What “What [Movie X] Gets Wrong About [Thing Y]” Reviews Get Wrong About Art
The following post contains spoilers for 'Interstellar.'
Phil Plait is a much smarter man than I am. He's an astronomer and author, and he runs Slate's astronomy blog. Meanwhile, I just spent 20 minutes trying to figure out how to release the dirt cup from my vacuum cleaner. (FYI: You have to press the release button to release the dirt cup.) In other words: I’m an idiot.
But even acknowledging my intellectual deficiencies and Plait's expertise, I'm still not crazy about the article he wrote for Slate about Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar' called “Interstellar Science: What The Movie Gets Wrong And Really Wrong About Black Holes, Relativity, Plot, And Dialogue.” The piece is part review, part scientific nitpick; Plait claims that "the real problem [with 'Interstellar'] isn't with the science, it's with the story," but he still spends most of the article outlining the problems with the film's science anyway. In short: Nothing in real life works the way the movie suggests it does. The planets Matthew McConaughey and his crew of astronauts visit in search of a new home for humanity couldn't exist; the black holes they traverse would "flash-heat" them; the time dilation that factors so heavily into the plot wouldn't be nearly as extreme—and therefore as dramatic—as suggested.
Plait’s article is one of the most prominent nitpick pieces on ‘Interstellar,' but it’s far from the only one; The Guardian, Time, The Daily Mail all already have similar posts, and there are bound to be many more in the days ahead. In the last couple years “What [Movie X] Gets Wrong About [Thing Y]” pieces have become one of the most common types of articles in all of online film writingdom (and all of online writingdom period—if you’re curious what “liberals get wrong about football,” or what “evangelicals get wrong about Halloween,” or what “small businesses get wrong about maternity leave” the Internet can make that happen for you.) They're as dependable as they are depressing.
Their popularity is not hard to explain. Dopes like me see a movie like ‘Interstellar,’ filled with incomprehensible conversations about astrophysics, and they’re curious just how fast and loose the filmmakers played with the truth. The problem comes when authors take their nitpicks one step further into the realm of criticism; when “What X Gets Wrong About Y” becomes “What X Gets Wrong About Y—And Why That Ruins The Movie.” Expertise about a certain field of study does not necessarily make you an expert on films set in that field of study.
Many of these articles point out that Nolan has touted 'Interstellar''s "accuracy" in interviews, and also mention the work of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as an executive producer on the film. Thorne was supposedly hired to ensure all of the science of 'Interstellar''s black holes and exotic planets worked. "Thorne is a great and very important physicist," Plait writes, "and I mean absolutely no disparagement of him, but I’m not sure how the plot of this movie would have been different had he not been involved."
I'd never heard of Kip Thorne until I read about him on Slate, and I didn't know Christopher Nolan was hyping his film's accuracy when I saw it last week. But a movie is not its marketing; regardless of what 'Interstellar''s marketing said, the film itself makes no such assertions about its scientific accuracy. It doesn't open with a disclaimer informing viewers that it's based on true science; in fact, it doesn't open with any sort of disclaimer at all. Nolan never tells us exactly where or when 'Interstellar' is set. It seems like the movie takes place on our Earth in the relatively near future, but that's just a guess. Maybe 'Interstellar' is set a million years after our current civilization ended. Or maybe it's set in an alternate dimension, where the rules of physics as Phil Plait knows them don't strictly apply.
Or maybe 'Interstellar' really is set on our Earth 50 years in the future, and it doesn't matter anyway because 'Interstellar' is a work of fiction. It's particularly strange to see people holding 'Interstellar' up to a high standard of scientific accuracy because the movie is pretty clearly a work of stylized, speculative sci-fi right from the start. There are wormholes in space that were supposedly placed there by fifth-dimensional aliens. There are secret codes sent in gravity pulses by said aliens from beyond the stars (a 'Star Wars' fan might say the aliens use a “force” to communicate). There are ludicrous twists involving “quantum data” that can only be acquired inside a black hole, and surprise celebrity cameos from big-time Hollywood actors. There are transforming robots—literal Transformers!—that pilot spaceships and crack jokes. The only way Nolan could make it clearer that he wasn't making a factually accurate movie about science was if he cast surfer cowboy heartthrob Matthew McConaughey as a brilliant engineer-slash-farmer-slash-drone-programmer-slash-greatest-pilot-in-the-world. Oh wait, he did that too.
If you want to argue that McConaughey's character is ridiculous, you have my permission. (If you want to argue that a character like his, who spends an entire movie trying to return to his daughter, should probably spend more than three minutes by his daughter's death bed before heading back into space, you have my strong support.) If you want to debate the parts of the plot that are confusing, that's fair game too. (The one I'm particularly confused by: If McConaughey went into the black hole in deep space, how did he wind up coming out of the wormhole near Jupiter?) But that's the only standard 'Interstellar' should be held to—the one it establishes for itself. Plausibility is much more important that actual possibility.
Every author is entitled to dramatic license, and every movie is entitled to create its own rules. That's why we accept the fact that the X-Wings in 'Star Wars' make swooshing noise in the vacuum of space, or the transporters in 'Star Trek' can teleport people thousands of miles in the blink of an eye. These devices—which are obviously not scientifically accurate—makes their films more exciting and entertaining. They may not make sense in our world, but as long as they make sense in the world of the film (and they're used consistently) that's all that matters.
The "accurate" version of 'Interstellar' would almost certainly be terrible: The Earth suffers a catastrophic blight, a few scientists theorize about how they could hypothetically stop it, realize they can’t, and then everyone dies. There's a place for that sort of movie I guess, but there's also a place for movies that imagine other outcomes. 'Star Trek' communicators seemed mighty outrageous in 1967, but last week I had a live video chat with my nephew on a phone I carry around in my pocket. Why limit futuristic fiction to the boundaries of the presently known?
Without citing any of these specific articles, Nolan addressed the rush to nitpick his science in an interview with The Daily Beast, where he dispelled a common complaint regarding time dilation, suggested that viewers may need to see the film twice to fully "take on the science of the film," and noted that Thorne "has a book on the science of the film about what's real, and what's speculation—because much of it is, of course, speculation." Plait's original article is still online, but he's already penned a second piece, a "mea culpa" admitting that some of the math and theory in his first article was wrong—essentially nitpicking his own nitpicks. He also insists that he didn't dislike 'Interstellar' because its science was bad. “I disliked the movie,” he explained, “because I thought the story wasn't told well.” He also added that “science without a good story is an encyclopedia entry. A good story with bad science is… a good story.” At least we agree on that much.