Interestellar: the return of hard sci-fi (or it never left)?

This post is overdue. Interstellar, a huge success of a film, both critically and financially, has been out for almost a month. It has a rating of 8.9 out of 10 based on user reviews at IMDb and holds the #15 spot on the IMDb top 250. By this point, if you are a fan of space or sci-fi films, you have likely already found the time to see it.

I am not going to write a point-by-point plot breakdown of Interstellar, nor am I going to pick apart the science of the movie. Those kinds of reviews, of varying harshness and quality, have already been written variously by fans and detractors of the film. Such a post by me wouldn’t sway your choice to see the movie anyway. Instead, I’d like to take a look at what appears to be a changing trend in the style and content of sci-fi movies in the 21st century, and what the recent success of movies like Gravity and Interstellar may mean for the future of science fiction films. Is there a trend back towards hard sci-fi?

Wikipedia’s entry on “Hard Science Fiction” defines the genre as:

Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both… The heart of the “hard SF” designation is the relationship of the science content and attitude to the rest of the narrative, and (for some readers, at least) the “hardness” or rigor of the science itself. One requirement for hard SF is procedural or intentional: a story should try to be accurate, logical, credible and rigorous in its use of current scientific and technical knowledge about which technology, phenomena, scenarios and situations that are practically and/or theoretically possible.

So which space-based sci-fis are hard sci-fis? A couple classic examples most people might be familiar with would be 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Silent Running (1972), The Andromeda Strain (1971), and Solaris (1972).  These films were released right around the peak of the Space Race and the Apollo Program. The public could see and understand the romance and drama of  a simpler space exploration story without marauding aliens, warp drive, or laser weapons.

Another tempting franchise to include, Star Trek, was clearly influenced by the optimism of space exploration in the ’60s, as well. Star Trek, like the films listed above, was also in stark contrast to the earlier space operas that were little different than a cowboy adventure, only set in space. However, we can’t call Star Trek “hard” – after all, it has the warp drives and laser weapons I just ruled out. Star Trek has the veneer of science-focused storytelling, but lacks the “…credible and rigorous… use of current scientific and technical knowledge…”. However, in today’s era of the impossible physics of superhero and Transformers movies, which are clearly not science-based, the Star Trek of the 1960s sure looks sciencey by comparison.

So where do modern films fall on this spectrum? When you consider the most popular science fiction films of the ’90s and 2000s (Armaggedon, Star Wars, The Avengers, The Matrix, District 9, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Men in Black, Starship Troopers, Guardians of the Galaxy), there sure is a lot of fantasy going around. Even a little bit of science could go a long way. So is Interstellar really “hard”, or is it just another space fantasy pretending to know what it is talking about? Let’s look at some of the key science or engineering points of the film to get a feel for its realism (note, spoilers below):

  1. The world may have trouble feeding a growing population in the near future, and may suffer a population collapse as a result: This is plausible and backed up by a growing scientific consensus, due to climate change and population growth.
  2. NASA can’t work miracles: The film depicts NASA plausibly – having a hard time getting stuff done in a reduced budget environment. They can’t build the large space stations they want to and instead have to launch rockets and spacecraft of modest size to carry out their missions.
  3. Worm holes exist and it is possible to travel through them: Both facts are theoretically possible, mathematically.
  4. It takes a very long time for a spaceship to get from Earth to Saturn: Yup.
  5. Time dilation would occur on a planet orbiting a large black hole: this is the meat of why the film producers hired noted physicist Kip Thorne as a consultant. The water planet orbiting Gargantua was very plausible.
  6. Such a planet would have huge tidal waves: No. The planet would likely be tidally locked. There would not be a moving tide on the planet.
  7. There can be such a thing as frozen clouds on an alien planet: I’m not really sure what a “frozen cloud” even is.
  8. Don’t open an airlock if your spacecraft isn’t properly docked: plausible results here! And no sound of the explosion in space.
  9. High spin-rate spacecraft docking: not likely possible at the number of RPMs depicted in the film. But the characters are at least shown experiencing high-Gs in the scene.

That’s just a sample of some of the things I noticed (items 1, 3, 5, and 6 backed up by people smarter than me). So it seems clear that the filmmakers did make an effort to get many things right in Interstellar, while at the same time taking some creative license for the sake of stunning visuals or dramatic effect. Interstellar is probably somewhere in the middle-ground; farther towards “hard” than  Star Trek, but not at the level of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which  many people have been comparing Interstellar to, due to certain plot elements.

So, this is why the definition of hard sci-fi I quoted above mentions “trying” to be accurate. If we are going to be strict about the definition and say a hard sci-fi must be perfectly scientifically accurate, it may be very difficult to find a movie that is a true hard sci-fi tale. So, in order to draw the line somewhere – and since this is my blog – I am going to loosen up my definition of “hard sci-fi” but give more parameters than just “trying” to be accurate. Let’s define a hard sci-fi as having astronauts instead of adventurers (see, Dave of 2001 instead of Kirk of Star Trek), having realistic spacecraft technology (for example, artificial gravity is only possible through centrifugal force), and no unreasonable alien encounters. I like to think of these kinds of movies as “astronaut movies” – they are the ones that feel realistic to guys like me that work at NASA.

Using this definition, I have compiled a list of all the astronaut movies since Apollo 13 in 1995 (the pinnace of what a successful astronaut movie can be). By my count, there have been about 20 movies since Apollo 13 that have either been fair “astronaut movies” or have come close, but fail my smell test in some way. I have colored films that are clear successes in red and indie films (for which a flop/hit designation based on gross sales is meaningless) as blue. Three of the other movies made more money than they cost but not enough for me to firmly declare them as hits.

Screen shot 2014-12-09 at 9.30.41 PM

Note: Budget estimates taken from IMDB.com and gross sales figures from BoxOfficeMojo.com

Two things stand out to me in this data. The first is that even when we include the “fantasy” movies that are almost astronaut movies, but not quite, you still see a long drought of mainstream successful films of about 10 years or more. Second, in recent years there is a ramp-up in “indie” films in the astronaut genre, which is promising if you were a fan of MoonSunshine, or Europa Report.

Leaving in the three campy films of Armageddon, Deep Impact, and Space Cowboys makes the story look a bit better. But if you don’t like camp, then there really was a true drought of a good mainstream astronaut based film for nearly two decades. By all accounts, Prometheus (which I have not seen) is so full of non-scientific plot elements, not to mention aliens, that I probably shouldn’t include it. But since it features astronauts in spacesuits, I thought it was close enough to my definition to at least get a comparison.

It seems to me that Gravity and Interstellar signal a true return of hard sci-fi films to the mainstream. With Ridley Scott currently working on The Martian, starring Matt Damon along with other big names, the trend is going to continue for now. And if The Martian stays true to the source material, it really will be the hardest astronaut film since Apollo 13.

Those of us who pride ourselves on being nerds or geeks and have heard of Sunshine, Europa Report or Gattaca, or liked Red Planet, would be justified in saying that hard sci-fi never left film, it just went underground. But the fact that you have seen all those great films does not affect the public consciousness; they are not becoming a part of culture. What becomes culture is a mainstream movie that everyone has heard of and seen. It may seem silly, but a film like Gravity can do a simple thing like remind Americans that their tax dollars are paying for an International Space Station. A film like Interstellar may get a kid interested in black holes and she may voluntarily read some physics books. Why not get a little science along with your entertainment?

A good sci-fi film is still all about entertainment first, hard or soft. But a good hard sci-fi film usually has the side effect of being more nuanced, due to it being anchored in reality. This nuance allows such films, usually, to explore real life themes that can be both social and scientific. At a time when the public’s commitment to our space program (be it manned or not) is unclear, films that show that the simple act of exploration is both exciting and hip can go a long way to getting the public back onboard with why we have a space program in the first place. So, despite the fact that I only give Interstellar  a 7 out of 10 – and I don’t think it is anywhere near the 15th best movie of all time – I say it is an awesome adventure ride that deserves the hype. The film should be seen both for its visuals and the questions it poses:

What cost are you willing to pay for the future of humanity? Is man’s nature inherently selfish? Can love of family overcome that inherent nature? Or does love simply lead to more selfish acts? Is humanity worth saving if in the restarting, cultural history is lost?

These kinds of questions are the hallmark of a film that makes an effort to reflect reality back at us, rather than let us escape into fantasy. This is the kind of space adventure that will get people talking and thinking. I say give us more! Go see Interstellar.

December 9, 2014 9:46 pm

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