What ‘Interstellar’ Gets Right About Fiction

By  · Published on November 10th, 2014

Paramount Pictures

With all the talk right now focused on the science of Interstellar, what it gets wrong and what it gets right, I think it’s time to switch the conversation over to the more appropriate discussion: the fiction. Yes, the genre label “science fiction” has two parts, and it’s the latter part that is more pertinent. Sci-fi is not supposed to be about authenticity. It doesn’t even have to be too plausible. Could we really be headed into a future when the Apollo missions are taught as having been a hoax? It doesn’t matter, no more than the likelihood that we’ll ever eat food made of people or that we’ll ever bring back the dinosaurs or ban sex or be able to travel inside others’ dreams or that the Nazis have secretly been on the Moon since World War II. The last is extremely silly, but in a relative manner to its tone, that doesn’t make it much different from any other speculative sci-fi plot.

Interstellar is a movie. It’s cinematic storytelling inspired by the theories of Kip Thorne, not a lecture on them. As Christopher Nolan says in an interview with The Daily Beast, “to really take on the science of the film, you’re going to need to sit down with the film for a bit and probably also read Kip’s book. I know where we cheated in the way you have to cheat in movies, and I’ve made Kip aware of those things.” The question might be, considering all the criticisms, if he’s made the audience aware. Isaac Asimov argued that this is important for sci-fi, which only has to seem possible: “You’re allowed to depart from scientific possibility provided you know you’re departing from it and can explain it. The reader will go along with you into the realm of fantasy if you give them an excuse. But to do it without realizing you are going into fantasy is insulting to the intelligent reader.”

The Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction defines the genre (for books, but it fits for films, as well) as “the literature of the human species encountering change, and the literature of ideas and philosophy” and goes on to explain that it’s very much like the scientific method. “Science fiction provides an approach to understanding the universe we live in,” states the program’s webpage. “It provides the tools, tropes, and cognitive framework within which we can explore ideas and safely run thought-experiments where we cannot or ought not in real-world experiments. By dramatizing such scenarios, populating them with believable characters, and providing the background necessary for the audience to willingly suspend disbelief, SF brings ideas to life.”

Interstellar does all this, and the Nolans (Christopher and his screenwriting collaborator, Jonathan) try their best to make it an entertaining work of spectacle and speculation. Like a lot of sci-fi, the scenario is always going to be the best part. That’s the theory being worked with, the change that the human species is encountering in the story. For Interstellar, the plot comes from a narrative as experiment. Earth is dying and humans are set to become extinct as a result. What happens next? Here are some possibilities to try out in our heads involving space travel, wormholes, black holes, love, the fourth and maybe fifth dimension, human nature, Murphy’s law and more. Nothing in a movie can prove the sequence of scenes and outcome are what would really come about, no more with sci-fi than with a rom-com (such as the social experiment of The Five-Year Engagement) or horror film. If we can enjoy the latter two genres while also saying to the screen “nobody would do that” or “I wouldn’t do that,” why not do the same with sci-fi and the greater idea of “humanity wouldn’t do that” or even “nature wouldn’t do that”?

One of my favorite examples of a sci-fi disaster, which also happens to be disaster sci-fi, is The Day After Tomorrow. The Roland Emmerich movie comes from a book by Art Bell and Whitley Streiber, maybe not the most trusted names in science, but it’s scientific theory nonetheless. On screen, though, the ideas are reworked enough, mainly by having the effects of climate change sped up to fit a feature film running time and narrative specific to a set of characters. Many saw the exaggeration as a joke, and maybe that even hurt the cause, but that shouldn’t be Emmerich’s fault. Why audiences can’t adjust their acceptance of fictional events, I don’t know. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to view The Day After Tomorrow for what it is, same as, say, Iron Sky. Just because it’s not intentionally comedic doesn’t mean it has to be taken completely seriously and meant as realism.

Back to Interstellar, the same is true. And I make the comparison to The Day After Tomorrow because I was reminded a lot of that movie while watching this new one, in part because it does involve the climate change issue to a degree. Even in the two alien planets we see visited are representative of the extreme environments we expect to come as a result of global warming (both are events in the disaster movie, too). First there are the gigantic waves that are threats to our coasts in the event of icecap melting (in Interstellar they’re caused by the black hole), and then there’s the ice age world. It helps for audience’s suspension of disbelief in a story sense that they are far-away worlds, but for the thematic level of the fiction, we should be able to associate them with a more figurative concept of our possible futures than are seen in The Day After Tomorrow.

What Interstellar gets right about fiction is that it puts the story first and carries the ideas and multiple levels of meaning for the ride. There’s a lot more to think about than whether the science is legit or not. And there’s a lot to ask of the movie, which isn’t a bad thing at all. Like with most science fiction, I love the first half of Interstellar more than the second half. It was the same way with the Nolan-produced Transcendence, and I think the same goes for most of Nolan’s movies. But endings for fiction should in theory be rarely satisfying. It’s the same as how outcomes with science experiments (not counting the kind in school that are pre-known) shouldn’t always be expected to be successes – or what we desire – either. At least with movies, there are often some good bits to observe a long the way, and Interstellar has lots of great drama to be found in the parts (such as the action on the water planet) and in the whole.

So, now that you’ve been through all the negative and seemingly negative and picky stuff, sound off with the parts you like about Interstellar, whether you love the whole movie or not. I’ll start with one: I love the robots, in design and action.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.