Interstellar - poster
Interstellar is a rare hard sci-fi movie.

There has been a sad dearth of hard science fiction movies in recent memory. While comic book and alien invasion movies and the like have been proliferating (and some of them have been very good), there haven't been as many movies that have been willing to take science fiction subject matter seriously. The only mainstream releases that I can think of off the top of my head are District Nine, Inception, and Gravity, neither of which really wowed me. District Nine was alright, but I felt that its racism allegory fell flat since the aliens themselves considered the majority of their species to be mindless automatons. Inception was a fun ride, but nowhere near as clever or complicated as people made it out to be. And Gravity wasn't really "science fiction"; more like just "space drama" disaster porn.

That leaves the indie movie Moon and the surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as the only really good examples of high-brow science fiction that I can think of - and maybe Edge of Tomorrow can count as "medium-brow".

That's why I've been very excited about Christopher Nolan's new movie, Interstellar. It had all the trappings of a modern-day 2001: A Space Odyssey, which (confusing psychedelic ending aside - read the book!) is one of the best hard science fiction movies ever made. Interstellar definitely lived up to this expectation, but it's a much gloomier and more depressing epic than Arthur Clark and Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece.

The space travel plot is, in fact, almost identical to 2001. A crew must travel in hypersleep in an experimental spacecraft to investigate an anomaly around Saturn (the original 2001 book placed the monolith in orbit around Saturn, but it was changed to Jupiter for the film). The sleeping crew is even overseen by intelligent robots. The rising action has conspiratorial undertones, and the climax dives deep into metaphysical fringe science.

Interstellar - Saturn approach 2001: a Space Odyssey - Jupiter approach
Interstellar [LEFT] is very similar to Arthur Clark and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey [RIGHT]
in its detail-oriented depiction of space travel.

A lot of the science in the first half of the movie is solid, and it's actually integral to the narrative and drama between the characters. The second half takes a lot more creative license for the sake of plot. There are significant issues with relativity with regard to a black hole, metaphysical stuff about a "ghost", and some ham-fisted mumbo jumbo about the power of love transcending time and space. But despite some silly science, there's a very real possibility that audiences might leave the theater with a better understanding and appreciation of relativity.

So Interstellar definitely earns its comparisons to 2001...

IXS Enterprise 3-D concept
Concept of the IXS Enterprise

Recently, a NASA physicist Harold G. White made headlines in the science and technology media by showcasing a 3-D artist's render of a "real life" warp drive starship (affectionately named the "I.X.S. Enterprise" - not sure what the "I.X.S." stands for). The starship model poposed is based on mathametical calculations that suggest that the Alcubierre warp drive could actually work!

In the 1990's, theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre, mathematically demonstrated that a warp field could be created which could contract the space ahead of an object and expand the space behind said object, allowing the warping of space to effectively propel the object faster than the speed of light. The theory does not violate the "cosmic speed limit" imposed by relativity, since the object isn't being accelerated past the speed of light. Instead, the space around it is being manipulated to reduce the distance between the source and the destination by taking advantage of the fact that space itself is permeable and its motion is not constrained to the cosmic speed limit. Best of all: astronauts inside such a ship would not be subject to relativistic time dilation effects. A one-year trip for the astronauts would also be only one year for the people of earth!

IXS Enterprise 3-D concept
One of Matt Jefferies' original concepts for Star Trek's starship Enterprise.

Alcubierre freely admitted that his ideas were inspired by concepts from Star Trek, and considering that no similar theory of warp propulsion existed at the time of Star Trek, the concept and designs of the show are surprisingly prophetic. Alcubierre's models were met with early excitement when they were first proposed, but examinations by other physicists exposed certain flaws that made the effect impractical for human space exploration and travel:

  • The drive would require a tremendous amount of energy ranging from the equivalent of the total mass of Jupiter to the more mass than is contained in the observable universe! This, by itself, made the theory a non-starter.
  • The drive also may not be steerable or controllable from within the ship.
  • Also, there were concerns that a build-up of particles along the front of the bubble during travel would be shot forward when the drive slows down or stops, potentially destroying anything in its path (including the destination, whether it be a planet, another ship, or a space station).
  • There were also concerns about whether Hawking radiation inside the bubble would destabilize the bubble and/or kill the crew.

But that hasn't stopped physicists from thinking about the possibility...

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