Earlier this month, Neil deGrasse Tyson offered up a critique on Twitter of Interstellar. (Learning a bit from the furor over his 2013 Twitter review of Gravity, this time he frontloaded his review with the stuff he approved of.) While Tyson had plenty to say about the film’s science—good and bad—he tried hard to reinforce the message he put out shortly after his Gravity tweets set off a firestorm. “Science experts don’t line up to critique Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” he said then. “To ‘earn’ the right to be criticized on a scientific level is a high compliment indeed.” (Warning: Some mild Interstellar spoilers are ahead.)
Many scientists and science journalists who reviewed Interstellar offered even less damning with faint praise. “A missed opportunity,” said Discovery.com’s Ian O’Neill. “If the pseudoscientific woo about love and time travel in Interstellar pissed you off, you aren’t alone,” declared Annalee Newitz of io9. And as Phil Plait said on Slate, “I could go on and on (and on and on and on and on … ) with the scientific missteps the movie takes.” Newitz summed up her frustration with Interstellar and other science fiction films with a metaphysical bent, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey: “These are films that aim to popularize science and our quest to colonize space, and yet they basically lie to audiences about how space works.” (Non-scientist critics, while not unanimous, were kinder to Interstellar, which is at 74 percent at Rotten Tomatoes.)
Science fiction has always leaned on science for its credibility; artists from Jules Verne to Christopher Nolan have borrowed scientific ideas and concepts to drive their narratives. Science, for its part, has drawn inspiration from science fiction. But the question is: How much do artists owe science? How closely should science fiction hew to science fact? The truth is that science fiction is, first and foremost, fiction—and that’s how it should be judged.
A cottage industry has grown up around the world-building of science fiction films. Any high-grossing science fiction franchise can expect an explanatory volume, from Avatar to Star Trek to, yes, Interstellar. Filmmakers parade high-profile scientific advisers: Paleontologist Jack Horner helped Steven Spielberg populate Jurassic Park with lifelike dinosaurs. Epidemiologist Ian Lipkin and others advised the makers of Contagion. For Interstellar, physicist Kip Thorne assisted the Nolan brothers with the science of black holes. Touting the scientific credibility of a science fiction film has become a marketing tool, but it’s a double-edged sword; when a filmmaker asserts that “to really take on the science of the film, you’re going to need to sit down with the film for a bit,” as Christopher Nolan did in a recent interview, plenty of scientists will accept that challenge. The online conversation around science fiction in film has a lot less to do with plot or dialogue or visual language than with easy point-scoring about a film’s “veneer of science” or whether it’s “on the fine line between science and magic.”
As any science fiction aficionado will tell you, there is a difference between hard science fiction and fantasy. As Tyson noted about films that don’t “earn” scientific criticism, the particular strain of unforgiving nitpicking that he’s popularized wouldn’t have the same impact applied to The Lord of the Rings or even to Star Wars. (There are exceptions, of course: Some fans have tried their best to introduce scientific plausibility into LOTR, and almost 40 years later people are still trying to make sense of Han Solo’s claim that the Millennium Falcon “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.”) The further we are from what we perceive as reality, the more forgiving we are of seemingly fantastic elements. But we have forgotten that the use of reality in fiction is not meant to pull a story into our world, but to help us fall into the world of a story.
Forcing story to serve the world as it is (or even as it could be, more or less plausibly) has a purpose: It can inspire, and it might produce compelling art. But story is also about expanding the limits of reality and transcending what seems possible. The stories at the center of our myths and our religions are about powers and events beyond our understanding. The story at the center of American identity—that of a perfectible, perpetual Union—was impossibly utopian 240 years ago.
Joseph Campbell’s work on mythology has informed a generation of storytellers, starting with George Lucas’ conscious attempts to build the plot of Star Wars around the framework Campbell identified as the Hero’s Journey. While Campbell’s motifs and plot structures have become embedded deep within Hollywood and criticism, the deeper truth Campbell tried to get at—the connotation, not the denotation, as he put it—has not. “Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature,” said Campbell in The Power of Myth. “When your mind is simply trapped by the image out there so that you never make the reference to yourself, you have misread the image.”
Scientists are trained to observe the physical world and make deductions based on what they see; physical objects act in a manner defined by physical laws, and their actions can be predicted with those laws. But this worldview, while necessary for a scientist, is only part of the arsenal of the storyteller. Science fiction can present familiar things in a new light—defamiliarization, as it’s known in critical theory. The arrival of an alien lets us examine our beliefs. The arrival of the apocalypse lets us examine the strength of our convictions. The deus ex machina—long decried as an out for a trapped or lazy writer—lets us examine the limits of our hope and even our world.
In The Lord of the Rings, the heroes are facing destruction in their final battle when giant eagles swoop down to save them. The eagles serve as earthly vehicles for the power and grace of Tolkien’s godlike Valar. This deus ex machina was deliberately constructed by J.R.R. Tolkien to illustrate one of the central ideas of the novels, that certain actions were beyond the exertions of the human muscle or mind—but not beyond the strength of the soul. A version of this same idea rests at the heart of Christianity; salvation is impossible except through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the ineffable grace of an infinitely wise and powerful God.
The ending of Interstellar—woo, New Age, whatever one chooses to call it—rests on this much older tradition of storytelling. Our actions can only affect a small part of our universe. Our perceptions are narrow, and our span is brief. Science and technology offer us one path to something greater, but the idea of grace and salvation, purchased through sacrifice, has an older tradition and one with a strong pull on the human heart.
We lose something when we pull art down, when we erect high walls between the language of science and that of metaphor. We lose something when we insist that a word can only mean one thing, that an image can only be interpreted one way, and that the worth of a film hinges on the plausibility of all of its elements. It seems a shame to refuse to consider the messages of, say, Snowpiercer—about the structure of society, about the nature of truth and reality, and about the power of love and sacrifice to reveal the truth and create hope—because the mechanics of a train engine have not been lovingly detailed.
A kung fu movie is not lying about the power of a human kick when it slides its actors along wires. Religion is not lying when it calls on powers outside our sight. Science fiction is not lying when it calls love the fifth dimension or the Fifth Element. These are echoes of our oldest stories, and (one hopes) the humanity and passion of these stories is what’s important, not the stage dressing. At the end of the day, science fiction should pay homage to science, but its first responsibility is to its audience and to the art of storytelling itself.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.