If Interstellar Were a Book...

*Please note: there will be many SPOILERS in this post...

There has been much written about Interstellar over the past few days, and there is little I can add by way of review. My own opinion of the film is largely captured by David Thomas at The New Republic. Although, I actually liked the film a lot more than he did. Which is to say, despite its unbelievability, parts of it were entertaining. I saw the movie yesterday afternoon with a few friends, and as we left the theatre everyone had their own opinion about the various ways in which it sucked: script problems, plot problems, subpar cinematography, inexplicable character motivations, etc. And yes, there is an incredibly wide range of problems with this film. See Vulture for a complete listing of everything that doesn't make sense about it, not to mention science issues. And yet, there were some parts of Interstellar that I found immensely compelling, so I couldn't quite put my finger on why the film missed the mark so much.

I woke up this morning, and it hit me: Interstellar would work if it were a book.

The primary problem with Interstellar is that it was trying to say too much, and ended up saying nothing at all. 90% of the scenes that take place in space are utterly pointless (and except for the ice planet, aren't all that visually captivating). However, they take up at least half the film. Meanwhile, by far the most interesting aspect of the movie is what is happening on Earth. The eerie, dust-filled, mono-cropped landscape has clear implications for a future that is dictated by climate change and current agricultural practices. But, we don't really get a clear sense of what is happening all over the world. I guess Kansas (or whatever Midwest state they are in) is representative of the entire world? A book would allow for a much deeper and broader sense of world-building. This would go a long way to explaining many of the basic plot contradictions in the movie. But, more importantly, lush written descriptions would give a more detailed and layered account of how the Earth came to be in such a state. 

While Coop is trying to find a new place for people to live, Murph (and everyone else on Earth) actually solves this climate disaster (or so it would seem when Coop returns and everything seems more or less ok) but we never get to see how this happened. Murph is the most interesting, and arguably most complex, character in the movie, but we don't get to see any of her development. She has apparently spent her entire life saving the world, but we have no idea what she (or any of the scientists) actually did. If Interstellar were a book, there would be room to give Murph an entire trajectory of her own. If this plot line ran in tandem with Coop's save-the-earth-mission, both of these characters and their motivations would become deeply connected and nuanced.     

Similarly, Dr. Brand is entirely underdeveloped. We're supposed to somehow sympathize with a half-baked love story between her and another doctor who we have never seen and who has never been talked about? If we make decisions based on love, as Interstellar seems to profoundly claim, then how can we understand Dr. Brand if we don't have any of her backstory? This is another character who, given the space and depth of a book, could be explored on a much deeper level. Within Dr. Brand's storyline, we could also come to understand the fate of NASA (which is maybe the most bizarre and inexplicable aspect of the overall plot), the role of her father, and the underlying motivations behind Plan A and Plan B.    

A lot of the plot is dramatically advanced with dialogue, which leads to at least a dozen classic examples of why we "show, don't tell." Although, this does come in handy when Coop asks a direct question about relativity and only a physicist can answer. Even though though it feels totally contrived, it's nice to have science clearly explained so us non-scientists could easily follow! The problem is that many of these explanations are cursory. But the larger issue is that film, as a medium, doesn't really allow for tangential explorations of theoretical plot points. Were Nolan to actually go down some of these scientific roads, the movie would be like twelve hours long. Not so with a book! In fact, many science fiction books delve deeply into theory and challenge readers to really think about both current scientific theories and unknown futuristic possibilities. Every part of the plot and character development would be further deepened if science was truly integrated into the story, which would seamlessly happen in a book.

Additionally, visualizing time as a physical dimension seems to be beyond the capabilities of film. One aspect of the film that I struggled with the most was the scene of Coop behind the bookshelf. If the fifth dimension were visualized, there is no reason to assume that it would reflect reality. Why would space-time fabric look like what we see on Earth? One of the limitations with film is that it doesn't allow for us to imagine what things look and feel like. The screen does the imagining for us. This isn't to say film doesn't promote imagination...it does! But not in the more literal sense of imagining a thing or a place. Like the ability to elaborate on scientific theory, books also promote a deep sense of imagination. Through the lens of words, I believe our imaginations could capture a bizarre and unlimited sense the fifth dimension.      

All of this is to say, in some ways Interstellar felt like a failed adaptation of a very complex book. But Interstellar wasn't an adaptation. It was written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, both of whom have extensive experience writing for the screen. (And who have written many previous films that worked perfectly with the medium!) I would be very curious to know how this script moved from the idea phase to the final phase and what kinds of editing happened along the way. It seems to be a case of having a very good idea that then plays out in so many directions that it never coheres to a set of logical constraints. But, despite all of these flaws, I semi-enjoyed the movie. It would make a fantastic book, though.