Is “Interstellar” A Teachable Moment?

Jessica Chastain in "Interstellar." (Paramount)

Jessica Chastain in “Interstellar.” (Paramount)

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has arrived, and my review appears in today’s Daily Messenger (look for it next week in the Post weeklies and this blog). My opinion notwithstanding, the jury is still out on whether audiences will flock to Nolan’s gargantuan sci-fi epic or scratch their heads wondering if they’ve just paid $10 a head to hear the world’s most dazzling presentation on theoretical physics.

What can’t be disputed about Interstellar is that it brings up heavy subjects that are normally only bandied about in classrooms, or on PBS: wormholes, the theory of relativity, gravitational anomalies, ecological Armageddon and how far a truck can drive on a flat tire. In fact, the science element is so pervasive that advance discussion in the media has almost exclusively focused on the question of scientific accuracy:

  • The Guardian found an expert who “was expecting more science in Interstellar, as opposed to science fiction,” and who found the film “fragile in terms of physics.”
  • Smithsonian magazine disagreed, saying it “Belongs in the Pantheon of the Best ‘Realistic’ Science Fiction Films.”
  • “Interstellar Black Hole is Best Black Hole in Sci-Fi,” says Discovery News, who went on to point out that the film kept a noted theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne, on set as a science advisor.
  • Over at Slate, the “Bad Astronomy” blog took aim at the film’s allegedly sloppy science, attacking plot points such as the notion that planets could orbit a black hole. “You kinda need a star for that,” writes the author in serious eye-rolling mode.
  • The Washington Post, ever the mediator, addressed the controversy without weighing in too heavily, but included a science primer that would help prep audiences for the experience of watching the film. (Because if there’s one thing that’ll spice up date night, it’s hitting the textbooks before you go out.)

So who’s right? How would I know? I took a year of physics in high school, mostly because the teacher made the class fun. My closest exposure to hard-science discussions in modern life is watching The Big Bang Theory (which, like Interstellar, features an heroic everyman named Cooper).

More to the point, I don’t care – and neither should most people. Interstellar’s quality does not hinge on its scientific accuracy. Nolan and his cast and crew are committed to entertainment, not education, and people who love or hate the film because of how accurately it depicts a black hole are, in my opinion, missing the point.

Leaving the theater after my screening, I commented that the film felt like those who made it took the science seriously, and I stand by that. Nolan and Co. obviously put a lot of thought into how science would play a role in Interstellar, and that deliberacy paid off: Within the context of the film, I believed in its presentation of Einsteinian principles and the bending of space/time. That doesn’t mean they got the science right, and it certainly doesn’t make me any smarter about theoretical physics. But it made the experience of watching the movie more enjoyable. Which, as far as the purpose of their film goes, represents a mission: accomplished.

I don’t want to suggest that films shouldn’t be faithful to real life if possible. But all films exist in their own universe, in a way, and the filmmakers have the luxury of bending the rules of reality to make the best movies they possibly can. Whether it’s the science of Interstellar, the math of A Beautiful Mind, the history of JFK or even the martial arts of The Karate Kid, the primary agenda of a film is to dazzle us, not educate us. If it can do both, that’s a nice bonus. But that’s all it is.