It pains me a little to trash this movie as it actually has a lot of very good parts and it’s very mainstream for a science fiction movie trying not to be fantasy. What is becoming abundantly clear is that Christopher Nolan has lost his way since The Dark Knight. His movies are bloated, uneven and often a little boring.
Before I complain about plotholes and science, let’s talk about some of the more technical flaws of the movie. Nolan once again seems to have no aesthetic sensibility. This was clear in Inception where he did nothing visually interesting with the fact that the entire movie was set in someone’s head. Space is ripe for some awe inspiring visuals and the characters here aren’t even stuck in our solar system so you could literally do anything. However, none of the imagery of the movie is going to stay with you because Nolan seems content to just leave his camera on the characters. This might have been less noticeable if we didn’t have Gravity a year earlier taking just an orbit around Earth and making space seem vast and engulfing.
The sound effects and music were too loud compared to dialogue and apparently that isn’t just my opinion, but a fairly common comment on the internet. The music itself is very organ heavy and inspired by 2001, i.e. it’s not doing much of anything new or innovative. But by its omnipresence and volume it actually intrudes into the viewing experience. Any time I actually notice the music you are doing it wrong, and that music was constantly getting on my nerves, oftentimes just because dramatic organs don’t fit every type of scene, but that is all we get here.
At an emotional level, this film works very well for the most part. In particular, the drastic effects of relativity on a family were very well done and touching. When the main character goes through 23 years of backlogged messages and sees his family growing up and giving up on him, it’s heartbreaking. Even the breakdown of Matt Damon’s character is fairly convincing, though underdeveloped in an already long movie. The lone exception is the whole love motif, though I hesitate to call it that when Nolan bludgeons us with it. First we get an absolutely cringe-inducing speech from Anne Hathaway’s character about love, universal connections and something that can’t be quantified by science. Of course it’s the useless female character, a scientist no less, that has to make this emotional appeal. Then this idea comes back at the completely nonsensical end. Apparently this was not in the script 6 years ago when this project was started. It sounds like something recent Nolan would cook up, because it fits his recent movies that also favor forthright attempts at meaning and philosophy rather than using subtext and subtlety to convey them. Whoever was responsible we will never know, but it was a really stupid idea.
With that out of the way, lets talk about the plot and the science fiction, so the following assumes you have seen the film. Now, I have no problems with fantasy scifi like Star Wars and even Star Trek. Right now I am watching Eureka which cares little for the facts of science most of the time. Which is great, until they get close enough to science that it tweaks the scientist in me. Usually the problem is merely that there was no need to butcher the science to get the desired outcome, but they did anyway. You just know they have a science consultant too, so why take the liberties when you don’ have to? I guess there aren’t many of us who will ever catch the problems.
So here is a list of crap that bugged me. When they leave Earth to go through the wormhole they take a multistage rocket. However, later they leave planets with higher gravity than Earth using just their futuristic Ranger craft. This is like if the NASA space shuttle could take off like an airplane and reach orbit. It was a jarring inconsistency to me, but required to make the film work. However, if you have that technology, you could probably save most of humanity pretty easily, there would be no need for this “gravity” equation that Michael Caine’s character claims he needs. Speaking of which, why did Matthew McConaughey’s daughter in the film, Murph, need to unite quantum mechanics and gravity in order to save humanity? At the end of the film humanity has done nothing more than build a space station around Saturn and near the wormhole, not even colonizing the other side. But if you can build a space station that large then you can save humanity without quantum gravity. Don’t even get me started on how you fund NASA “secretly” on a devastated Earth that can’t feed itself. Also why did they just leave Hathaway in the wormhole for decades by herself? The ending of the movie suggests a lone person in a spacecraft could have contacted her at any time, but humanity seems to enjoy sitting on its butt in their new space station too much.
The treatment of relativity is also extremely shifty. One planet they want to check out would require time dilation such that one hour for them would be seven years on Earth. This suggests the planet is very near the event horizon of the black hole and I mean strikingly close. This causes a lot of technical issues, such as how to descend to the planet and then leave. Worse, how did they receive any communication from the planet considering the massive red shift of light this implies. The characters posit that you could somehow stay unaffected by time dilation by staying above a certain radius, but time dilation is a continuous phenomena, it doesn’t just stop. How did nobody realize the implications of the time dilation on the veracity of the information coming from the planet’s surface? At the end they are going to throw a probe into the black hole and just hope it can send data out against all known laws of physics. All of this is particularly appalling because Kip Thorne, who literally the wrote the book on gravitation, was an executive producer for the film. I do give it credit for the accurate depiction of falling into a black hole. It would be no different than any other falling until the tidal forces ripped you apart. However, I don’t believe you would find your daughter’s library shelf at the center.
Finally, why did future humanity need Matthew McConaughey’s character to send a message to his daughter? Oh right “love.” This was perhaps the most ridiculous thing in the entire movie until the next moment when he sends observational data of a black hole via Morse code on a broken watch. The bit rate of Morse code has to be approximately a Hz, but we are talking at least a megabyte of data if I were being extremely generous by which I mean really funny because no it’s probably orders of magnitude more. But lets say it is. It would take 80 days, with no breaks, of tapping out code and reading it. This was not depicted in the movie for sure.
Still I have to give the title of worst moment in the movie to Hathaway’s love speech, followed by the quick explanation that love is needed to reach Murph with the observational data and that is why humanity tampers with time to bring her father into a black hole. Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. Anyways, my next post will be about the time travel paradoxes. I should point out that for the most part the movie is engaging for its entire running time, but the bottom line is that never ascends to greatness. It’s a workman-like project with a big budget it doesn’t use well.