Saving Interstellar: A Mental Rewrite of Chris Nolan’s Latest Masterpiece

blackhole-movie-wormholeFriends who know my work as a systems theorist, including my speculations about the evolutionary developmental (evo devo) nature of our universe, and the potential attraction of universal intelligence to black hole-like environments (the developmental singularity or transcension hypothesis) have asked me for my take on Christopher Nolan’s latest film. Here it is, along with a fun exercise, called the “mental rewrite,” that we all tend to do when confronted with story implausibilities, an exercise worth doing for flawed films we particularly like.

Inter_stellar_posterInterstellar is an ambitious and soaring film, and it deals with important subjects, often very well. Nolan and his team, especially the brilliant composer Hans Zimmer, seem to get better with nearly every film. On its face, I’d give it a 7 out of 10 on Amazon’s IMDB. Anything above 6.8 is usually worth watching, in my book. But by mentally rewriting some of its critical scenes, I was able to give it a much higher score.

Mental rewrites are great imagination exercises, and incredibly satisfying when you can pull them off, either on your own or in conversation with friends. Successful rewrites route around the damaged parts in a story by reimagining them in a better way. I’ve done hundreds in my life, both for films and books, and I bet you have too. One of the neatest things about the mental rewrite habit is that the more you do it, the more you start forgetting the director’s version of everything and remembering yours. You become the director of the construct that matters most, your simulation of the essence of the movie or story, in your own mind. You must be a self-appointed critic to do this, making a judgment that the creatives made some bad choices, taking a DIY attitude, and seeking to do better. Maybe that, and the validation from others on your better rewrites, is what makes it so fun.

Rewriters tend to be both critical and creative folks, connoisseurs of both plot and possibilities, and risers to the challenge of fixing things they don’t like. Rewrites seem particularly worth doing for stories with plots, writers, directors, actors, or characters that you mostly love and don’t want to forget. Some books and movies only need a few minutes or pages to be mentally fixed to be great. Others may need whole sections fixed, and many don’t seem fixable. I find if any movie needs 10% or less of its running time to be mentally rewritten to be both believable and epic, and the rewrite is findable without too much mental effort, I usually am generous and give it my rewrite rating on IMDB, rather than its lower original director’s rating. I’ll also make exceptions beyond 10% for particularly good movies. Nolan’s latest film is in the latter category. I had to rewrite more than a tenth of it my head, but I still give it a rewrite score of 9 out of 10, as it was a fun and not-too-difficult exercise, as the rewrite truly makes it epic for me, and as the director and his body of work, including Memento, Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and Man of Steel are truly special.

If you haven’t seen Interstellar yet, please do! It is inspiring and mind-opening, as our best sci-fi should be. My proposed rewrites are below.

For predictions on the future of mental rewriting and remix culture, see For the Future… after the rewrites.

SPOILERS follow…

Here are the four top problems I found with Interstellar, and mental rewrites that should keep some viewers cruising without getting stuck in a plothole.

Agree or disagree? I’d love to hear yours!

1. Fix the Acceleration Unawareness!

420pw-CosmicCalendar

Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar – Acceleration is Obvious, Once You Look

Whether it’s Children of Men or Interstellar, technology-naïve and dystopian-loving writers often assume that somehow technological innovation will stop accelerating. That’s simply laughable. Humanity has always experienced accelerating change. For decades, every new generation of digital technology gets rapidly smarter at various steep rates (e.g., Moore’s law and all the other exponential and superexponential technology performance curves) as well as rapidly more autonomous and resource-efficient (e.g., Koomey’s law, which observes that the energy needed per computation halves every 18-24 months). Until recently, a lot of sci-fi cheerfully ignored that our digital technology is waking up, dematerializing and increasingly exceeding us, and that digital intelligence promises to be far more redundant and resilient than biology. It’s time for our better sci-fi to abandon that ignorance, which is seductive as it allows more creative freedom, but the products of that freedom are science fantasy rather than realistic future fiction (RFF). Bicentennial Man (1999), A.I. (2001), Transcendence (2014), and a crop of other films have all taken admirable steps toward RFF that deals with accelerating machine intelligence, though each of these needs small rewrites of various types to be great.

Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), which I’d give a 9 out of 10 as written, is an almost flawless example of brave and intelligent RFF that helps everyone think through some of the likely near-future consequences of artificial general intelligence (AGI). See Kjell Hansen’s excellent points in the comments below for some technical dialog rewrites that would improve Her’s near-perfect script. See also Cadell Last’s brilliant and transcension-contemplating review, “Her is about the singularity, but not the singularity you think.” Her won Oscars for most original screenplay, best picture, and best musical score of 2013. I’d nominate it for best realistic future fiction of 2013 as well. Perhaps the academy will add that award in 2030. Until then, we can Just Do It Ourselves 🙂

To summarize, as SciAm editor Gerard Piel eloquently argues in The Acceleration of History, 1972,  human civilization has always been characterized by accelerating change. Even in the thousand year “Dark Ages” of Western Europe, science and technology bounded ahead in Asia and the Middle East. The West did temporarily lose some of the more complex and large scale technical arts after the fall of Rome, but even Western technology made major progress during these centuries. For the details, see Frances and Joseph Geis’s Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, 1995. Today, hundreds of daily advances in our machine systems make it clear that generally human-surpassing machine intelligence (aka the Technological Singularity) is today just around the corner (coming in the second half of the 21st century, in my guess). Let’s get over ignoring or denying it, and get on with thinking more smartly about it. Catastrophes and crises, like the crop catastrophe that happens in this film, just speed up innovation, as anyone with any knowledge of history and deadlines knows.

Fortunately, Interstellar goes into this territory only briefly, and entirely unnecessarily. Just mentally cut out those ridiculous lines that say we have no more military, and no need for engineers, and change that ludicrous speech by the schoolteacher about the Apollo missions being faked, which insult the intelligence of the audience and the memories of all the scientists and engineers and astronauts in the space program. I mentally rewrote her speech as being about sustainability and the arrogance of capitalists, engineers and scientists, a milder version of the “men like you” speech Sarah Connor gave to Miles Dyson in Terminator 2. I can believe we’d be teaching such things to our kids after a major global crop disaster, and it would set us up to fix the next huge plot hole too.

2. Forget the Earth “Dying”

For his global disaster (the “Blight”) Nolan bites the style of Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant Cat’s Cradle (1963), giving us an Ice-nine trick: an accelerating crop and plant pathogen that is of a fundamentally and fatally different physical structure than known organisms, one that somehow metabolizes using nitrogen rather than (or with?) oxygen. This is cute, and reminiscent of nitrogen-fixing bacteria (which do good things, and are self-limiting), but those crazy organisms would have killed us just as dead on the Saturn colony as well. Such plot devices seem to me like a nuclear option, a sledgehammer that would kill everything (which is probably why they don’t exist in a life-prolific universe, as ours seems very likely to be) when for the plot, a flyswatter would do.

interstellar-farmFar more realistic and valuable as a plot device would be some kind of positive-feedback fertilizer-induced poisoning of the ocean, perhaps causing a dying off of the ocean’s zooplankton, which produce most of our atmospheric oxygen. Keep the clever dustbowl scenario, and maybe add a (long-feared) supervolcano to tip the scales into temporary global insanity, so that both biological and technological (photovoltaic) photosynthesis don’t work well in the dusty atmosphere and everyone needs oxygen masks and fossil fuel-based home electrolysis units (water splitters, to make oxygen) just to live, making global warming even worse. For fun let’s add a latent single-celled oceanic aerobic eukaryote that consumes both oxygen and methane, a species which flourishes on Earth only when methane is being released in vast amounts, as happens whenever the permafrost and methane hydrates melt in runaway global warming. All this makes the global oxygen problem even worse. In my rewrite, these details can be hinted at by scientists in the film as perhaps behind some of our previous mass extinctions, which are still unsolved puzzles today.

Such a perfect storm would be an initially accelerating but ultimately self-correcting problem that could reasonably be expected to kill off many billions of us before it stabilizes. That would allow Nolan to tell us a bit about the Gaia hypothesis, a curious phenomenon in which the Earth’s geological and climatogical systems appear to act much like a living system that usually self stabilizes (homeostasis), but in our ignorance, arrogance, and capitalist excess we have now pushed the life-protecting balance temporarily away from us, and toward whatever species can survive the mass atmospheric disruption ahead. We knew we didn’t understand Gaia’s systems, yet we kept crapping in our own beautiful nest nonetheless, and now we pay the price. It was like knowing there weren’t enough lifeboats on the Titanic, yet continuing to speed along in pitch darkness. Mother Nature is “a tough son of a bitch,” as Lynn Margulis liked to say. She will recover just fine without the large majority of us around. The film could make it clear that we could kill billions of ourselves if we continue to be shortsighted and irresponsible, but the curious reality is that we humans aren’t even powerful enough to kill off ourselves entirely, which says something incredibly interesting about how the universe is self-organized to protect its growing complexity, as I argue in my scholarly work. All of this would be believable moralizing.

Discovering antigravity, as happens in the film, would allow creation of decentralizable energy sources that would let us produce enough non-greenhouse oxygen, and pull out enough atmospheric CO2 to get us through the crisis. Geoengineering to fix our own mess. Having Cooper choose to leave so that he can potentially save the many billions of humans from our past arrogance is plenty enough of a “Save the World” story for the film. In my mind’s eye I see him hoping that his crew can execute Plan B, making a backup Earth. As a longshot, he’s also hoping he might make contact with the wormhole builders, explain our predicament, and bring back some alien science or tech to prevent the looming Earth dieoff. That would be Cooper’s Plan A Prime, even better Professor Brand’s Plan A, which only would save a negligible number in antigravity arks.

3. Dump the Physics Nonsense, Especially Backward Time Travel

Sending info backward in time is unnecessary for the plot. The twist of sending “only a little” information back in time is cute, but as unbelievable as sending back Bill and Ted. To a patternist, as many of us are, living systems are essentially complex patterns of information. Sending back information is no different from sending back people. Both are ludicrous ideas. Nolan does the science of forward time travel beautifully, one of many things to love about this film. Backward time traveling changes the future, is considered impossible by the vast majority of physicists, and introduces all kinds of unresolvable paradoxes. So why go there?

interstellar_loveIn a rewrite I like, when Cooper gets to the “tesseract” (extradimensional space) in the black hole he finds alien beings (descendants of an advanced civilization once similar to us) who now live inside a supermassive black hole (for one way that might happen, see the transcension hypothesis). These beings show him how they sent their original message to Murph, as he views that portion of the tesseract’s data history. Coop could then realize that the advanced beings actually chose Murphy and him, to have the chance to make humanity’s leap back from disaster. These advanced intelligences live almost entirely outside our universe, though they do maintain a few weak links to it, including the forward timeline (no time travel paradoxes necessary, just instantaneous entangled universal sensing) involving Coop and his child.

To maximize universal diversity, these superethical beings don’t tend to interfere in other civilizations’ transcension activities. But they do sometimes gently nudge a few of those civilizations, the ones that show they deserve helping, if they get in big trouble on their way to transcension. In Interstellar, humanity has now gotten itself into such trouble. Our intelligence, compassion, and morality have been judged worthy of nudging, to improve the odds that at least some of us survive. The aliens might say telepathically to Cooper, “We can only show you the door. It is not for us to push you through it.” The aliens, not Coop, would then send Earth’s scientists the black hole data instantaneously, as humans had shown they deserved to have it. It could be done through Christopher Nolan’s cool watch hand device, as he loves talismans like watches and Inception’s spinning top, or just in plain Morse code. This instantaneous universal communication would then alter our local present, not the past, for the benefit of humanity. Coop would be watching as the black hole data was transmitted, in both their present timelines, and he’d be urging Murph to figure it out. He could send her a short personal message as well, like “I’m proud of you, now finish this thing.”

We can also lose the whole Burn the Fields scene, which is super silly but at least mercifully short. It is such an obvious plot device to generate fake suspense, and so unnecessary, that I flushed it right out of my mind even as I was watching it. My immune system just wouldn’t allow it, a response some friends shared as well. Sorry Christopher! In the rewrite, the older Murphy could just return to the house a second time and apologize to her brother, who she had just previously treated non-lovingly (one of Nolan’s core themes in this movie, note the tagline in the poster above), and ask him for a little time alone in her old bedroom. She has been drawn there all her life, and the aliens, able to navigate the 4D timeline of our universe, have been waiting for her to return, predicting that she’d be both smart and loving and connected enough to her past memories to “pass the test” so to speak.

There was a bit more suspicious physics we can dump too. As Paul (last name anonymous) emailed me in a recent comment, the team left Earth in a multistage (“bigass class”) rocket, and it would have needed a similar rocket to get off of Miller’s planet, which had 130% of Earth’s gravity. Thus the whole “macho Cooper” rapid landing scene, and getting surprised by the tsunami would need a technicals rewrite to save it. I’d also have the alien, not Cooper, shake hands with Amelia through the wall of the ship, comforting her. That would be a believable 5th dimension interaction, for me, versus whatever Kip Thorne (The Science of Interstellar, 2014) was trying to cook up there.

4. Close the Wormhole! 

DrAmeliaBrandThe wormhole needs to close right after Cooper’s antigravity breakthrough data are sent back. Otherwise scads of human explorers would have flooded through it in the many years since he left Earth, as I see it. In the rewrite, a Saturn colony member can inform Cooper when he arrives that the wormhole has mysteriously reopened just a month ago, after closing eerily the very same month Murphy solved the antigravity equations. The Saturn colony arrived on the scene a few years before Coop came back, in the hopes that the wormhole would reopen. A short scene with a convocation of bigwigs at the colony can realize it is probably Coopers destiny to be the first one back through, now that it has reopened, to hopefully reunite with Amelia Brand, whom he obviously loves. “Most of us have options, a few of us have destinies. Cooper, your destiny seems to be to blaze us a trail. Good luck my friend.” Now that’s a great way to end a masterpiece!

5. Bonus Rewrite: Clarify Dr. Mann’s Motives.

Interstellar_3This one isn’t critical for me, but I’ll throw it in for fun. The evil Dr. Mann was a great character that my friends and I unfortunately saw coming a mile away, when he was set up to be a demigodlike personality by the crew members adoring praise in advance. A rewrite would greatly tone down that praise, and simply propose him as an impressively rational personality, vs Edmunds and Brand’s emotional personalities and connection. That would set up the Mann vs Edmunds planet choice, for the satisfying later reveal (and reminder) that logic and rationality don’t necessarily mean ethics, something that only true hearts and consciences can provide us. I’d also like a bit of dialog from Dr. Mann during the fight scene with Cooper better explaining why he was willing to kill him. Something like: “I knew if I could play along for a while, and get you alone, I had a chance to get back where I belong. You even brought your whole team to the surface! A Boy Scout mistake Coop. You deserve to lose command.” And why/how did Mann kill Rommily? A booby trap on Mann’s robot? I’d like to know. A bit of this explication would make Dr. Mann a more believable antagonist. In my experience human evil is usually just selfishness and opportunism, and in Dr. Mann’s case there seems to be a strong survival drive, and perhaps isolation or hypersleep mania as well. Nolan gave us a hint of all this in Cooper’s conversation with Amelia about evil, but it wasn’t nearly enough for my tastes.

For the Future… 

As a professional futurist, let me now offer two predictions, for policy and business opportunities related to mental rewriting.

Policy Prediction: Editing and Remixing Licenses – The Future of Mental Rewrites and Fan Fiction

I am sure that one fine year our society will figure out reasonable editing and remix licences for all of our creative works. Such licenses will allow crowds of fans to make their own improved versions of our favorite films, and to make good money selling their remixes. I once heard, but have not yet verified, that a court in Utah in the 1990s heard the case of a Mormon video rental franchise that was chopping out the naughty bits in films like the Titanic, and offering them for rental. The studios sued and said they couldn’t do it at all, and the business said, “Why not? You give out reasonably priced editing licenses to airlines and television channels to chop out the naughty bits, so why not us?” A reasonable question! In the version of the story I heard, which I pray to both Joseph Smith and the copylefters is correct, the court decided this case for the business, with the further proviso that the additional editing license had to be reasonably priced, which in their ruling meant it could not be more than the cost of the rental license. That editing license may not have included remixing, allowing them add their own new scenes, and declaring on the cover that this is a Titanic remix, with a Mormon subplot added, for example. I think remix licenses should cost another reasonable fee, on top of a reasonable editing fee. I am convinced that a majority of creative people out there would vote for these editing and remix freedoms and licences, as federal laws in every country, as long as reasonable fees go to the original creators in each case. That would be global creative heaven! I feel confident something like this kind of legal structure will eventually emerge, because most of us would want it. I believe we’ll use our future digital agents, what I call “digital twins” to help us vote such intelligent legal reforms into operation in coming decades. In the meantime, to fix our favorite fims, we have our lovely imagination.

Business Prediction: Rewrite Wiki and Crowdsourced Rewriting Platform – An Entrepreneurial Opp!

I predict we eventually see some great crowdfixing platforms for problematic stories, scripts, and films in coming years. A platform for plot-proofing great stories before they are produced in final form. Just like InnoCentive has 300K “solvers” working to solve technical problems, and firms like AlphaSights and Gerson Lehrman Group have thousands of experts available for rent by the hour, we need a platform to help a few tens of thousands of science, geek, and nerdcore “critics” to turn our best Science Fiction (films and books) into Realistic Future Fiction (RFF). We’d get great fanfiction, and directors would weed out the worst bugs in their sci-fi scripts. I’m sure Nolan did his share of edits and rewrites on this film as on his others, but sometimes it takes a large, cognitively diverse group of tactful yet independent critics to fix the worst plotholes and problems. As far as I know, such a platform doesn’t exist yet today. It’s a great business opportunity! Those authors and directors that used it would get some opinion leader and media buzz simply by doing so. They could even get a “seal of approval” from the critiquing community. “Passing the test” of watchability, so to speak. 🙂 This project could start with a wiki of freely offered mental rewrites of lovely but flawed films, like the one above. These rewrites could be pairwise comparison ranked, meaning you have to rank any rewrite against one or more competitor rewrites for the same story, so it is never a winner-take all popularity contest, where only a few get read, but instead a network where all submissions get read and ranked. A well designed system would yield a power law ranking of the results, with a fat head of rewrite winners and a long tail of runner ups. Authors of the higher ranked rewrites would be sought after as expert rewriters.  Anyone want to launch this? I’d be happy to be an advisor if you wish! If anyone makes such a platform, please invite me to join the community. I’m sure many other self-appointed critics would love to do the same.

Feedback? Let me know in the comments what you think. Thanks!

PS: For more on the transcension hypothesis, a key element of Interstellar’s plot, as I see it, you may enjoy:

Journal Article:
The Transcension Hypothesis, John Smart, 16/12/11, Acta Astronautica
Blog Post:
The Transcension Hypothesis: An Answer to the Fermi Paradox, Owen Nicholas, 1/11/14, BrighterBrains.org
Videos:
The Transcension Hypothesis, The Future of Us, S1:E9, AOL, Dec 2013 (3 min)
The Transcension Hypothesis: What Comes After the (Tech) Singularity?, YouTube, Apr 2011 (3 min)

Comments

  1. miguelaznar says:

    What a fascinating rewrite, John! You are much better than I am at rewriting instead of just checking out. When plot flaws like these crop up, I have trouble staying in the movie. Although, I have not seen Interstellar, I thoroughly enjoyed your rewrite, especially your diabolical human-assisted catastrophe. The fly swatter vs sledge hammer point is good. Backwards time travel is a cop out unless it’s for fun, like Bill & Ted’s Excey Adventure or Terminator.

    • Thanks Miguel! I started mentally fixing one or two irritating scenes in near-perfect films like Jaws and it just grew from there. I later found there are others who do the same. We need a place to do it together! 🙂

  2. Horrible science in Interstellar, why did they waste money on an expert?
    Among the countless errors, again they can’t cure ageing, even when they have advanced
    space colonies (at the end of the movie). Ex Machine, coming soon, might be better

    • Thanks for the perspective Martin! I’m actually a big fan of their technical advisor, Kip Thorne, and thought they did most of the black hole and relativity parts really well. I loved the idea of data from inside the event horizon being the missing link to unify quantum physics and relativity. An interesting and plausible speculation, for me.

      As I’ve studied molecular biology I must strongly disagree with you that humans and their weak AIs are likely to cure aging before we get the capacity to make advanced space colonies. Human biology is ridiculously complex as a nanosystem, and very unlikely to be fixable by human or weak AI minds. Our molecular error correction systems and gene-protein regulatory networks appear self-organized to progressively fall apart and accumulate entropy over time, and seems hugely unlikely we’ll learn how to fix them before we learn how to get out of them by copying our thinking and adapting patterns at higher and higher fidelity into machine substrates. Advanced AIs may one day be able to make an effectively immortal biological human, but by then, I don’t think too many humans would be interested in staying biological, given the incredible advance in conciousness and capability that will seemingly be available to us in nonbiological forms. That’s a realistic future fiction scenario for human superlongevity, in my opinion.

      I hope you’re right about Ex Machina. From the trailer it looked to me like it is very likely to be yet another AI horror movie, not inspiring or life-affirming like Interstellar. I hope I am proven wrong!

  3. Hey John,

    Speaking of 2014 sci-fi cinema, have you seen Her? /*A few potential spoilers ahead, if you haven’t yet*/. It was handily my favorite movie of the year and the only film I can think of that attempts to depict a developmental singularity / transcension (2001: A Space Odyssey’s gorgeously ambiguous “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence that ends with Dr. Bowman’s accelerated aging in the Neoclassical alien light room and his transformation into the Star-Child is possible to construe as a form of transcension/saltation too, of course, but that’s a whole other conversation).

    Anyways, earlier this year, Cadell Last did a lovely blog review of Her [http://theadvancedapes.com/her-is-about-the-singularity-but-not-the-singularity-you-think/] that name-checks you. Honestly, I’m a bit surprised you decided not to review Her, yourself.

    Her certainly has points worth critiquing from a “hey, this isn’t RFF” POV too—for me, primarily the suggestion that high-level aspects of Samantha’s mind are a direct expression of hand-coded programming rather than a result of environmental sensorimotor I/O upon a neuromorphic tabula rasa (a la Jeff Hawkins’ HTM), and the apparent lack of any neural ontogenesis process (her booting into existence as an fully-developed adult, English-speaking, and improbably highly human-like mind)—but it gets SO much else right, artistically and story-wise, in an entertainment market flooded with hopelessly-flawed Hollywood visions with almost no anchoring whatsoever in RFF concerns informing their production (many being “AI horror movies”, as you call them). The “resurrected AGI version of philosopher Alan Watts” and Samantha’s poetic farewell speech to Theodore are particular treats in Her.

    Among other things, I happen to freelance in the indie film scene up here in Seattle (e.g. worked in art dept on the time travel comedy Safety Not Guaranteed), and it seems pretty clear to me that, unfortunately, doing RFF hardly registers as any sort of aspiration or passion within most film productions, at any industrial scale.

    To me, Nolan seems a highly over-adulated director—that said, I did enjoy Memento, The Prestige and even The Dark Knight. As for Interstellar, I was certainly pleased to hear that Kip Thorne found some academic silver-lining to his role as science advisor [http://www.wired.com/2014/10/astrophysics-interstellar-black-hole/] in the production and I also love that he advised on Contact. Meanwhile, Interstellar’s trailer gave me the impression I’d likely dislike its plot and sentimentality, so I made no plans to see it, and I allowed a review in the local paper (“…a plot that, quite frankly, often doesn’t make much sense”) to galvanize that choice.

    Reading your review/”rewrite” of Interstellar here was certainly interesting. I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to mentally rewrite fiction (and I feel almost allergic to fanfic), personally preferring just critique, exegesis and analysis that ties artworks as they exist (in their original forms) into broader cultural currents. At the same time, I do definitely support copyleft, love artistic reference and quotation, and various aspects of remix culture (“RiP!: A Remix Manifesto” is quite good, if you haven’t seen it: vimeo.com/8040182). Girl Talk comes to mind as an artist who embodies this aesthetic practice in a wonderfully maximalist form of music. As for film, the independent Swedish and American adaptions of the book Let the Right One In strike me as an artistically successful example of parallel “rewrites” or adaptions of a source. In general though, I’m sick of the reboots of reboots, sequels, prequels, spinoffs, endless adaptions of vacuous comic book franchises [http://comicsalliance.com/supermovies-this-is-what-the-next-few-years-of-your-life-looks-like-infographic/], and me-too clones of zombie TV series, etc. The cultural regurgitation of the mainstream entertainment industry strikes me as overly-derivative and unhealthy, especially when more original and creative stories (they’re out there!) end up getting crowded out of the attention-economy market by decadent behemoth spectacles.

    To take a few grains of salt as an antidote for this otherwise negative, anti-mainstream sounding opinion on this though… when I saw the first trailer to Interstellar, it was in a theater as a preview for Godzilla. Plus I’m pretty excited for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I” (even despite my distaste for the new trend of splitting/spreading the final films of bloated event-movie trilogies into multiple part$). Apologies for the length and the tangents,

    —Kjell

    • Hi Kjell! I think your comments about Her are spot on. We both seem to think a highly bio-inspired, self-improving, evo devo approach to AI will be the one that that wins out against other competing and presently more popular approaches. An evo devo approach may even be the only practical way to manage higher levels of computational complexity and parallelism, an even stronger claim that I look forward to seeing tested in coming years.

      I should have done a post about Her, but I’ve been writing a book, The Foresight Guide, these last 18 months and so have posted quite little. I hope to post more regularly now that the book is almost done. I’ll email you a draft copy in case you are interested in giving any feedback prior to publication (on Amazon Jan 2015 I hope). I added something about Her to the post above, referencing you and Cadell, thanks.

      Thanks also for all the interesting background about your film work. I see all your points, and yet I’m less inclined get into the negative assessments. The older I get, the easier I find it to critique mass culture (probably something to do with the way our more experienced minds work, as I argue in my Guide), and yet, I think it can be a bit of a trap, and I try to catch myself from doing it too much. There are so many different mindsets in need of entertainment, and so much about our plutocratic and structurally violent society that really won’t change much prior to the arrival of more advanced personal and global AI, as I see it. Reboots of old stories beat out creating new ones for lots of good reasons today I think, but I don’t expect those reasons to persist in an world with more advanced AI.

      Because I think we will see incredibly powerful AI every year forward now, I try to focus more on those developments, if we do see them happening, and to help those currently working on them, whose numbers grow rapidly now every year. They have exponential trends as a tailwind, and they will ultimately change society in very significant ways, as I will argue in some of my forthcoming blog posts, and my next book after TFG 🙂

      I very much understand your point about the niche market that is RFF today, but if you grant that remix rights and capabilities will emerge in some of our more foresighted and freedom oriented countries in coming decades, and that our global collaboration platforms will continue to be enhanced by semantic AI, you may also grant that artists-scientists-futurists will be able to monetize that market. I think then we’ll see some fantastic rewrites and new works emerge, and the RFF niche can go mainstream (2025-2030 perhaps?)

      Finally, on your point about 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’m again eerily in total agreement. We are mental dopplegangers here 🙂 I wonder if you’ve seen 2010: Odyssey Two (1984) or read the 1982 book. It gets 6.8 on IMDB from 36K users, right at my watchability threshold. But I think a subgroup of folks interested in transcension hypothesis ideas would give it a much higher score (I’d today give it an 8, and 2001 a 9), particularly because of its fantastic ending. When I saw it as a young man I remember thinking that at least a few other people in the world really took the transcension hypothesis seriously, as one possible future for advanced intelligence. Fortunately more and more people seem to think that way today, and it’s been quite comforting to see the meme grow in the twenty years since that lovely film.

      • I haven’t yet ventured beyond Kubrick to 2010: Odyssey Two, but I’ll most certainly either track down a copy of the Arthur C. Clarke story or give the Peter Hyams film a watch based on your rec, thanks John!

        My attitude toward retellings is probably gradually softening. I gave Carrie (2013) a shot last night and it’s the 3rd film version to be adapted from the Stephen King story (while I didn’t care for the 1976 version, I loved the new version). Happened to come across [http://www.blastr.com/2014-11-14/interstellar-plot-holes-and-letting-stories-be-themselves] over the weekend too, which offers a bit of a counterpoint to mental rewriting. It’s a great thing when interactivity with art can bridge the gulf often felt between production/consumption though, and to feel so connected to a story that one becomes inspired to remake it as their own seems progressive. I’d definitely be happy to have film culture feel more p2p and less as if one-way broadcasts from a distant dream factory. A more mainstreamed RFF niche would certainly also be most welcome.

        RE “…so much about our plutocratic and structurally violent society that really won’t change much prior to the arrival of more advanced personal and global AI”: this is a question of perspective I’ve struggled with a lot in deciding how soft/hard of a technological determinist I am. Ripe for future discussion.

  4. John, you are the first person that thought Interstellar could have been better and has brought valid criticism to the table. You understood the story perfectly, unlike those who believe that Love was the thing that supposedly tied the whole movie together, which in my opinion is total rubbish.
    “Coop could then realize that the advanced beings chose Murph…” – good summation.
    Although I personally thought Interstellar was near flawless, your review is brilliant.
    Thanks!

  5. All points well taken.

    I too was struck by the willful ignorance of point 1, but on the other hand, there are examples of this in history (e.g. China) where societal pressures stopped or even reversed progress, so I could have lived with that one.

    For point 2, I imagined that the disaster was actually the RESULT of a botched geoengineering effort to fix global warming.

    Point 3 did irk me, I imagined a scenario more like yours.

    Point 4 – I didn’t see a problem with that, and in fact I am not sure that the movie actually rules out your scenario. I assumed that all those ships were for the crazy few explorers who wanted to chance the unknown and go on a one-way ride into the gateway. Maybe I missed something, but I assumed people had been exploring the gateway, but due to dilation effects hadn’t yet had a time to say “Hi” to Brand.

    Point 5 – Wasn’t the guy who was the “best of us” the one whom Brand loved and found dead, and not Mann? If so, what you saw coming a mile away wasn’t quite what was in the movie…maybe I am misremembering.

    I just assumed that Mann’s brain had gotten freezer burn or whatever during his cryosleep and he had become psychotic. His plan didn’t make sense since it was in response to brain function that didn’t make sense. He still had a fine mind, but it was turned to rationalizing his crazy drive. So I didn’t have a problem with this one. He was driven to finish the “plan,” but the plan was an escape from his ongoing untenable psychotic compulsion. I do like your scenario better than mine for this one – it gives an opportunity for some depth – but I am not sure it rings as realistic since it still leaves unexplained his mania to get off the planet. Even an evil person should have seen where self-interest lies, admitted it was bogus data, and just gone up with the rest of them. What else would they do – leave him there?

    The only time I fully fell out of the story was when the second lander dropped off, Coop along with it. There was no physics reason why that needed to happen since the station boost cut off at the same time. There was nothing to be gained by dropping him into the singularity. To fix it, all we have to imagine is that the station burns longer. Then it makes sense to consider that lander as a second stage that is not needed any more. Still raises the question as to why it and the other lander couldn’t have been controlled remotely and everybody including the robot would be safe (oops – need to rewrite the ending).

    • Thanks SteveO! Great insights. On acceleration I guess it comes down to when you think it finally becomes more machine-aided than human-driven. I think that transition happened some time in the 20th century. A botched geoengineering effort would be great irony. Nice points about the second lander. I need to watch this film a second time when it comes to video. I’d love to see some of your other rewrites, and realistic future fiction faves.

  6. Thanks! For acceleration: at least until or if the machines are the ones deciding to do it, humans can always back away from progress. We see it happening in the world today, but as long as they are a small proportion the ones who embrace the scientific method (machine-mediated or not) will win out by any measure. But if, for some reason, a world-wide taboo was acquired (e.g. in Interstellar “all them damn smartypants got us into global warming, then killed us all trying to fix it”), all that progress could all be lost. Technology, scientific thinking, all that is just software in human brains, and could be gone in a generation. I thought the “caretaker” generation comment in the movie was a brilliant way to convey a retrenchment/retreat backstory in just two words.

    Realistic future fiction faves – right now a great one is “The Martian,” not just because it is plausible, but because the writing was absolutely brilliant at conveying the real science in a way that non-scientists (or those without the implanted sf tropes) could understand. My very smart 11 year old daughter had no problem understanding the science in that story. Heard they are making a movie of that now…

    I came here via David Brin’s blog, and his near future “Earth” and “Existence” novels explore a bunch of interesting and nuanced ideas.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful perspective, SteveO. Respondimg by phone so please excuse the brevity. There are examples of humans successfully turning away from advanced technologies that don’t serve larger social good. The last 60 year trend of nuclear weapon disarmament and containment is one. But claiming there are conditions in which humans might turn from the scientific method and technical progress I’m general is a far more extreme claim, and I think unsupportable in modern history. Tech knowledge has been lost in specific regions and eras (Dark Ages in Europe) and small isolated cultures (Tasmania many ages ago) but never globally, in any era, or for large populations. Such progress is just too useful and contimues in too many specific ways as long as reason, curiosity, experimentation, and memory exist. See Malone’s Guardian of All Things (about human cultural memory) and Rhode’s Visions of Technology (a century of technological change) for two global perspectives on tech progress.

      I agree there are theoretical conditions we might propose in which we might turn away from accelerating progress, just as we turned away from nuclear weapons. One example would be if we lived in a universe where the application of intelligence held many *existential* dangers to humanity, such as the creating the nitrogen metabolizing organism in the film. We don’t live in that kind of universe, as far as I can presently tell. It doesn’t look like humans are powerful enough to even end our own existence, though we could undoubtedly kill a few billion of our numbers with terrible technologies, we would also inevitably make the survivors far smarter and more immune. That’s how complex adaptive systems work, history shows. We came into an amazingly accelerative and unreasonably “Childproofed” universe, and its time we started recognizing that incredible good fortune and start asking why that is the case. My “Evo Devo Universe?” paper (2008, online) is my best effort at asking why universal and human complexification has been so accelerative. Best, JS

  7. I disagree with plot hole 1 because if we were in an unstoppable accelerating technology phase we would be living in a post singularity earth by the time the movie happened and we would not have the movie. I think a stalled post disaster earth is needed for the movie. I also find it all too believable that human progress stalls out at some point and fails to stay one step ahead of our consumption at which point we go through a Malthusian crash. I found believable the idea that a society that turned away from technology for survival would rewrite history to demonize technology. I thought the moon landing never happened lecture believable and chilling.

    I thought your points for plot hole 2 were really good. This was the plot hole that bothered me the most. However i still don’t know what they or you mean by nitrogen metabolism. How is that even a bad thing? We already have nitrogen metabolizing bacteria (fix nitrogen from the atmosphere). The earths atmosphere is already mostly nitrogen. Nitrogen gas is sort of like ashes; a stable gas and endpoint of metabolism. So i would like to understand what the movie producers or you are imagining.

    I liked to imagine that the future disaster is GMO’s gone bad. Scientists develop bacteria that produce fuel and are resistant to fuel in the environment (we are already doing this). The gene escapes into the wild and results in decomposers gaining the ability to manufacture something that poisons the environment resulting in more food for the bacteria in a run away poisoning/decomposing cycle.

    • Thanks Jim! It sounds like we are pretty close to agreement on plot hole 2. I tried to clarify my argument a bit better given your comments. The big issue for me is the idea that there’s a hidden runaway biochemistry regarding nitrogen metabolism that might threaten higher plant life on Earth, so humans have to leave when it emerges. That’s a bogus idea, in my view, and if such dangerous biochemistry existed think it would have been discovered and exploited by bacterial evolution millennia ago. Much better is the idea of some kind of human-caused disaster (ocean poisoning, monoclonality, or your GMO catastrophe) which could kill billions of us in worst case but would be rapidly self-limiting, because of how immune systems work. Nolan is discounting immunity, which exist in all life forms and are accelerating on Earth as fast as intelligence. We all need to better understand immunity (which exists in life, in societies, and in our technological systems) if we want to get beyond pessimism and fatalism, and really understand why adaptive complexity has always accelerated for life, as a system. One good book on that topic (which unfortuately doesn’t recognize it is talking about immunity) is Nick Taleb’s Antifragile, 2014.

      I’ve said more on your points about plot hole 1 elsewhere in the comments, so you might check those if you like, to see if you agree. You might also like my article on STEM compression for one take on why Malthusian catastrophes self limit the more advanced civilizations get. I have a chapter coming out on that in my next book, The Foresight Guide, which I hope to have online by March at ForesightGuide.com. I think STEM compression is one of the most important universal processes presently being overlooked by science. Cheers.

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