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No sensawunda at all

Jaideep Unudurti | Updated on November 14, 2014 Published on November 14, 2014

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With a stream of arresting visuals and a preposterous plot, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious Interstellar goes only as far as two dimensions

The Golden Age of science fiction happens at the age of 14. It’s the best time of your life to read SF. The arteries of the brain haven’t hardened yet, and you are willing to have your mind blown. Each book you read promises, nay, guarantees this. Of the millions of fans who go through this ontogenetic development, there are a few who dare to ask themselves — can I write too?

Now, imagine our hypothetical 14-year-old dashes off a script. Hollywood throws a couple of hundred million dollars at it, and gets the buzziest director in the world to direct it. The result would be something like Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar. The reach of the ideas contained within is well beyond the grasp of adolescent enthusiasm. “We must confront the reality of interstellar travel,” intones Michael Caine’s character gravely. But did the Nolans (the script is by brother Jonathan) confront the reality of making a genuine science fiction film?

Interstellar posits a world where crops are failing and immense dust storms scour the surface. Science and exploration are frowned upon. The Earth is dying and a few brave astronauts are sent on a journey to find a planet where humanity can start afresh. A scientist played by Michael Caine concocts a plan to send humans to another galaxy.

How do you get there? NASA, which has now turned feral, has discovered a wormhole near Saturn, placed there by unknown entities. A wormhole is an artefact in space-time that enables one to traverse unimaginable distances, a kind of cosmic shortcut. A host of promising planets have been found on the other side of this escape hatch, orbiting a colossal black hole called Gargantua.

At the core of the plot is an effect called gravitational-time dilation. A consequence of the theory of relativity, it predicates that gravity can affect the flow of time. There are many masterpieces that use this concept; my favourite is Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, where soldiers fighting an alien foe are permanently estranged from the Earth and from each other thanks to the inexorable logic of this relativistic mechanism.

The world’s first known story using this effect, however, is found in the Mahabharata, in the legend of King Kakudmi and his daughter Revati. Instead of searching for habitable worlds, they search for something even more precious, a suitable husband. Revati is all kinds of awesome and there are so many suitors that the king decides to meet Lord Brahma and get His take on who to pick. When the appointment happens, the Creator has a good laugh and tells them that time runs far slower in His plane of existence. He helpfully adds, “Those upon whom you may have already decided are now gone, and so are their sons, grandsons and other descendants. You cannot even hear about their names. You must therefore bestow this virgin gem upon some other husband, for you are now alone, and your friends, your ministers, servants, wives, kinsmen, armies, and treasures, have long since been swept away by the hand of Time”.

The poignancy of these words is the emotional force that moves Interstellar. So is it any good? Alas, not. There are more plot holes than wormholes in this clunky effort. As long as there are shots of spaceships coasting past Saturn, sling-shooting around black holes, or haunting desolation of alien vistas, all accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s majestic score, it is utterly beautiful.

What causes it to lose orbit and plummet back to earth is an age-old flaw, a systemic weakness in Hollywood. Science fiction is the literature of the imagination. The foundation of the reading experience, which is absolutely unique and essential to the genre, is the sense of wonder — or ‘sensawunda’ as fans dub it. An emotional pitch that can be likened to a kind of revelation, that sudden shift in perspective leading to heightened awareness. When compared in this light, Interstellar can be defined as existing in two dimensions — one as a stream of arresting visuals evoking this feeling, and the other, a preposterously banal plot that just doesn’t grapple with the images that move and breathe. And when a character says, “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space” — in the sense of an actual physical force, you know that this rocket has exploded on the launch pad.

One of the building blocks of SF is the “What if?” question, which forces taking their ideas all the way to their logical conclusion. For example, there is an offhand mention of a ‘Plan B’, which involves sending thousands of fertilised embryos to the new planets! That sounded far more intriguing than anything that unfolds on screen. Still in some respects, Interstellar certainly has the architectural elements of SF. It is littered with AYKB or “As you know, Bob” dialogues, which are expository info-dumps aimed at the audience disguised as conversation between characters.

The science-fictional aspect of the film is unintentional. Curiously, “mankind’s future” here is held to be a white, American future. The Stars and Stripes are everywhere, emblazoned on spaceships, fluttering on alien planets, draped in offices. At a time when the Chinese, Europeans and Indians are forging ahead in space exploration, when the Russians still have a robust capability, to advance a future driven by jut-jawed Anglo-Saxons is rather daring. (There is even a backstory to explain this boldness: At some point India and the Asians went to war with the US, and lost. However, our drones still loiter aimlessly in their airspace.)

The most fascinating aspect of the film is buried in the making of it. Nolan hired black hole expert Kip Thorne to help out. Existing VFX software is not built to handle the incredibly complex movements of light around a black hole. Thorne wrote dense formulae on how light would behave, and these were fed into custom-built algorithms to generate the incredible. When the images were generated, Thorne realised that existing theories on how black holes would look like had to be revised — and Science happened, as it were. A black hole is formed when a giant gas-filled star collapses under its own weight. Much like Interstellar.

(Jaideep Unudurti writes on popular culture, chess and cinema)

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Published on November 14, 2014
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