suppose, on the knowledge that merely being there for three hours in their timeline would result in this 23-year delay.

While that kind of thing is trippy enough (if a tad bogus on some level), what's worse is Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway returning to realize that the people they left behind on Earth are now 23 years older, and in some cases no longer alive. So much for trying to return to see their loved ones when they were still some recognizable facsimile of themselves. But they always knew it might never have been possible.

Even though these losses of time make the sacrifice of these people all the more interesting/powerful, I do find an essential problem with how the various risks involved in various courses of action are so unbalanced. The two other planets they ultimately visit, based on similarly vague communications from the people who were dispatched to explore them, seem to carry no such possibilities of the loss of, well, decades -- or centuries, if all goes even slightly less than well. One of the primary arguments made in favor of checking out this planet, rather than some of the ones that are farther away, is that it will take "months" to reach those farther planets. But what is "months" when you know that the least amount of time you are likely to spend on this waterworld is an hour, and that's seven whole Earth years?

Then again, I guess the counterargument is, what's seven Earth years if it earns you the future home of your species?

The weakness of Interstellar, in spite of its many strengths, is that it very inconsistently lays out these stakes in ways we can easily understand. I suppose that exploring space is inherently an activity that's replete with risks, but who goes down to the surface of a planet -- having basically no idea what you'll find there, except that a beacon is still transmitting communication signals so it has obviously not burned up or frozen -- with the expectation that they will definitely be able to return from it within an hour or two? Even the loss of a day on the surface of this planet would have doomed the human race. I mean, what if their landing craft blew a gasket?

Still, it does give perspective on the kind of predicament humans are in -- and a somewhat realistic idea of just how difficult it would be dig out of that predicament. Humans cannot so easily just jump on a giant space arc, leave their wasted planet behind, and hop over a couple galaxies in a matter of months. Such a migration would cost generations of human beings, and in fact, push the species to the outer limits of its ability to avoid extinction.

And the film's finale really hit for me, as McConaughey's astronaut returns (rather improbably, after a rather improbable third-act resolution) to find his 10-year-old daughter aged into a bedridden old woman in her nineties. Although some of Nolan's movie lacks the emotional punch it should have, this part really scores. See my post "The uncontrollable slippage of time" (here) for a fuller discussion of my love for movies where characters are powerless to slow down the clock, and their lives seem to pass them by.

And if I'm comparing Interstellar to classics like Click and Bicentennial Man, it has to be good, right? ;-)


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