Interstellar and the Question of Sci-Fi Plausibility

Warning: Mild spoilers of Interstellar are discussed in this article. The spoilers do not give any description of what actually occurs, but if you want to avoid even the vaguest of descriptions, then avoid this article.

In this day and age, there are very few directors as bold as Christopher Nolan. With a cavalcade of sequels, prequels, and reboots, movie studios have opted to play it incredibly safe, yet the faith that these studios put into Nolan is astounding, and why wouldn’t they? Nolan and his brother Jonathan have created multiple noteworthy movies, all of which exude a level of polish and intellectual depth beyond many of their contemporaries. Their most recent movie, Interstellar, only continues this trend, if not even more-so. For four years, Jonathan Nolan did in-depth research on the theory of relativity at the California Institute of Technology, ensuring that the science behind the film was as accurate as possible (minus a few minor creative liberties). As proudly exclaimed by Christopher Nolan both in interviews and in a 42 minute long documentary titled, The Science of Interstellar, the film embraces scientific fact to back up the high level of sophistication it seeks to achieve. Despite some minor inconsistencies (such as the capability of the spaceship to exit the atmospheres of the planets they set out to explore), the first 3/4s of the film succeeds in accomplishing the sophisticated approach necessary for the film’s scientific accuracy.

The last fourth of the movie however, makes a drastic turn for the worst. The film instantly abandons any and all scientific accuracy and jettisons it out of its cargo hold. Such a shocking change in tone begs the question as to why the film made such a reckless move. Did Jonathon Nolan struggle to think of an ending that catered to the realism already established, and thus had to abandon said realism as a result? Or perhaps the movie is the product of Christopher Nolan’s unrestrained ego (a similar lack of restraint that led to George Lucas creating 3 horrible prequel movies); one that in this case relies on the concept of the puzzle film to avoid the audience from noticing any logical fallacies and one that relies on the general audiences’ lack of understanding of quantum physics and relativity so that all viewer confusion could simply be relegated to mental inferiority. Interstellar’s juxtaposition of science and fiction raises a bigger question that could be applied to the science-fiction genre as a whole: When does scientific plausibility affect how a story is received by the audience?

There are multiple definitions to science fiction, with a general consensus being that of a narrative that relies on imaginative science and technology of the future. Where the definitions vary is in the authorial interpretation of the future and the possibilities that entail. Rod Serling, most known for his Twilight Zone series, contrasts fantasy and science fiction, stating that “fantasy is the impossible made probable,” while “science fiction is the improbable made possible.” What fantasy allows for is a world without reason; with phenomena in each tale that are not only unexplainable (and fully ignore any and all scientific plausibility), but treat such inexplicable scenarios as inevitabilities. Science fiction on the other hand sets up a world in which the slightest of possibilities or anomalies as defined by modern science could happen or has happened. Dissecting the science fiction genre further, the setting is a depiction of the definitive unknowns within each scientific field, in which each field categorizes any and all information on theoretical uncertainties as unattainable at this time.

What is always fascinating is the inherent optimism of the scientific field: What is viewed as beyond current comprehension or human capability is merely an obstacle that will be overcome. The essence of time is the variable of every theoretical scenario, yet the intended outcome is always seen as a constant, regardless of worldly factors. This observation can be applied to the science fiction genre as a whole.

In every plot, sci-fi creators make their own interpretations of what scientists and engineers will be able to achieve in the future and usually set it in an arbitrary year (or some alternate-reality of the present). What the audience witnesses is a conflict that involves these future achievements (or pitfalls). Technological advances are the ultimate causality, with such advances defining the social, economic, and political atmospheres of each setting and conflict. When dealing with the future, the writers rely on the human notion of time to explain the seemingly improbable phenomena that future science is able to achieve. Yet, whereas the scientist sees the outcome of years of research as constant, the sci-fi writer tampers with the variables that are generally ignored, which are either uncontrollable (natural or in many cases, alien-related) events or situations born from the unpredictability of human nature. The technology in the story is either directly or indirectly influential in the conflict, whether that be in the form of incredibly fatal discoveries, the technology acting as the source of destructive (or constructive) scenarios, or the technological utopia gone horribly wrong by the imperfection and corruption of humanity, among others. All of these conflicts are only as powerful or intense as the narrative flow however, as where the sci-fi story lives and dies is by its presentation of the setting.

The presentation, or how the details of the story’s universe is relayed to the viewer, is arguably the largest aspect in separating the science fiction from the science fantasy (as well as how the movie is received by the audience). As human beings, how we perceive the world around us is based on values, beliefs, and physical objects that we have been accustomed too. We find comfort in what we know and when a new idea or object comes into existence, we are intimidated or nervous when said change requires us to step out of our comfort zone. Such applies to movie, book, and video game stories (among other forms of entertainment media). Every story must illustrate rules and defined parameters of what can and what can’t exist or occur, which it must follow in order for it to be appeal to the audience. The definitions of what is considered ridiculous or too far-fetched vary from story to story based on how the setting is established.

Take Ender’s Game, written by Orson Scott, for example. The main conflict humanity faces in the novel is a race of sentient insectoids nicknamed “buggers” that have not only managed to achieve long-distance space travel and colonization, but are able to communicate with humans telepathically. With Ender’s Game‘s focus on heavy moral and political human conflicts in a militarized society, the use of such ridiculous-looking aliens with seemingly impossible capabilities should take away any and all austerity from the grim undertones that Orson Scott was trying to illustrate. Even in lieu of such far-fetched creatures however, the novel is immensely successful in depicting the harsh and brutal themes that Orson Scott set out to relay to the audience, as evidenced by Ender’s Game‘s overwhelmingly positive reception by both critics and readers alike. Not only has it won multiple awards such as the 1986 Hugo Award for best novel, but the book’s militaristic tone has led it to be highly recommended by the U.S. Marine Corps as excellent reading material for lower-ranking military personnel.

Where Ender’s Game succeeds compared to Interstellar is the set up to the story. In Ender’s Game, the audience is told almost right away of the existence of those alien creatures as well as that of other bizarre implausible scenarios. Interstellar on the other hand, defines its world as a rather depressing reality of what the near future may very well hold for humanity on Earth (with allusions to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s), aiming for realism as much as possible. With Interstellar, the audience’s excitement and curiosity stems from the mystery of what the astronauts will find on each planet they go to, which succeeds because the mystery element of the plot sticks closely to the realism that has been set up. For two or so hours of the movie, the viewer witnesses and expects the narrative to have a consistent tone of scientific authenticity throughout the film. Imagine then, the surprise and utter confusion that arises when the final 30 or so minutes ignore the tone Interstellar was only immediately prior stubbornly clinging onto as hard as it could. For the final moments of the movie, the viewers witness the rules established in the beginning of the film being demolished and rebuilt with pure science-fiction (possibly even crossing over into the science fantasy category), which understandably takes the audience out of the immersion and forces them to try to make sense of the final events of the plot based on logic that was never really set up by the movie in the first place.

When a story tries to create a twist or an ending that throws away the logic of its setting, a problem arises as everything that was built-up before the twist and/or ending is no longer a viable method for which the audience can come to their own conclusions or understand the message that the narrative is trying to portray. We as the viewers become uncomfortable and disgruntled with the narrative as it betrays our expectations based on the previous formalities the story was following. In the science-fiction genre, the consistency of logic in a narrative’s world is an absolute necessity in order for the story to be taken seriously and to be not off-putting for the audience, and if the Nolan brothers had applied that to Interstellar, then the film could have had the chance to be outstanding.

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Matthew Berg-Johnsen is a college student studying Business Economics who also aspires to be a creative writer. During his free time he likes to develop his story ideas into full length narratives. While he can't draw to save his life, Matthew still seeks to make said narratives into comics. If you have any questions (or criticisms) for him, you can either leave a comment below his articles.

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