Playing by your own rules: Plot Holes and Improbabilities in Interstellar

[The following post contains spoilers for Interstellar.]

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“You just saw Interstellar. You have questions. It’s almost impossible to watch Christopher Nolan’s space epic without having one or two.”

– James Hibberd, “15 Maddening ‘Interstellar’ Plot Holes”

After the release of Christopher Nolan’s science fiction film about the search for a new home for mankind after the Earth is rendered uninhabitable, there were a great many articles that offered complaints similar to the 15 points of contention (or bafflement) that Entertainment Weekly listed on its Popwatch blog in early November. Finding and pointing out plot holes is at once a pretty effective way of wringing some fun out of a bad movie, and an even more effective way of ruining a good one. Nolan’s film was always going to be placed under a higher degree of scrutiny than most releases since earlier films in his career like Memento and Inception have earned the director a reputation for complex, intricate, but nonetheless nearly flawless plotting.

While EW is right to suggest that “some brow-furrowing is justified” by a “tale where a man in [a] space suit survived going into a black hole, communicated with himself back in time via a fifth dimensional library, got spit out into our solar system, and was rescued by a passing ship with a couple minutes to spare on his air tank — all because of something about love,” their complaints hint at the difficulty all films face when trying to convince their audiences that what they are seeing is a probable series of events, a difficulty that takes on special significance in science fiction and has less to do with the intricacies of plotting than with the intricacies of belief and judgement.

It’s a fairly common claim that all fiction – since it presents us with events and people that are by definition unreal – involves some “suspension of disbelief.” Fiction works according to different rules. What would normally strike us as an improbability in our daily lives is readily accepted at face value in a fiction film; the failure to do so suggests an unwillingness to let ourselves be absorbed in the story, so that whether or not a work of fiction works on us becomes the joint responsibility of the filmmakers and the audience. An LA Times article describing the willingness of audiences to buy into certain improbable premises while dismissing others lamented the impossibility of guaranteeing a story would be believed by its audience, since “the question of whether a movie works or doesn’t work can often come down to one intangible: whether the audience willingly suspends its disbelief.” Trying to ensure that suspension, “making a story believable,” therefore becomes “a crucial task of the screenwriter.”

This task becomes even more difficult when a screenwriter is working with those genres that deal heavily in improbabilities – science fiction and fantasy. The leaps these genres ask us to take are a lot larger than those we’re required to make on behalf of a movie that’s “based on a true story.” The problem, however, is not so much one of trying to get the audience to not immediately dismiss something that is not only fictional but generally believed to be improbable, if not impossible. Our knowledge of those genres and the stories they tend to tell creates a tacit agreement that we will accept certain impossibilities that would be dismissed in other types of film. The problem is getting us to play by the right set of rules.

As Steve Neale suggests, there are two kinds of knowledge a film can rely on to establish the rules under which its world will function: external knowledge – the “spectator’s own knowledge and judgments,” the information and values that it can be assumed we all share – and internal knowledge – information the film provides through the course of the narrative explicitly telling us what we need to know to follow that narrative. This internal knowledge is especially crucial in science fiction since it centers on events and characters that are generally considered “unlikely or impossible,” and therefore can’t be explained by external knowledge. And because there are no external rules to govern these events and characters, each film has the freedom to establish what is possible and what is not in its own story. What an alien is capable of doing in one science fiction film will not necessarily be the same as what an alien is capable of doing in another, and is therefore always in need of explanation. The freedom the genre affords in allowing a wide range of what could be considered probable comes with the burden of exposition. The establishment of internal norms, however, allows us to judge what’s possible and what seems improbable in each film we see, and it is often when a film departs from these norms, or when these norms are improperly drawn, that we begin to question the credence of what we’re seeing.

Interstellar leaves us with furrowed brows because it places itself in the impossible position of locating all the information we need to know to understand the rules within its central mystery.

The enigma that drives the film centers on who or what is aiding mankind in its quest for survival. Murphy’s bedroom ghost, the gravitational messages, and the miraculously appearing black hole all seem to point to some mysterious, benevolent, and very powerful force invested in the continued existence of humanity for equally mysterious reasons. That there is something out there is obvious, but what it is – aliens, humans from the future, Zeus – is not.

A wormhole trip, quantum handshake, lesson about love, and journey through a black hole later, we are provided with some provisional answers – Cooper was the ghost all along, able to pass information crucial to the survival of humanity to his daughter with the help of 5th dimensional future humans who give him access to every moment in the history of the backside of his daughter’s bookcase. Yet because Cooper (and therefore the audience) has no direct access to the 5th dimensional beings – they communicate with him through his robot, remaining unseen and unheard – we can learn nothing about them beyond Cooper’s own suppositions. We may be willing to believe we know who they are, but what they can do, the rules that govern what’s possible in a world governed by 5 dimensions, remains opaque.

Without these rules it becomes difficult to judge what’s probable in the world Nolan creates and what’s not. And that leaves the writers at EW, brows furrowed in confusion, asking questions that the film can’t answer. If we don’t know what the 5th dimensional beings can do we can’t explain why “if aliens/future humans wanted to save us, couldn’t they have simply given the professor the secret equation? Especially if the solution is apparently simple enough to be delivered by Morse Code?” It remains a mystery why, if they can create a wormhole and place it within shooting distance of the Earth, they can’t make sure it will lead us to the right planet instead of giving us three choices, one of which is obviously unsuitable.

The apocalyptic event that caused mankind to require a new home in the first place presents similar problems for providing us with the internal knowledge we need to establish the limits of probability in the film. Interstellar takes place in the time after some unseen catastrophe. We are given a discrete series of hints as to what happened in the mention of land wars and the progressive loss of different food crops, but the event itself is never seen, and we are left with only a series of epiphenomena, effects without causes – the desperate dedication to farming, the dust storms, the rewriting of history for school textbooks – that suggest humanity is at the brink of destruction. This refusal to represent the apocalypse in favour of depicting mankind in a time after that end is not uncommon in post-apocalyptic narratives, and the ambiguity created by refusing to represent the end can be used to suggest a general sense of disorientation, since we have no access to the event that has caused the world to take its current shape.

This lack of representation becomes a problem in Interstellar because it denies us access to some basic information we need to understand the film’s world and the actions of the characters inhabiting it. While there is clearly some form of government in operation, since we don’t know exactly what shape it’s taken the questions that EW raises about the end and its aftermath – “Wouldn’t the starving hoards [sic] of desperate humanity kill the farmers and take what was left? Are we really supposed to believe, in a society where the military has collapsed, they’d just slink away in their dusty cars to die?” – can find no answers.

The status of mankind’s advances in technology is also never made clear, creating similar problems: if we don’t know the limitations of the survey equipment used to judge the suitability of the three planets on offer for mankind’s new home, we can’t explain why “with a few scientists, a couple incredible robots and a spaceship flying around, Cooper’s team couldn’t tell anything about [Dr. Mann’s planet’s] inhospitable conditions without trekking out to a glacier.”

We have to rely on axiomatic non-explanations, like “the fifth dimension makes everything everything,” or that “technology in Interstellar only works as much as the plot needs it to work.”

While EW is right to suggest that the limits of technology follow the needs of plot in a great deal of science fiction, they are also right to complain that “it’s not supposed to feel like it.” Contrivances feel less like contrivances if they can be made credible through techniques for establishing internal knowledge, allowing us to suspend our judgement of their improbability by rendering them probable within the world of the film.

Interstellar doesn’t provide us with the knowledge we need to judge what’s probable and what’s not, to establish the rules according to which its world functions. As a result, we’re left less with a story full of plot holes than one full of brow furrow-inducing improbabilities.


References:

Steve Neale, “‘You’ve Got To Be Fucking Kidding! Knowledge, Belief and Judgement in Science Fiction,” in ed. Annette Kuhn, Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction (New York: Verso , 1990), 161-4

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