It’s been another jam-packed year for movies, but there was only one film I was looking forward to the most – Interstellar. Call me a Nolanite if you will, but my obsession with the film had nothing to do with my personal admiration for director Christopher Nolan or his pristine filmography. It was simply because Interstellar promised a heartfelt story, that of a father and a daughter. That was it. The film could’ve been about anything else surrounding that emotional core and I still would’ve seen it. Luckily, Nolan found a way to ground his science fiction epic by getting audiences to care about Cooper and his family first and foremost, which is why I find it extremely frustrating that certain reviews for the film are fixating on anything but this crucial element.
The response has been mostly positive, but others weren’t quite as welcoming. In fact, some of the more scathing reviews nit-picked at the film’s depiction of popular scientific theory. Astronomer and renowned skeptic Phil Plait in particular went to extraordinary lengths to point out the film’s errors, which according to him are in abundance throughout. He eventually does talk about the storytelling devices, but if you merely gloss over his review, you’ll see that he dedicates a majority of the article to belittling the film’s treatment of physics. Now, I respect all film reviews because everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But the reason I found Plait’s review so polarizing was because he saw the film as something that it clearly wasn’t promoting itself to be: an accurate portrait of science.
This isn’t the first time that scientists have weighed in on the topic of science in film. Last year’s Gravity came under similar fire. Astronauts and astronomers amassed on the internet to pick the film apart, something not unlike how others are doing in the case of Interstellar. Oddly enough, it’s just as maddening to read about now as it was then.
Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón and Interstellar director Christopher Nolan have one thing in common: they are film directors. They adhere to storytelling, and they tell their stories through the visual language of film. They’re not scientists. They’re certainly not claiming that their films are real-life portrayals of modern science. After all, they direct films, not documentaries. From an audience’s perspective, we suspend our disbelief when viewing a film. It’s what allows us to believe in a time-travelling DeLorean. It’s also the very thing that allows us to believe in a galaxy far, far away, filled with Jedi, Siths, and kick-ass lightsaber duels.
When did we give that up? More importantly, when did we forget about the “fiction” component of science fiction and focus solely on the science? When Star Wars IV: A New Hope came out in 1977, no one bothered to comment on the film’s sound effects when sound itself can’t travel in space. Even when Back to the Future arrived years later, no one dedicated themselves to pointing out the sheer impossibility of a car being able to travel in time. Yet, when a film like Interstellar comes out (which is far more grounded in the present) suddenly we can’t suspend our disbelief in the least bit? And in turn we settle for nit-picking?
Star Wars nor Back to the Future claimed to be real interpretations of science. Neither did Interstellar. If we look back on the film’s trailers, it had a common thread, that of a relationship between a father and a daughter. For me, that’s always been the main selling point. Because without that emotional foundation, all the visual effects and grandiose imagery would mean nothing. But with a human story, the film is not only an entertaining experience, but an enormously gratifying one. Sure, a critic like Plait has every right to comment on the film’s science. After all, he’s a scientist. But wouldn’t you say that he was distracted by it, thereby causing him to miss the mark? Yes, the film is based on scientific theory, but it’s not “based on a true story.” Perhaps such critics should focus on what Interstellar is really about.
On the surface, the film may be all about space and interstellar travel, but what it’s really about is quite simple. That’s right, it’s about love. But not in the conventional sense. It’s the story of a father’s love. The film itself is an extended metaphor for a father’s undying love for his daughter. Not even the furthest reaches of space can keep them apart. Anne Hathaway’s character, Amelia Brand, says it better: “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” Therein lies the essence of the film. It’s a love story. Director Christopher Nolan takes a universal theme and transcends it, not only by taking it across galaxies, but by illustrating it through a solemn tale of a father’s struggle to be with his daughter. We need more stories like these. Because when we think of love, we tend to think of Romeo & Juliet, not Cooper and Murphy. But believe me, there are millions of Coopers and Murphys out there, and Nolan has proven that their stories can be equally compelling, if not more.
That should be the real discussion, why there aren’t more stories like Interstellar. Perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky. Or maybe we should learn to appreciate a film for what it is, not what it isn’t.