Time passes slowly when you’re not having much fun

The effects of dilation of time
Are magical, strange, and sublime.
In your frame, this verse,
Which you’ll see is not terse,
Can be read in the same amount of time it takes someone else in another frame to read a similar sort of rhyme.

— Courtesy: Physics limericks page on the Harvard University website

It’s funny how, for a film of this scale, the scene that works best in Interstellar is the one that involves a sequence of grainy video messages. It comes somewhere in the middle of the second act, when Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his space station from an expedition that has, owing to the time dilation caused by proximity to a black hole, caused over twenty years to elapse on earth while he spent barely a few hours on another planet.

Now, read that last sentence again, but try and ignore the part that goes “owing to the time dilation caused by proximity to a black hole”? Apart from how much cleaner the sentence sounds, do you realize that you probably missed nothing of importance between the first reading and the second?

Fundamentally, I don’t think the film wants us to care about wormholes and black holes. It wants us to care about fathers and daughters, and about devil’s alternatives, and about survival being a zero-sum game at times. The science is basically just a way of putting people in difficult situations. What the characters do in these situations is a function of what they are faced with, as well as what they are like. There’s even a little space for ironic sidebars, such as how world hunger has brought about world peace, and how history has been rewritten to encourage students to think about the earth rather than the sky.

It’s not a bad premise to start with. Or even all that new. Like my wife said to me during the interval, it’s like Armageddon, except with a little less macho posturing. I suspect Christopher Nolan isn’t going to be overly thrilled with that comparison, but hey, she calls ’em like she sees ’em.

But here’s the thing: when you make a three hour movie about an interstellar expedition aimed at finding a new planet for humans to screw up, you want your audience to take home a wee bit more than a little scene that probably cost less than your catering budget for a week.

It’s okay to want to push both big themes and big visuals at us. I can see the ambition, even applaud it. But for the strategy to work, at least one of these things has to succeed spectacularly. Otherwise, one is still left with Armageddon without the macho posturing, and frankly, the macho posturing was probably the most enjoyable aspect of that film.

In order for the big themes to work, you have to be willing to follow your ideas to wherever they lead you. If you place hard choices about the survival of the species before your characters, you cannot allow yourself the luxury of a deus ex machina in the last 30 minutes. Also, I don’t think it helps your case when the protagonist’s humongous flash of insight about space-time is that the universe is like a little girl’s bedroom.

In order for the big visuals to work, you have to create at least one truly memorable sequence that people will keep talking about. Like Inception, where people would walk out of the film and tell their friends, “Oh, you just have to see the sequence where they roll up Paris.” Or The Matrix, where everyone remembers the business of bending over backwards to dodge a bullet in super slo-mo. (Or better still, the torture sequence in Narasimha, where Vijayakanth makes a power source explode simply by grimacing.) Or even something as leisurely as the docking sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which, as a friend of mine once memorably pointed out, you could watch on your laptop at work and convince your boss it’s a screensaver. There isn’t a single visual in Interstellar that expands your conception of what you could see in a  movie theatre.

As for all the science, it helps, I think, to think of it like this: When a film like Star Trek uses the term “warp speed”, the makers are fairly certain that 99.9% of their audience don’t understand it, while the remaining 0.1% deliberately try not to. All they need the audience to understand is, there’s a spaceship with good guys and one with bad guys, and warp speed is a thingummajig that allows the good guys to evade or catch up with the bad guys.In the Interstellar-verse, the side-effect of warp speed would be that the bad guys would’ve died of old age by the time the good guys got there, I guess. Or maybe I just don’t understand the science all that well. You know, I miss the good old days when you could solve problems by simply uploading a virus onto an alien spaceship’s computer.

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4 thoughts on “Time passes slowly when you’re not having much fun

  1. S says:

    As you may (or may not) know, I love me a good limerick. And I feel this one up here has been needlessly complicated by the Harvard Physics dude (whose Limericks page you linked here is actually quite a good collection of high concepts simplified in verse for those of us who prefer such things bit size… except this particular one isn’t, which may be the larger point about most of Nolan’s films, i.e. needlessly complicated). I took a stab at tweaking it to suit my style (and you tell me if I inadvertently changed the Physics conveyed).

    The effects of dilation of time
    Are magical, strange and sublime.
    In your frame this verse
    Is in his, just as terse
    Read by both in the same amount of time.

    Your third para nailed it for me. It’s how I felt watching Interstellar. To me it felt the most personal of Nolan’s films. Like he was working out daddy issues and those who’re perhaps working out a similar issue are his target audience. For the rest? Well, that’s why he threw in his trademark Big Themes bloat to keep them busy/guessing/cussing/fussing.

    The dad here willfully leaves a piece of his blackened heart behind to quest for the (W)hole. How he’s “being there” in proxy for his daughter who is rightfully working out abandonment issues was to me the main hook and had me well up more times than I could recall. The lack of a singular spectacular moment did not bother me in this dad-daughter race against singularity.

    • Making the last line of the limerick very long was the point of the limerick in the first place.

      There were quieter portions in the film, mostly to do with fathers and daughters, that worked surprisingly well, but the overall experience left me a bit cold, I’m afraid.

  2. S says:

    Ah, ok. Thanks for clarifying that. It’s not the first time I’m missing the point (especially of something science-y; watched The Imitation Game recently and the logic behind how they cracked Enigma flew right over my head…felt so jealous of all you computer geeks).

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