Interstellar, Science & Fantasy
Although I like science fiction, I did not see Interstellar until fairly recently—although time is such a subjective sort of thing. One reason I decided to see it is because some have claimed that the movie should be shown in science classes, presumably to help the kids learn science. Because of this, I expected to see a science fiction movie. Since I write science fiction, horror and fantasy stuff, it should not be surprising that I get a bit obsessive about genre classifications. Since I am a professor, it should also not be surprising that I have an interest in teaching methods. As such, I will be considering Interstellar in regards to both genre classifications and its education value in the context of science. There will be spoilers—so if you have not seen it, you might wish to hold off reading this essay.
While there have been numerous attempts to distinguish between science and fantasy, Roger Zelazny presents one of the most brilliant and concise accounts in a dialogue between Yama and Tak in Lord of Light. Tak has inquired of Yama about whether a creature, a Rakshasa, he has seen is a demon or not. Yama responds by saying, “If by ‘demon’ you mean a malefic, supernatural creature, possessed of great powers, life span and the ability to temporarily assume any shape — then the answer is no. This is the generally accepted definition, but it is untrue in one respect. … It is not a supernatural creature.”
Tak, not surprisingly, does not see the importance of this single untruth in the definition. Yama replies with “Ah, but it makes a great deal of difference, you see. It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy — it is a matter of essence. The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom, and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable”
In Lord of Light, the Rakshasa play the role of demons, but they are aliens—the original inhabitants of a world conquered by human colonists. As such, they are natural creatures and fall under the domain of science. While I do not completely agree with Zelazny’s distinction, I find it appealing and reasonable enough to use as the foundation for the following discussion of the movie.
Interstellar initially stays safely within the realm of science-fiction by staying safely within the sphere of scientific speculation regarding hypersleep, wormholes and black holes. While the script does take some liberties with the science, this is fine for the obvious reason that this is science fiction and not a science lecture. Interstellar also has the interesting bonus of having contributed to real science regarding the appearance of black holes. That aspect would provide some justification for showing it (or some of it) in a science class.
Another part of the movie that would be suitable for a science class are the scenes in which Murph thinks that her room might be haunted by a ghost. Cooper, her father, urges her to apply the scientific method to the phenomenon. Of course, it might be considered bad parenting for a parent to urge his child to study what might be a dangerous phenomenon in her room. Cooper also instantly dismisses the ghost hypothesis—which can be seen as being very scientific (since there has been no evidence of ghosts) to not very scientific (since this might be evidence of ghosts).
The story does include the point that the local school is denying that the moon-landings really occurred and the official textbooks support this view. Murph is punished at school for arguing that the moon landings did occur and is rewarded by Cooper. This does make a point about science denial and could thus be of use in the classroom.
Rather ironically, the story presents its own conspiracies and casts two of the main scientists (Brand and Mann) as liars. Brand lies about his failed equation for “good” reasons—to keep people working on a project that has a chance and to keep morale up. Mann lies about the habitability of his world because, despite being built up in the story as the best of the scientists, he cannot take the strain of being alone. As such, the movie sends a mixed-message about conspiracies and lying scientists. While learning that some people are liars has value, this does not add to the movie’s value as a science class film. Now, to get back to the science.
The science core of the movie, however, focuses on holes: the wormhole and the black hole. As noted above, the movie does stick within the realm of speculative science in regards to the wormhole and the black hole—at least until near the end of the movie.
It turns out that all that is needed to fix Brand’s equation is data from inside a black hole. Conveniently, one is present. Also conveniently, Cooper and the cool robot TARS end up piloting their ships into the black hole as part of the plan to save Brand. It is at this point that the movie moves from science to fantasy.
Cooper and TARS manage to survive being dragged into the black hole, which might be scientifically fine. However, they are then rescued by the mysterious “they” (whoever created the wormhole and sent messages to NASA).
Cooper is transported into a tesseract or something. The way it works in the movie is that Cooper is floating “in” what seems to be a massive structure. In “reality” it is nifty blend of time and space—he can see and interact with all the temporal slices that occurred in Murph’s room. Crudely put, it allows him to move in time as if it were space. While it is also sort of still space. While this is rather weird, it is still within the realm of speculative science fiction.
Cooper is somehow able to interact with the room using weird movie plot rules—he can knock books off the shelves in a Morse code pattern, he can precisely change local gravity to provide the location of the NASA base in binary, and finally he can manipulate the hand of the watch he gave his daughter to convey the data needed to complete the equation. Weirdly, he cannot just manipulate a pen or pencil to just write things out. But, movie. While a bit absurd, this is still science fiction.
The main problem lies with the way Cooper solves the problem of locating Murph at the right time. While at this point I would have bought the idea that he figured out the time scale of the room and could rapidly check it, the story has Cooper navigate through the vast time room using love as a “force” that can transcend time. While it is possible that Cooper is wrong about what he is really doing, the movie certainly presents it as if this love force is what serves as his temporal positioning system.
While love is a great thing, there are no even remotely scientific theories that provide a foundation for love having the qualities needed to enable such temporal navigation. There is, of course, scientific research into love and other emotions. The best of current love science indicates that love is a “mechanical” phenomena (in the philosophical sense) and there is nothing to even suggest that it provides what amounts to supernatural abilities.
It would, of course, be fine to have Cooper keep on trying because he loves his children—love does that. But making love into some sort of trans-dimensional force is clearly fantasy rather than science and certainly not suitable for a science lesson (well, other than to show what is not science).
One last concern I have with using the movie in a science class is the use of what seem to be super beings. While the audience learns little of the beings, the movie does assert to the audience that these beings can obviously manipulate time and space. They create the wormhole, they pull Cooper and TARS from a black hole, they send Cooper back in time and enable him to communicate in stupid ways, and so on. The movie also tells the audience the beings are probably future humans (or what humanity becomes) and that they can “see” all of time. While the movie does not mention this, this is how St. Augustine saw God—He is outside of time. They are also clearly rather benign and show demonstrate that that do care about individuals—they save Cooper and TARS. Of course, they also let many people die needlessly.
Given these qualities, it is easy to see these beings (or being) as playing the role of God or even being God—a super powerful, sometimes benign being, that has incredible power over time and space. Yet is fine with letting lots of people die needlessly while miraculously saving a person or two.
Given the wormhole, it is easy to compare this movie to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This show had wormhole populated by powerful beings that existed outside of our normal dimensions. To the people of Bajor, these beings were divine and supernatural Prophets. To Star Fleet, they were the wormhole aliens. While Star Trek is supposed to be science fiction, some episodes involving the prophets did blur the lines into fantasy, perhaps intentionally.
Getting back to Interstellar, it could be argued that the mysterious “they” are like the Rakshasa of Lord of Light in that they (or whatever) have many of the attributes of God, but are not supernatural beings. Being fiction, this could be set by fiat—but this does raise the boundary question. To be specific, does saying that something that has what appear to be the usual supernatural powers is not supernatural make it science-fiction rather than fantasy? Answering this requires working out a proper theory of the boundary, which goes beyond the scope of this essay. However, I will note that having the day saved by the intervention of mysterious and almost divinely powerful beings does not seem to make the movie suitable for a science class. Rather, it makes it seem to be more of a fantasy story masquerading as science fiction.
My overall view is that showing parts of Interstellar, specifically the science parts, could be fine for a science class. However, the movie as a whole is more fantasy than science fiction.