The Science of Great Science Fiction
Interstellar Builds Upon Excellent Sci-Fi
Full disclosure: Christopher Nolan had me hooked ever since I laid eyes upon Memento. Aside from a couple of stumbles, his work is some of the most compelling cinema of this decade. Interstellar continues Nolan’s track record of breathtaking experiences, however I believe it represents something far greater than his previous efforts. Simply put, he reminds all of us what great science fiction can be.
A Space Odyssey
It’s quite obvious 2001 was a great inspiration to Interstellar, with Nolan admitting as much before the movie was released. In the interview he fears getting too close to 2001, but I believe he pays great homage to Kubrick both stylistically and thematically – stylistically with Monolith turned HAL 9000 as TARS, gravity-generating spinning spaceships, and magnificent vistas in the vastness of space. Thematically he pays homage via the notion of paradigm shifts. The Monolith grants our simian ancestors technology and civilization. Interstellar presents a similarly immense shift with Nolan’s version of a Monolith (the Black Hole) granting us civilization in the stars en masse. Being bound to this generation, it’s almost impossible to imagine our entire world leaping into outer space. But that is what great science fiction does: it bridges that gulf between what we know to be possible, and what seems impossible. Indeed my initial reaction to the last act of Interstellar was incredulity, but if I were to tell my ancestors of the future we live in, they would be equally incredulous.
The Motion Picture
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a seriously underrated movie. Not just in the pantheon of Trek, but in science fiction as a whole. Another work touched by 2001, Roddenberry brought his vision to the silver screen in spectacular fashion. Instead of merely focusing on “planet of the week” like so much of the television series, The Motion Picture instead tried to explore the greatest mystery: What is the meaning of life? V’Ger presented this question as an unstoppable force, consuming everything in its path. The blight is Interstellar’s version of an unstoppable force and brings into question our purpose as a species. Nolan answers this question by declaring that our destiny is beyond Earth. McConaughey’s character, Cooper, is a representation of that ideal. Exploration consumes him and not even his family can stop him from seeing what’s out there. The primal need to travel beyond the next horizon gives us a hint as to our existence.
You just don’t get it, do you Jean-Luc? The Trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons. And for one brief moment, you did.
When I realized the paradox?
Exactly – for that one fraction of second, you were open to options you had never considered. That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.
For me, Q’s last conversation with Picard is one of the greatest scenes in the entirety of Star Trek, not just The Next Generation. Aside from Picard (finally!) acknowledging Q as mentor instead of dangerous nuisance, it encapsulates the best of what Star Trek can be – not just exploring strange new worlds and boldly going where no one has gone before, but expanding our understanding of existence. The final act of Interstellar does exactly this. After exploring a wormhole and the worlds beyond, Coop gains insight to an aspect of our reality never before seen. Inside the Black Hole, he finally sees the the time paradox he created by sending messages to his past self. By realizing the paradox and the relationship between gravity and time he gleans enough new insight save humanity. The kicker is confirmation that humanity will continue to explore these aspects of reality and eventually master singularities. As Coop puts it, “It was us all along.” It’s this kind of exploration – charting the unknown possibilities of existence, present and future – that lies at the heart of both science and great science fiction.
Because our destiny lies above us.
Too much of modern science fiction cinema (with some exceptions) focuses mainly on action and adventure/horror with outer space as the backdrop. As great as the Star Trek reboot was, it fell into the same action/adventure cliche. Speaking of which – you bet your ass I have a deep love for Star Wars (original trilogy and hopefully the new ones won’t suck), Battlestar Galactica (new series), Firefly and etcetera and etcetera…
Sometimes though you want your science fiction to tickle your brain. These are the works which challenge our preconceived notions, makes us lust for that next horizon, and brings up immense questions about the existence we find ourselves in. Like the giants that came before it, Interstellar satisfies these deeper cravings while providing an amazing spectacle for film aficionados. While it’s not a perfect movie per se, it certainly is a contender for one of the greatest science fiction movies of all-time.
Science is for nerds!
If you want to dive deep into the questions of our reality and perhaps gain some understanding behind the entire Black Hole sequence, I cannot recommend highly enough Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality. Even though I’ve read it many times, I keep coming back to it for the mind-fuckery. Our universe is a very weird place, and it might not be the only one.