Friday, September 21, 2018

What Interstellar, the Movie, Has to Say about the Future of Watches

by Rob Mawyer

Christopher’s Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar is about quantum physics and space travel and love and mankind’s will to explore and discover, but it’s also a movie about watches. I love movies with huge high-stakes set pieces and stories about fathers and families, and Interstellar has both of those in spades, but more often than not when I rewatch the film these days I find myself thinking about watches and how they might function in the dystopian future we seem hell-bent on creating for future generations.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know that the entire plot hinges awesomely on a secret message encoded onto a Hamilton watch, specifically a sharp-looking black Khaki Automatic that Jessica Chastain’s character Murph puzzles over in the back half of the film. Murph finds the watch in a box in her childhood home, currently owned by her brother. It was a gift to her from her father, Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey.
Hamilton's marvelous Khaki Automatic,
nicknamed the Murph Watch.
The second hand of the Murph Watch allowed
Jessica Chastain’s character to solve the problem
 of gravity. The watch also collected a lot of dust.
The thing about Hamilton's black Khaki Automatic and the message hidden in the movements of its second hand is that McConaughey’s character Cooper, an ace pilot, has been recruited to fly a team of scientists to an entirely different galaxy via an inter-dimensional wormhole in search of planets that might be hospitable to human life. Earth is dying, see. A blight is killing crops slowly, one by one, with each passing season. Barely anything works anymore, and food scarcity requires most able-bodied folks to take up farming, despite the dying crops, which is why we find McConaughey’s Cooper at the beginning of the movie is working a family farm rather than doing what he was born to do—fly. Mankind is on its ass, in other words, and Cooper needs to do his small part to save it, so he agrees to pilot the mission to the wormhole and whatever might exist through (and beyond) it.

So Cooper and crew take off, hit the wormhole, make it to the other galaxy, where calamity ensues, as tends to happen in movies involving space travel. I won’t try to summarize all the bad stuff that happens to the crew along the way as they arrive at and assess the merits of each potential new Earth, but suffice it to say things don’t go well. Near the end of the film, in an effort to make it to just one more planet, Cooper sacrifices himself. The ship is running out of fuel, and Cooper devises a plan to get them to the next planet—it’s the old “slingshot around an astral body using its gravitational force” move, only they have to use the gravitational pull of a freaking black hole. Even with the slingshot, the ship is too heavy, there simply isn’t enough fuel to make the trip, so Cooper jettisons his section of it, leaving Anne Hathaway, the lone remaining member of the crew, to find that last Earth-like planet. (She does!) Cooper, adrift in space, is sucked into the heart of the black hole, and here is where things get weird. He pierces the black hole and comes out the other end into … a tesseract construct of his life. In it, he can float around and, like, scroll through cross-sectioned snippets of things he lived through and experienced.
For reasons I won’t bother trying to explain coherently, it becomes important to Cooper that he finds within the tesseract a specific moment—a fight he had with his daughter Murph, then a child, before he left on the mission. He was trying to explain to her why he had to leave and, finding himself unable, he ended up giving her the Khaki Automatic as something to remember him by.

Try to imagine being Cooper in that moment: You’re probably saying goodbye to your child forever. Even if you don’t die—and dying is probably the likeliest outcome on this open-ended, deep space exploration mission—the physics of space travel means that she will grow older and die while you age at a radically slower rate.
This is awful, excruciating stuff, and Cooper can’t think of a damn thing to say to make it better. All he can think to do is give Murph something. He gives her a watch. He tells her it’s like his watch, the Pilot Day Date Automatic, and that he’d like her to think of him when she looks at it. Murph reacts poorly. She’s angry and hurt and sad, and she throws the watch across the room as Cooper leaves.
Now, though, inside the tesseract, Cooper understands that by manipulating gravity he can embed a message into the watch, and that, later in life, Murph will recognize the watch’s second hand’s spastic movements for what they are—the computational McGuffin necessary for her “solve the problem of gravity” (Murph works at the last vestiges of NASA, see), so that humans can actually leave Earth en masse. If it’s been a while since you watched the movie, don’t think too hard about all of this. It sort of makes total sense.
Matthew McConaughey’s Khaki Pilot Day Date
watch apparently withstood the effects of
inter-dimensional travel and a black hole’s
gravitational field.
Here’s a movie, then, that prominently features two cool watches. The watches aren’t there as ornaments or (primarily?) for commercial consideration. They’re woven thematically into the fabric of the film. Interstellar is basically forcing us to ask questions about the role that timepieces play in our lives and, importantly, their utility in a dystopian near-future.
You might ask yourself, for example, if it makes sense for a man like Cooper to own two Hamilton watches. He’s a former pilot, sure, and pretty clearly a Renaissance man (his family owns books; he fixes things; he’s intellectually curious), but he’s a farmer, riding around in dusty cornfields every day. If anything, it seems like a G-Shock would suit him much better. Isn’t this then a prime example of movie bull, this protagonist living in a dustbowl, driving a beat-to-hell pick up truck, probably wearing the same jeans and work boots every day, who also just so happens to own two expensive automatic watches?
Turns out, it makes total sense, particularly when you consider the near-future world that the movie depicts. Interstellar shows us a world that is both technologically advanced and stunningly retrograde. Extended space exploration is possible. Advanced AI is possible. But MRIs are no longer possible because most machines no longer work. Mobile phones are apparently no longer possible—nobody in the movie has one. You get the sense that the world has moved on and that when something breaks it can be fixed, maybe, if there’s someone who knows how to do the repair, but it can’t be replaced. Nothing is being manufactured anymore. Nothing is being made. Whatever you own, that might very well be the last one you’ll ever have, so you’d better take care of it.
In that world, a mechanical watch sort of makes sense. Here is a device that supplies its own power. All you have to do is wear it and take care of it. Batteries die. They need to be replaced, and in the world of Interstellar Cooper can’t just head down to Wal-Mart or pop on Amazon and order a new one.
Even though mechanical watches make some sense in a fallen world, how practical are they, though? Having just recently sent my own Hamilton Khaki Automatic Titanium in for a repair—the official diagnosis: “Watch does not function as designed; foreign body detected in mechanism”—I’m worried about Murph’s watch in particular. It’s been sitting in a cardboard box for two decades gathering dust. And when I say “gathering dust,” I mean it: The movie makes of point of emphasizing the grubbiness and sootiness of future-America. Blight. Windstorms. Burning crops. My Hamilton mostly sits in my watch box, and even then some type of particulate managed to invade and disable it. Gravitational-math-formula-encoded-into-the-second-hand notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure that some crud and detritus would have invaded and gummed that thing up by the time Murph found it.
And what about Cooper’s Pilot Day Date Automatic in the cold, sterile environment of space? I’m worried about it, too. Call me paranoid, but I get a little weird about resting my automatic watches anywhere near a device that I fear has a strong magnetic pull, even my mobile phone. It seems sort of likely to me, then, that the gravitational pull of a black hole, strong enough to suck planets and freaking time itself into it, might have some negative consequences on his timepiece. I’m just thinking aloud here.
But, okay, let’s just say, then, there’s a strong likelihood that both watches need some tuning up. As we all know, repairs to Hamilton watches must be done only by Hamilton itself, at an authorized service center, and how likely does it seem that any of those are up and running in Interstellar’s fallen world? Maybe Murph has the know-how, the tools, a loupe, and a seriously steady hand, or knows somebody who does? If not, that watch is screwed. (In Cooper’s case, it’s all moot: He never makes it back to Earth anyway.)
But for the sake of argument, let’s say that in a world in which schools barely exist anymore and gas is rationed and corn crops are about to wither away and die, let’s say that there’s a team of Hamilton watchmakers still repairing watches. How much would those repairs run you, do you think? For my watch, here in a mostly functioning 2018, the bill came to $190 plus $45 insured mailing both ways. I’m trying to imagine the cost of Murph’s repair and all I can come up with is: PROHIBITIVE.
(I’m also wondering about the diagnosis: “Gravitational anomaly detected in movement. Plus also foreign bodies.”)
So while Interstellar makes you think about the nature of love and space travel and the enduring human spirit, it also forces us to consider the practicality of mechanical watches in an unsettlingly realistic near future. These beautiful, fascinating machines are stunning representations of human achievement, and, by all means, keep spending your marginal or recreational dollar on them. But if you want to hedge against the future, might I recommend a good how-to-fix-anything manual and a sturdy solar watch?


Rob Mawyer teaches English at Rock Valley College in Illinois. You can find him on Twitter at @mawyerrob.

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