(Please note that this is the continuation of a two-part review. You can read part one here. Reiterating what was stated previously, please do not read if you have not yet seen the movie, as this review contains spoilers.)
“In his florid sci-fi opera Interstellar,” Vulture’s David Edelstein writes, “Christopher Nolan aims for the stars, and the upshot is an infinite hoot — its dumbness o’erleaps dimensional space.” Edelstein’s analysis mirrors that of other respected critics, many of whom shared a general consensus that the movie was a cornball epic built around nonsensical pseudoscience.
The movie has its fair share of corny moments—the conflation of love and science being one of them, though one to which I nonetheless responded positively during the film—but my concern with critical condemnation is that there are countless instances (like Jackie Cooper’s admission that he “didn’t understand anything past the first worm hole reference” and evidently did not make an effort to do so, or this, or this… and this…) in which the reviewers seem to condescendingly reject the scientific theories underpinning the narrative if only because they are incapable of grasping the technically complex ideas, instead resorting lazily to the accusation of “preposterousness” and “pseudoscience.”
Interstellar inspired me and stimulated me in a way that no other movie had before, not only emotionally, but intellectually. I subsequently read Wired’s Christopher Nolan-curated issue, which expands on some of the concepts around which the film is based. It is a fascinating examination of dimensionality, space-time dilation (for example, how time in space differs for astronauts compared to time here on earth), and other complicated topics that certain critics would be wise to study.
But I was still left with more questions, so I continued on in my search for answers, enthralled by Nolan’s vision of the future and yearning for a reason to believe the critics were wrong. I spoke with my great uncle, a mathematician who may indeed just be too smart for his own good. I asked him if he watched Interstellar and if he ever studied dimensionality. Indeed, he answered in the affirmative to both. He saw and enjoyed the movie and the bulk of his research at Stony Brook University had been based around the mathematical justification of higher dimensions. We discussed some of the questions raised, and Euler’s Formula (sorry if I’m losing any of you)—matters that I would typically never have any interest in exploring. He was excited that I had begun to think about these big questions, and I was excited, too.
I have always been intrigued by the world that we do not know, the realities that we cannot even begin to comprehend, and I am excited to know that Interstellar has opened my eyes to just a few of them. Call it corny, and you may be right to a certain extent, but it’s an important movie. It’s a movie that draws our attention away from prosaic superhero sequels and towards a universe of higher dimensions that most of us have never even begun to fathom. I took my young cousin to see it because I wanted to inspire her in the same way, to begin to think about space, about the world we don’t know, about the questions to which we have no answers. It makes our supposedly small world look that much bigger, and there’s something valuable in that.
My uncle sent me Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novella Flatland for Christmas, a continuation of my post-viewing research, and I was intrigued by just how intellectually and scientifically progressive a book it really is. Abbott depicts a two-dimensional world in which its polygonal characters scoff at the notion of a third dimension. It’s hard not to think of certain movie critics playing that role here.
Indeed, in many respects, that is the role they are playing, in calling Nolan’s an “absurd”story. I do not purport to be a scientist or mathematician, but Abbott makes a great deal of sense when he gives a very simple mathematical reasoning for believing in a higher dimension. If one were to move a point along a plane, in such a manner that other points would be left behind it at every moment, a line would be formed, with two terminal points. If that line were moved, again leaving lines behind it, it would form a square or a rectangle, with four terminal points. If a square were moved in its plane it would form a cube or rectangular prism, with eight terminal points. But if that cube or rectangular prism were moved, we have no means of comprehending the shape that would be created, with sixteen terminal points, lest we should find the matter that composes the next dimensions—the atom, of course, can only construct three-dimensional objects, being a three-dimensional manifestation itself.
A fourth dimension—or fifth if you consider time a fourth dimension—is not preposterous. Scientifically and mathematically, it is most certainly within the realm of feasibility. But we—like the two-dimensional characters in Flatland—cannot process a higher dimension for the aforementioned atomic reasoning, as well humans’ simple neurological incapability of processing anything beyond the third dimension. Christopher Nolan’s tesseract in Interstellar is an artistic, third-dimensional representation of the possibilities presented by higher dimensions, and though we may not be able biologically to comprehend what the next dimensions would actually look like at this point in time, we ought not to scoff like the closed-minded inhabitants of Abbott’s two-dimensional world, but should embrace the understanding that certain mysteries of this universe can be unlocked in higher dimensions.
And here is where my research has led me, to astrophysicist Kip Thorne’s (one of Nolan’s principal consultants for the film) aptly titled book The Science of Interstellar. Thorne discusses all of the major scientific principles in the film, from the dilation of time in space and the impact of gravity upon time itself—indeed, perhaps understanding time in such a manner should lead us to view it as the fourth dimension—to the seemingly preposterous notion of worm holes and the enigmatic mystery of black holes, the focal point of Nolan’s climax.
Thorne takes the abstract mathematical foundation of Euler’s Formula and Edwin Abbott’s novella and he applies them to space and the hyperspace—or “bulk”—in which space is contained. Though certain aspects of Thorne’s analysis are merely theory at the moment, much of it, as he explains, can be verified with Einstein’s relativistic laws and quantum physics. A thorough examination requires more scientific reasoning than I can herein provide, but suffice it to say that Thorne’s analysis has once again opened the doorways to understanding the universe in a manner that I could have never imagined before.
But how does this all relate to a digital America? Let’s say you were asked to fill in this blank: Digital technology is ______. My answer would be “a short-sighted, inadequate excuse for progress that cannot take us as far as we once believed it could.”It’s pessimistic, that’s for certain, but I stand by it.
I was once entranced by cyberutopian notions of the power of the Internet to do good and to lead mankind into a new era of optimism and freedom. But I know now that it can do no such thing. We may one day provide universal access to wifi, but how will that help dismantle oppressive hierarchies in nations like North Korea? When the most-viewed thing on the Internet is pornography, it begs us to ask what the Internet can do for us if we don’t use it for the right reasons. In many respects, we should ask what it can do for us in the long run even if we use it in the right ways. The Internet may have helped Anonymous in its role in the Arab Spring, but what good has that done for Egyptians whose country has since been mired in years of political upheaval and social tumult? Can it undo the human roots constituting the foundation of so many of our social ills? Jaron Lanier has some interesting things to say about technological determinism. So, too, does Jonathan Harris.
We can build smart cities; we can provide universal wifi; we can create quantum computers and further digitize our economy; but where will it get us? The Internet is not a new dimension. It is a third-dimensional phenomenon that we will one day transcend, one that we must transcend. We are trapping ourselves within the confines of the third dimension, and it gets us nowhere.
Perhaps this sounds like a bunch of nonsensical idealism, but Interstellar has indeed inspired me, to ask why. To ask why we are so set on staying put. To ask why we have stopped exploring. To ask why a habitual Instagram user thinks NASA is purposeless while posting images of their breakfast for the rest of the Web to see. To ask why more of us have not summoned the drive to find the answers I wanted to find after watching Interstellar, why we have so often relegated ourselves to the claustrophobic confines of a cyberspace that will keep us forever trudging onward without ever making progress, the grandest of Sisyphean feats.
Nolan’s future, in which we explore the depths of space and the hyperspace in which we are contained, in which we transcend to new dimensions, in which we can learn the origins of our universe and more directly influence our collective destiny, in which we can see time and space folded upon itself, in which technology can be anything, in which humanity can be anything, that’s the future I want to believe in. I want to be able to say that all those individuals who, like myself, took a child to see Interstellar inspired a new generation of explorers who believe in the possibilities presented to us by the universe, explorers who are not content to network on social media whilst ignoring the larger questions of our existence that cannot be answered, but rather look to higher dimensions, to the intricate enigmas with which our world is riddled. I want to see a world in which movie critics do not dismiss the hard scientific theory by which a film is underpinned—why is 2001: A Space Odyssey not condemned as “absurd” for its depiction of a tesseract, by the way?—but in which they open their minds to the mysteries of a larger universe than they had heretofore envisioned.
Interstellar matters for Digital America because it reminds us that the Internet is not the answer to all of our questions, that our current obsession with cyberspace is only temporary, that one day we will have moved on to something more, or that at the very least we should. Once introduced to the concepts of hyperspace and higher dimensions, nothing else is enough. All else becomes inadequate, a short-sighted excuse for “progress” that leaves us standing in the same position in which we started instead of leading us into a thrilling and unknown future.
At the conclusion of the film, Cooper returns to humanity, but he doesn’t stay. He can’t, because the known world is no longer enough. Humanity, headed in a space ark to its new home, has tried to replicate Earth, but Cooper understands that something better is out there. So he leaves, to plumb the depths of the universe, to once again connect the future and the past, to find higher-dimensional beings, to discover the answers that the known world cannot provide. As users of the Internet, we must follow Cooper’s lead. We must recognize that data will help us, but not in the ways that truly matter, that it cannot take us as far as humanity can go.
Interstellar matters, for all of us, and Digital America is no exception. Its scope and its vision of grandeur beckons us to reclaim the spirit of exploration within us all. Imagine the future of which Christopher Nolan speaks, and realize how far his vision can take us, as opposed to the vanity of social media and the Web. David Edelstein is wrong; Interstellar is not a dumb movie. In fact, it is brilliant.
“Mankind was born on Earth,”Cooper says at one point, but “it was never meant to die here.”It’s a great tag line for a movie, but an even better one for a new generation of explorers determined to transcend the surly bonds of our three-dimensional Flatland and to prove critics like David Edelstein wrong.