If the pseudoscientific woo about love and time travel in Interstellar pissed you off, you aren't alone. Though Christopher Nolan's gorgeous space opera isn't the first science fiction film to descend into a morass of new age platitudes, here's why it should be the last.
Spoilers for Interstellar ahead.
Let's get something clear. There are no science fiction movies that "get it right" perfectly when it comes to physics and other areas of science. Any story that involves interstellar travel is by definition based on speculation. We have no idea how faster-than-light travel would work, so we rely on semi-scientific tropes, from wormhole travel and interdimensional jumps to hypersleep and brain uploading. These tropes are all based on contemporary scientific understanding, but of course they are also wild extrapolations that may ultimately turn out to be complete bullshit.
But there's a difference between wormhole travel, which is depicted superbly in Interstellar, and the idea that love is a "fifth dimension" that can allow a man to jump inside a black hole and travel backwards in time to communicate with his 10-year-old daughter. This is what we are asked to believe in Interstellar, whose climactic scene involves Cooper flying into the black hole Gargantua. Once he's gone inside, he's rescued by mysterious, fifth-dimensional beings who put him inside a tesseract box where time behaves like space — we can see millions of versions of his daughter's room around him, each representing a slice of time.
So far, we're on weird but still relatively solid ground when it comes to speculative science. Physicist Kip Thorne, who consulted on the movie, writes in a book called The Science of Interstellar that he could imagine such an event being plausible. Other physicists disagree with him, but that's not the problem. The real issue is that Cooper figures out how to contact his daughter by recalling what his colleague Brand told him — that love is a "force" that transcends dimensions just like time does. Using the force of "love" to guide him through the bewildering array of time-rooms, he finally finds the exact right version of his daughter to communicate with. And then he sends a message to her through time.
This is an example of confusing physics with metaphysics, or assuming that observable phenomena like gravity are the same as psychological states like love. Put another way, it blurs the line between science and spirituality without ever admitting that's what's going on.
Anyone who has seen the movie The Fifth Element is no stranger to this idea. The "fifth element" of the title is, in fact, love. Which turns out to be a physical force that can save the world. This idea is hinted at in widely-condemned pseudoscience documentary What the Bleep Do We Know, which suggests that quantum mechanics have revealed that anything we believe can come true — because our minds affect quantum reality. That is most definitely not what quantum physics suggests.
Again, the issue here isn't with saying that spiritual beliefs can intermingle with scientific reality. The problem is with category confusion. Just because two things are equally important does not mean they are the same. There is absolutely no evidence that love transcends time, but there is significant physical evidence that other dimensions do.
This notion that love "transcends" space and time also makes an appearance in the otherwise rationality-centric movie Contact. In that film, based on work by Carl Sagan, the main character takes a journey through space/time and communicates with aliens who take the form of her father. The idea is that they are so alien that they can only appear to her by taking on the form of a person she loves. Ultimately, the suggestion in Contact — like in Interstellar — is that love is a force we can measure using physics.
Illustration by Luke Toyer
We can probably trace a lot of these tropes back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was written by Arthur C. Clarke back in the 1960s. In that film, we discover that humanity was uplifted by godlike aliens who have been observing us benevolently for hundreds of thousands of years. Now that we are leaving Earth, they return to greet us — and that experience is represented as some kind of epiphany or spiritual rebirth. This should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with Clarke's work, which included (among other things) stints hosting the shows Mysterious World and World of Strange Powers, which were both about taking "unexplained phenomena" far more seriously than they should be.
Like Contact, 2001 offers totemic images an effort to represent something that is profoundly unrepresentable. Fair enough, but it leads to a lot of sloppy thinking about what is scientifically plausible. Which is pretty much unacceptable in movies like 2001, Contact, Interstellar and many others that want to lay claim to some kind of scientific validity.
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. Suggesting that love can bend time, or that space travel is a psychic journey, does not simplify these concepts in a way that makes them more understandable to people without formal science training. It simply misrepresents them. Instead of making science more exciting and accessible, these movies make it more confusing.
It's particularly disheartening to see these pseudoscientific tropes being reawakened at a time when politicians in the west are trying to cut funding for science. We're facing a future where many people will learn about science for the first time from pop culture. But all too much of that pop culture will teach them that science is actually no different from "beliefs," as if the laws of gravity were as mutable as our emotional attachments.
I'm not saying that science fiction needs to adhere to a boring formula of only telling stories that hinge established scientific theories. But I worry when science is collapsed into spirit. There are truths out there, discovered by science. And we shouldn't forget them or the future is truly lost.