The plot of Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi opus Interstellar hinges on the discovery of a wormhole near Saturn that allows our intrepid astronaut heroes to jump across the stars in the blink of an eye to a galaxy far, far away.
The portal is expressed visually in three dimensions as a reflective sphere.
Wormholes are not to be confused with black holes, those giant mysterious patches of seeming nothingness in space that devour everything within its gravitational pull—including light. Nolan’s movie features both phenomenon prominently, and shows the inside of a black hole as a cosmic projector room where infinite strands of space-time unspool simultaneously like interwoven strips of constantly running film (a wondrous visual touch from a filmmaker determined to save celluloid from extinction).
As the science behind wormholes and black holes is theoretical, sci-fi tales have always taken license with how the quantum physics might work—specifically regarding the ways Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity would (or would not) play out.
In Interstellar, widower father Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) leaves his prepubescent daughter Murph—and his teenaged son, too, but that character doesn’t get as much focus—to find a new home for humanity to flourish. During the relatively brief course of the mission’s initial reconnaissance of a hostile water world, Cooper’s daughter Murph back home ages 23 years (thusly played by Jessica Chastain). Later, after Cooper transcends the black hole and tinkers with the clockwork of space-time, he emerges to finally be reunited with his daughter (now a geriatric played by Ellen Burstyn).
Here are some other notable sci-fi tales that memorably dabble in wormholes and black holes, and sometimes explore the paradoxes of meddling with Mother Nature and Father Time.
Author Carl Sagan envisioned a network of interlinked wormholes spanning the universe, engineered by a higher intelligence as a literal and figurative turnpike through space-time. In Robert Zemeckis’ poignant film adaptation, Jodie Foster travels light years in a spherical pod to make contact with those higher beings, who present themselves to her in the form of her dead father strolling along a sandy beach. At the end of the film, we learn that her interstellar voyage lasts for eighteen hours; to witnesses back home, her round-trip journey inside the orb transpires in a mere millisecond.
Star voyagers in author Frank Herbert’s cosmic universe travel without moving with the aid of the spice Melange, a powerful drug that gives intergalactic navigators the ability to fold space.
Star Trek – The Motion Picture (1979)
It’s all (sort of) explained with some thrifty gobbledygook, but when the newly refitted Enterprise attempts warp speed with a faulty warp drive, the antimatter imbalance pulls the starship into a wormhole of its own making, aimed directly at a giant asteroid that will surely obliterate them. A snap decision by Kirk nearly ends the mission—and the entire Trek franchise—right there and then, but Chekov saves the day with a well-aimed photon torpedo.
Star Trek (2009)
The volatile substance referred to as “red matter” is used by the villain Nero as a weapon to artificially induce a black hole—all the better to destroy the planet Vulcan from the inside out and also to bridge space-time in order to leap 25 years into the past and rewrite the entire Star Trek canon. The time-warping plotline of J.J. Abram’s adrenalized reboot also allows for old classic Spock (Leonard Nimoy, now referred to as “Spock Prime”) to travel into his own past to conveniently relay pivotal plot points to his younger self (Zachary Quinto).
The Black Hole (1979)
Disney’s answer to Star Wars and Star Trek is scrappy and crudely constructed, though its menacing musical score and some of its visual effects hold up rather well today. Our heroes discover the ghost ship U.S.S. Cygnus (essentially the Eiffel Tower with thrusters), which has remained just beyond the grasp of a black hole for years. The lone and deranged human captain of the Cygnus is determined to steer the ship through, science be damned. The climactic journey into the black hole looks a lot like a flyover of hell—the crazy coot and his killer robot embrace and unite, and preside for all eternity over a flaming landscape straight out of Dante’s Inferno.
Event Horizon (1997)
This one is a slick but schlocky sci-fi/horror hybrid that jams just about every space flick cliché and stalker movie trope into its ghost-ship-sucked-through-a-black-hole plotline.
The Avengers / Thor / Thor: The Dark World (2011–2013)
The mystical Bi-Frost is a wormhole depicted as a rainbow-hued fiber optic bridge through space and time that connects Thor’s home world of Asgard to the other realms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Roland Emmerich’s goofily entertaining sci-fi saga revolves around the titular apparatus that briefly opens both ends of a space-time continuum, teleporting militarized humans through the wormhole and across the universe to a vaguely familiar desert planet on the cusp of a slave revolt.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The giant featureless monolith orbiting Jupiter turns out to be the gateway into a wormhole that propels lone astronaut Dave Bowman to infinity and beyond. Truly, the ultimate “trip.”