Science versus Story

I just saw Interstellar. I’m not terribly interested in writing a review, but I do feel like I’m now able to chime in on the internet controversy surrounding it by acknowledging that the science in it is spotty. The question we need to ponder as writers is this: Does that matter? 

I think there are two prongs to consider whenever one gets into this discussion: First, is the science in any given science fiction story as accurate as it can be within the bounds of what is currently known? Second, is the science in the story internally consistent?

When discussing Interstellar, I think it’s important to remember the medium. Film is very difficult to make scientifically accurate without bringing the story to a grinding halt for a science lesson. Even films that are willing to do that can’t get all the science out. If it were possible to explain relativity in five minutes, we’d teach it in grade school and nobody would ever be awarded a Ph.D. for studying it. Ergo, we really don’t expect science fiction movies to be scientifically accurate. The interesting thing about Interstellar for me is that there actually is some good science in it. The marketing department had fun with the fact that the science consultants got a paper out of their visualization of a black hole (though, despite what the popular media said, it wasn’t the first time someone has done a scientifically rigorous attempt to model what a black hole would look like, nor is it the first time that data has been rendered out in a photorealistic way). There is a competent, if simplistic, explanation of wormholes, and (though I trust Phil Plait when he says that they got the real-world math wrong) a basic introduction to time dilation.

So I think part of the problem that Interstellar is having is actually that it did enough science right that it wound up — for scientists at least — substantially more frustrating for what it got wrong than, say, Star Wars, where there is effectively no accurate science. There’s a lesson in that.

Personally, though, as a viewer, I’m O.K. with a Hollywood epic putting plot before scientific rigor. The filmmakers had a story to tell, and that story had to play to a typical moviegoing public. There simply aren’t enough astronomers around who would geek out over a film that gets relativity right to make it worth sinking $165 million into, and so they told a story which uses time dilation when it’s plot convenient and forgets about it when it’s not. Such is life in the world of filmmaking.

For me, however, I kept getting tripped up on the internal inconsistencies. Why does a spacecraft require a Saturn rocket to boost it into Earth’s orbit, but it can achieve escape velocity from a planet with 30% higher gravity orbiting a black hole using only its built in thrusters? That seriously bugs me. I would have totally accepted the spaceship powered by not-yet-discovered fuel if it had worked the same way on Earth as it does elsewhere — particularly since there’s no good story reason for there to be a full-scale rocket launch.

That said, I don’t know how many other people in the audience were bugged by it. The man sitting next to it who apparently couldn’t resist the urge to vocalize every random thought he had (including counting the stars in one scene) said nothing about it. So, like the astronomers whose expertise leads them to be troubled by the bad time dilation, I, the writer, may be over-sensitive to something that doesn’t annoy the rest of America at all.

So, in the end, it all boils down to this: There’s no right answer in the science versus story debate. At the end of the day, you, the writer, need to know your audience and know what will pull them into the story and what will take them out of it.

Interstellar‘s box office receipts will be the final measure of how well it struck that balance.


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