Friends 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.
Interstellar 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.
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!
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.
Far 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, and is theorized by scientists in the film as perhaps behind some of our previous mass extinctions. 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?
In 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 in many ways 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 cheerfully 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!
The 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 make us a trail. Good luck with that.” What a great way to end a masterpiece!
5. Bonus Rewrite: Clarify Dr. Mann’s Motives.
This 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. 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:
The Transcension Hypothesis, John Smart, 16/12/11, Acta Astronautica
The Transcension Hypothesis: An Answer to the Fermi Paradox, Owen Nicholas, 1/11/14, BrighterBrains.org
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)