Science and fiction are two words that shouldn’t really belong together within a genre. Science, to give it its precise definition is “study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” That is, it deals with facts and that which is observable in some way. Fiction on the other hand deals with the imagination, things which are unknown and unobservable. What is it about the theories and practice of science that so provokes the imaginations of creators and audience members alike when it comes to science-fiction as a genre?
Interstellar is a film Spielbergian in its set-up (he was originally set to direct the film). There is a father, Cooper, (McConnaghey) doing his best to provide for his two children in the aftermath of a worldwide famine which has wiped out most of the world’s crops. With the earth becoming unsustainable for human life, Cooper, a former NASA pilot gets recruited to go on a mission to find other planets the people of earth could move to.
While the first half of the film owes a lot to Close Encounters of the Third Time, the second half is more 2001: A Space Odyssey; the opening line from the ship robot, TARS, for example, making more than a wink and a nod towards 2001‘s HAL. Where it differs to these two films thematically, is that the protagonist is less interested in discovery for discovery’s sake, but rather because the future of his children is on the line. This motivation is what allows the film stay afloat when it’s dealing with complex scientific concepts like relativity and multi-dimensional space.
Since making Close Encounters in 1977, Spielberg has confessed that after becoming a father, he would have changed the ending to the film. Specifically when (SPOILER ALERT) the protagonist doesn’t hesitate in leaving behind his wife and three kids to go on an interstellar space trip with aliens. In many ways Interstellar‘s story feels like an antidote to Close Encounter‘s ending. We have a father who does leave behind his kids, but he does it in order to save them, and his decision to do hurts both his children in a major way. (END OF SPOILERS)
The film itself feels like a love letter to space exploration, and the human need for discovery. While the plot requires the characters to go and explore other solar systems and the planets they contain, there is the sense of real excitement when as viewers we get to see these uninhabited planets for the first time. So far no human has ever set foot on another planet, but it’s cool to consider the possibility that this is a film that could inspire the next generation of astronauts to do precisely that.
Interstellar then is a film of possibilities. And perhaps that is the reason why science and fiction are familiar bedfellows. As we delve deeper into the world of relativity and multi-dimensional space; and as we imagine the possibilities these concepts allow for, we are inspired to think big, imagine big, and ultimately perhaps discover big as well. It is for this reason it’s probably my favourite of his films to date.