After emerging from a spectacular 70mm viewing of Interstellar at the Arclight Dome last night, I was grinning from ear to ear, which is unusual these days after seeing a film in this subject area (science fiction, space travel, the future of humanity, etc). (And by science fiction here I mean proper science fiction, not space opera or space adventure. There’s a lot of that and some of it is fun and makes me grin too, like this Summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy. But that’s not at all the same sort of thing.)
I’m not going to go into any details, since I am very tired of the practice of talking about films to the extent that you say so much of what happens that it is impossible for someone to enjoy watching the film unfold in front of them without knowing what comes next, the way I like my films best. So I’m not going to ruin things for you.
Everybody keeps asking me “what did you think of the science?” since they know that there’s a lot of stuff in there that relates to my subject area and interests. Many seem to want me to pronounce on what’s “good” and what’s “bad” about the science, as though I’ve (like many scientists in the public sphere seem to have done) elected myself some sort of guardian of scientific ideas. Let me say two things. The first is that this is a science fiction film, not a science documentary. I’m already hearing all sort of humourless declarations about this and that and the other being wrong and how shameful it is, as happened with Gravity last year. Done right, such discussions can be an opportunity to teach a bit about science ideas, but most often it just comes across as being a smartass, which is a bit tedious, and leads me to my second point.
The second point is something I say a lot and needs to be said a lot more: Scientists don’t own science and its concepts and ideas. We should be careful about how we react to they are used out there in the world (unless we want to put even more people off science than already have been). Obviously if they are used to do harm (deceive, mislead, etc), that’s an issue, but we should be free – and actually happy! – to see people use the ideas and concepts in other creative exploits whether it be to inspire, tell a story, dream, etc. Of course we should help people get the ideas right, as it often leads to stronger writing, but let’s remember that it is still in service of story. So for me the issue comes down to not whether the science is 100% accurate as far as we know it (e.g. as I said in my last post on this we know a lot about the evidence for, reality, and plausibility of black holes out there in the real world vs little or nothing equivalent for wormholes, both of which are in this science fiction film) but whether they’ve taken the science and done something interesting with it by pushing it into an interesting direction, and whether they’ve used the science that we do know is reality in exciting and interesting ways to weave a good story. I’m looking for self-consistency, and good use of a framework (a set of plausible rules of engagement) to tell an interesting story.
The answer to those issues with regards Interstellar is YES! Very much yes, and I’m delighted to see that! I’ve been telling filmmakers and program makers I know for years that if only they’d take the time to talk to us scientists about the real science that has been discovered, or the real ideas that are being seriously explored. they’d have so much wonderful material to embed into really great stories that is better than making up random stuff to serve the plot (as it is so often done in a lot of the genre). But mostly the latter is the route taken, and the claim is usually that people “won’t get” the science, or will be put off by it. I’ve argued for years that it is possible to do some really exciting stories that are built around some more challenging physics ideas that are central to the plot, and still make a great film that can pick up a wide audience. It would need a good filmmaker collaborating with a scientist or scientists – the latter not brought in at some late stage (usually when it is too late) as a consultant to say yay or nay to some scientific elements of the film, but there right at the creative core of the film.
I’ve thought for some years now that Christopher Nolan is the right kind of filmmaker, who is not afraid (and has been given the go ahead by the studios behind him) to put “difficult” ideas up there on the screen of a blockbuster big budget film. Just look at Inception, or even Memento for that matter (although the main audience challenge in the latter was the unconventional story delivery, not the actual idea itself, which was simple – the character can’t make new long term memories). So I’m delighted to say that the combination of Nolan (and Nolan) and Kip Thorne managed to show to a wide audience (and I hope decision makers at major studios) that what I’d dreamed possible is actually possible: We can put “difficult” science up there on the screen and have an exciting dramatic film… and in fact the science is not peripheral to the story, or there as decoration but is integral to it. Excellent.
I hope the film does well. It is not perfect (what film is?), but it is a good piece of work nonetheless. In a world where people seem sometimes to want to avoid challenges, it gets people thinking. In fact, if you care about getting more science and its appreciation “out there” into the general populace, you want there to be more films like this too. So I think that you should go out there and support the film the only way the studios really care – buy a ticket and go and see it. That’s how you convince them to allow more such projects to be green-lit. If this film does not do well enough, it’ll become a thing people can point to and say “oh, there was too much difficult material in there, it freaked audiences out”, and we’ll be back to nothing but new discoveries in slow-mo and explosions again as the only innovation to be found. Let’s not settle for that!
So in summary there’s a solid amount of real scientific ideas, lending an air of authenticity to the whole thing, embellished by fanciful extensions of the science that connect to the real science reasonably smoothly, all in service of the most important thing in such a film: – telling a good solid human story. The human story is, in my view, very well and convincingly told, with a wonderful and satisfying arc. There was none of that betrayal of the viewer that happens in such films a lot where internal consistency of everything is broken just to serve some writing dilemma. It felt like an even and consistent piece of thinking all the way through, which is why I was grinning so much at the end…. I am so used to being betrayed by the writers. That did not happen here. And the details were all rich and interesting, both in the dialogue and in the visuals unfolding in front of you, and major aspects of the challenges (physical and emotional) that our characters have to face. The cast was excellent, and (with the aid of fingers and/or tissue fragments in my ears at times) the Hans Zimmer score/sounds were used effectively in that familiar Nolan/Zimmer visceral way many have come do know. I really loved it overall!
Colleagues of mine are going to be upset by how some science ideas were used. I’m sure of this. Some of the real science, and some of the speculative stuff. I think they are wrong. We should allow the creators to dream, and to play with the things we’ve put out there. Relax. It is storytelling. It is fiction.