I am inspired to write this little essay by watching "Interstellar"; I had the good fortune to find it in a cinema here in Milano yesterday evening in the original language, with subtitles. That's pretty rare here: the dubbing industry remains very strong, with skilled practitioners, and most Italians prefer to watch most films in Italian. I did find that having the original dialogue helped a lot with this movie, as it was not so much that the dialogue was complex, but that it retained the emotional content and inflections of the original actors. The titles (in Italian, of course) actually helped to keep from losing those parts which were "mumbled", an issue I see increasingly in American films. I guess it's realistic to portray speaking roles in the way people actually speak--in the opposite direction from the hearer, asides barely heard--as opposed to declaiming theatrically.
Anyway, the movie made a deep impression and gave me a lot to think about. I am actually doing two reviews of it--this one, of a more general nature, and one which will go into more depth about some of the issues brought up in the climactic final hour. That one, which necessarily has some spoilers about some of the surprising turns toward the end of the movie, will go into a time capsule here and be released in a few months, when the first run (and anticipated post-Oscar continuation of that run) are over, and everyone has had the opportunity and time to see it. I feel that is very appropriate treatment for this movie.
Sci-Fi and Fantasy
Let's start by making a distinction between what was the old-style science fiction and the genre which has largely displaced it in recent decades, fantasy fiction. The main difference between the two is that science fiction should seek to place its narratives in a world we can see as a possible one (past, present, or future). Recognition, or explanation, of scientific understanding helps guide key aspects of the story in directions outside our normal experience, but still possible. Fantasy is not limited by the conventions of possible reality: instead its authors are allowed to consider worlds that may not be possible, beings that may never exist, and scenarios that could never realistically occur.
Both contribute to our ability to imagine alternatives. Science fiction has the additional benefit of sometimes guiding popular understanding of where experience may be heading--in some cases, it has actually contributed to new paths of scientific exploration. Fantasy rises or falls on the completeness of the imagined world and the plausibility of the stories, given their situations and nature, and with a bit stronger suspension of disbelief involved.
I think it's fair to credit (or blame) the relative rise of fantasy to J.R.R. Tolkien's popularity starting from the Sixties, and to blame the decline of science fiction on a combination of the divergence between the recent historical development of science-based lifestyle changes and what science fiction seemed to predict for us a few decades ago (as Steve Earle put it in his excellent recent song, "21st Century Blues", "Where the Hell's my flying car?"). In other words, there has been a lowering of our expectations, or a reduction in our imagination, of what science can do for our future. Science fiction has always had a percentage of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic stories; I would guess that percentage has increased with the development of the eco-apocalyptic vein ("ecolyptic"?), but I doubt that such downers have done much recently for the broad commercial potential of the genre, whereas the successfully-imagined worlds of fantasy supply the opportunity for serialized continuations ad infinitum, even beyond the lifespans of its authors. That has meant a clear path toward continuing employment as a motivator for authors of imaginative fiction, and there are plenty of cases of authors switching from sci-fi to fantasy in the course of their careers.
To sum up, all fiction requires the suspension of disbelief--we need to believe, in the case of historical fiction for example, that the dialogues and events not historically recorded are real. Fantasy differs in that we need to accept, temporarily, an alternate reality. I would argue that "Interstellar" is fantasy--a well-presented one--but one that is contrary to what could ever be possible.
To recap the premise of the story of the movie, something that has been widely disclosed (so no spoiler here), a near-future plague is destroying all of the world's food crops. Only corn remains, and its continued viability is at risk. The population is already decimated and is in the process of dying out. A possible way to continue the species appears in the form of interstellar travel, through the fortuitous appearance of a space-time wormhole near Saturn, to some distant galaxies which may be able to support human life.
One little problem: interstellar travel is way beyond the capability of the human race, now and for the foreseeable future. Of course, in a movie titled "Interstellar", set just a few decades in the future, this is actually a fundamental problem. Director Christopher Nolan, who with his brother wrote the story, goes to great lengths to provide scientific underpinning for his fantastic construct. Some of it has validity, while some I could recognize, even with my freshman physics knowledge, was impossible, though mostly subtly so. I give him credit for trying to make the workings of interstellar travel believable, something that others--I think of "Avatar", the "Aliens" series, "Star Trek"--don't even attempt.
This effort does contribute to the value of the entertainment, though. What we see in "Interstellar" is a variety of people, people not unlike us, in a highly-stressful situation and their human reactions and behavior. There is emotional content, there are characters who develop through the story, there is some study of how decisions are made under stress, there is even philosophy. It is a human story, and a humane one. Violence is present, but in the proper measure; love is a primary factor. As a fantasy, it is quite a satisfying one: complex in its presentation, plenty of food for thought during and after, and the audio-visual aspect is all we should expect. (I might like to see it in Imax.)
I would say it sets a new standard in the genre of space fantasy for its depth and attempt at lucidity. In that sense, it exceeds movies like "Gravity"--which was not fantasy but similar in its drama and some key aspects--or "Avatar". I would compare it most directly to "2001: A Space Odyssey" (to which it's certainly better in the lucidity aspect, though maybe not the artistic ones) and to "Contact" (the Jodie Foster movie from some 20 years ago, based on a story by Carl Sagan). Both share with "Interstellar" a philosophy that man's destiny is in the stars, but "Interstellar" puts a different twist on it. "Interstellar" has a great cast, with several big stars playing their characters (not just themselves--even Matthew McConnaughy, though he does bring a bit more redneck to the role than I thought was needed)--I was particularly tickled to see Wes Bentley (of "American Beauty") and Jeff Hephner (of "Boss"). Finally, I see some parallels with another, supposedly earth-bound, fantasy: "The Wizard of Oz" (however, no singing, though the musical score was excellent).
Even as a fantasy, "Interstellar" is hardly perfect, but to go into the errors--in concept, and in details--would require giving away too much. Check the time capsule in a few months.
My guess for Oscar: about 8-9 nominations, including sound, music, sets, a couple for acting, original screenplay, director, Best Picture, and 3-4 wins.