Interstellar: An astronomer's review
Hoyte Van Hoytema, Cinematographer_ Warner Bros.
Here's something different, one of the most well known Space movies out there is also one of the most controversial. I frequently listen to Hans Zimmer's spectacular OST for the film and in the comments I always see arguments over the film's scientific accuracy. Some say its the most realistic movie ever made, some says it's nonsense, I figured I'd share my thoughts, purely from a scientific standpoint, spoilers are inevitable by the way.
So the films opens on a rather grim note explaining that the world has dusted over and the crops are all dying. That's rough, but what is the cause?
Well the movie runs for almost 3 hours without ever explaining this in any extensive detail, so I imagine it was in everyone's best interest just to assume some blight came about and started munching on all our food and now we gotta leave. The plot also lets you make the assumption that humans have ultimately decided Mars was a lost hope since they apparently would rather take a randomly appearing wormhole to another galaxy into a system with a Super massive black hole than join Elon Musk on his mission to colonize our neighboring planet.
So the film puts forth some vague circumstances, that's not a real problem is it? Well not if you're willing to sacrifice your natural tendency to ask overly specific questions like; Why haven't they dedicated more effort to fixing Earth over traveling into space? Or; Why did it get so dusty and why is the Dust never going away?
Not much in the realm of scientific questioning occurs for a little while in the film as the 45 Minute long first act carries out. But come the second act and suddenly we've traveled into space, the whole sequence of launching the Ranger and docking the vessel to the "Endurance" is meticulously created as the timing of when micro-gravity sets in and how things in space move it all accurate to reality.
We soon after will encounter our first Astronomical phenomenon to asses. Although what there truly is to asses is rather tough to figure out when we're dealing with something as theoretical as a wormhole.
A wormhole is a concept, one that revolves around general relativity and the idea that perhaps, with the right conditions met, could form and allow what would be a tremendous distance become folded into a short travel. The movie says at one point that these objects are not naturally occurring, meaning someone put it there. It is true that we have no evidence of naturally occurring wormholes and that most theories on how they could exist involves creating a device to do so. The only problem it this; in order to create a wormhole one must bend space, and to do that you're effectively creating artificial gravity, a LOT of it.
This is the first fundamental issue with the film's science, while the issue remains impossible to prove either way since we don't know how a wormhole would truly be made, the movie's own explanation of it implies that space-time bending is at play. To bend space to such a degree, would mean creating immense gravity, which means the wormhole wouldn't orbit Saturn like a moon, but the reverse. And of course, flying into said wormhole would effectively mean death as the tidal forces rip atoms from atoms and "Spaghettify" our protagonists.
But once they've traveled through the wormhole and nonsensically survived the team has arrived in another galaxy. Within a stellar-system that has quite a lot of dangerous shenanigans going on for supposedly being "Safe" for humanity. This is a very complex system, it includes one star, one Neutron Star, and a black hole. With 100 Million solar masses the black hole easily dominates the total mass. Some of the planets directly orbit it, while some orbit around the Star like a moon to a star planet orbiting the black hole.
And while some things can be explained, there's one major issue with this system; Where does the light on the closer planets come from?
I've looked into this one quite a bit and still can't seem to find an answer. The two first planets, Miller's and Mann's, are directly in orbit around Gargantua, the black hole. The star could be as far away as the other side of the system at any time so it surely isn't their source of energy. That really only leaves one candidate being the black hole. In theory its Accretion disk could provide light and Heat to the planets. . . for about a month until it runs out of material to take in. Not to mention the fact that we see the Endurance ship get quite literally right on top of the disk, implying that it isn't a particularly active engulfing of stellar material.
Now I know that all sounded like a big rant and that I'm calling this an inaccurate movie, but fear not, I have a praise for it. The first planet they visit is Miller's, named after the first person to go there to gather information. Before traveling to it the crew figures out a way that they can avoid the devastatingly potent time dilation near the black hole. As every hour translates to seven years elsewhere. I must say that I believe this is a remarkable story direction. To have general relativity be the cause of limited time really shows how creativity can be implemented in a theoretical science premise. And they definitely use it well, although I'm not sure how 23 years passed when it seemed they weren't there very long, but having them arrive back on the endurance and see how things have changed from Romily's aging to the changes on Earth.
After finding that Miller's planet was not going to work out they proceed onward to place with frozen clouds.
Let that sentence sink in.
Actually just let the term "Frozen clouds" really settle in. While the film-makers admitted this was just a creative choice and they understood that it wasn't possible, this simple inaccuracy really bothered me for some reason. A cloud is by definition a gaseous clump of water. One does not imply that the can simply, "Freeze".
All that aside the planet they arrive on it pretty standard with little for me talk about in the realm of astrophysics. It is in the third act that things get. . .weird, albeit perhaps for the better in the eyes of many.
Flying into a black hole is depicted interestingly, in order to allow for the remaining space-craft to lose mass and accelerate away from the black hole's pull. In doing so the protagonist find's himself within a "tesseract" of sorts. He learns through deductive reasoning that he needs to communicate with the past to effectively set up everything that happens in the movie and transfer the quantum data to his genius daughter.
It sounds convoluted, probably because it is. However it is indeed rooted in genuine theoretical physics. The idea of moving up to a higher dimension and thus viewing the dimension of time as something physical isn't entirely out of question. Although our understanding of what time really is and what the fourth dimension is are limited, so it's impossible to say whether or not these concepts really would apply.
At the end of the day, Interstellar was put forth with the label as a spectacularly accurate film. Would I agree with that sentiment? Maybe, there are still some things that the movie kinda stays quiet about such as the travelling through a wormhole or the lack of an illumination source for some of these planets. But ultimately is tries to have its main story revolve around ideas that are not considered impossible, and seeing that movies like gravity exist, I appreciate that.