Theories of Everything: Why ‘Interstellar,’ ‘The Imitation Game,’ and the Year’s Other Science-Driven Movies Can’t Stop Explaining ThemselvesWarner Bros. Pictures
Buying Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, dinosaurs were a two-part sell. Animatronics and new-fangled CGI techniques resurrected them from extinction. But convincing the plot hole–detecting skeptics that Brachiosauruses were alive required explanation. Spielberg had to jump the plausibility hurdle: How did man create these prehistoric beasts? He needed an educational backbone. Enter: “Mr. DNA.”
You remember, Mr. DNA: Plucked from the blood of Jurassic Park mastermind John Hammond, the animated molecule gave tourgoers (and filmgoers) a genetics crash course. Adapting Michael Crichton’s thriller for screen meant condensing pages and pages of explanation into bricklaying scene work that wouldn’t slow down Spielberg’s visionary wonder and T. rex action. Mr. DNA was the solution. Animator Bob Kurtz replicated the “classroom video” language, nostalgia tricking us into believing the elementary school–friendly explanation. Crichton provided the recognizable pseudoscience — of course mosquitoes sucked dinosaur blood! Of course the bugs were trapped in amber! Look at that nature footage of sap slipping down a tree! Mr. DNA holds our hand as Jurassic Park smudges fact into fiction. Jurassic Park scientists used “sophisticated techniques” (drills?) to extract preserved blood. And then, bingo: dino DNA. Exposition never left so many mouths agape.
Spielberg lucked out. The explanation game was easier in 1993. Jurassic Park drew on public consciousness without fear of Internet-enabled fact-checking. His dinosaurs looked just like the fossils at our local museums. Mr. DNA’s spiel never extended beyond 10th-grade biology textbooks. When it leapt into fantasy — missing nucleotides? We just filled them in with frog DNA! — disappointed geneticists only had their families to complain to. And competition was light — outside of Crichton’s filmography (notables like The Andromeda Strain, Terminal Man, and Westworld), James Cameron’s The Abyss, and the almighty 2001: A Space Odyssey, few sci-fi movies were daring to make sense. Anyone with cosmological knowledge was still recovering from Disney’s dismal The Black Hole to give Jurassic Park too much grief.
That approach wouldn’t fly today. The kind of scientific enthusiasm that would have earned a person a swirlie in the ’90s1 is now a component of every conversation. Apple and Microsoft turned casual users into tech geeks, politicians publicly debate climate change, John Green made a killing on YouTube explaining the periodic table, and Twitter collectively turned its attention to a European robot landing on a comet. This is the world in which Neil deGrasse Tyson is a celebrity. People are smarter and savvier than they were when Jurassic Park conquered imaginations. They’re also dying for informed pop culture.
If Crichton were with us today, he’d notice his influence pervading through Hollywood. 2014 is a year of science fiction and science fact. A modicum of truth is all it takes to separate “hard” sci-films and television from Star Wars–like fantasy. Interstellar, Lucy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Transcendence took a page from Jurassic Park’s book, rejiggering textbook explanations into the catalysts for large-scale adventure. The indie world found its own path with films like The Signal, I Origins, and Young Ones. Big Hero 6 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman prepared kids for 10 years of less-exciting physics lab homework. Even awardmongers experimented with sci-stories, turning historical figures into stars: The Imitation Game features Benedict Cumberbatch as computer godfather Alan Turing, and The Theory of Everything tracks the life of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.
Few of these films feel as effortless as Jurassic Park. The filmmaking in modern sci-minded genre movies is just as exhilarating and complex, and it courts higher-quality talent, the kind formally reserved for Merchant Ivory pictures, that manages to carve out great performances in geeky scenarios. The difference is elegant exposition, those required moments when story must agree with logic. Tactics Crichton employed to spark curiosity now raise eyebrows. There’s an assumption the public knows better than Mr. DNA. So movies try harder — or not at all.
The idea for Interstellar originated from a powwow between theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and producer Lynda Obst (Contact). The goal: Produce a Hollywood movie that was faithful to modern cosmological research. They took their wormhole-themed pitch to Spielberg, who set the project in motion. Much like paleontologist Jack Horner did for Jurassic Park, Thorne hoped to imbue Interstellar with insight and credibility. More than that, even: Instead of sprucing up intergalactic adventuring with applicable facts, Thorne would build Interstellar‘s set pieces and narrative drive out of ripped-from-the-science-journal headlines. When Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan came on board, Thorne remained in the development process, even cracking a few black hole–related equations along the way.
These days, any movie remotely fact-based gets a “______ consultant” on board to tether fiction to fact.2 It’s become a staple of Spielberg’s impact, from the band of futurists who designed Minority Report to Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer overseeing an immaculate re-creation of the 16th president’s life. Nolan is a disciple of that accuracy-as-seduction methodology, helping Interstellar come close to Jurassic Park’s expositional sweet spot. Scenes in which Thorne shows his hand have that “dino DNA” effect. When illustrating a cross-galaxy wormhole for Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Romilly (David Gyasi) folds a piece of paper and pokes a hole through it. When the Endurance crew soars through the wormhole, Thorne’s theoretical graphic interpretation of the experience combines with our knowledge of what’s physically happening. We travel through that folded paper. We don’t know more because we don’t need to know more. Nolan has his Mr. DNA, too: Michael Caine, the man who can turn a phone book into Dylan Thomas.
Interstellar spawned countless “this movie’s science is wrong” retaliations, somewhat provoked by Nolan’s own volition. Interstellar passes its own exposition event horizon — quite literally. When Cooper passes through the black hole Gargantua in a last-ditch effort to return home, Nolan leaves Thorne’s studies behind with Anne Hathaway. He shifts into puzzlemaker mode, familiar to anyone who spent multiple viewings digesting The Prestige and Inception’s final acts. Nolan finds a way to explain the gravity-bending anomalies seen throughout the movie by throwing Cooper down a multilayered space-time gallery. The director keeps elaborating: The gravity equation has an answer, the invisible string-pullers of the entire expedition are future humans, and everything that will be, has been. Nolan opts out of the 2001 this-is-way-too-much-for-our-brains-to-handle-look-at-all-the-pretty-colors approach to tie up everything in a bow. It can’t happen — not without a 120-page thesis and a companion formula book. If anyone cites Interstellar as confusing, they’re talking about this final chapter, when exposition takes the spotlight and Caine is too dead to soothe us.
Every time Jurassic Park veers into science babble, Crichton and screenwriter David Koepp steady it with personality. It’s not just that the movie needs a chaos theory explainer to make a point about why breeding raptors is the stupidest idea ever, it’s that Ian Malcolm’s idea of flirting is testing dynamical systems. Science is at his core. There’s no endgame to Jurassic Park’s science, leaving little room for questioning when Dr. Grant & Co. zip off Isla Nublar. Interstellar has these moments, albeit with external ideas pounding down on our hero like amplified gravity. No amount of nitpicking can undermine McConaughey’s realization that relativistic effects caused life to catapult 40 years into the future. Gyasi’s explanatory dialogue might sound like Baby Einstein’s theory of relativity, but it’s the reason we’re crushed when Cooper watches a seemingly endless string of video messages from home.
Nolan’s instincts to overexplain are reactive to an audience that needs answers. There’s a fear running through Interstellar: The audience knows their black hole science. If the film glosses over known details, fingers will be pointed. Real science compounds more fictitious moments: What, TARS can suddenly beam Cooper the gravity equation through magical fifth-dimension brain email? Everything before this made sense! Opponents of George Lucas’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace often chastise the film’s invention of Midi-chlorian, the “source” of the Force, for being the pinnacle of unnecessary logic. In Interstellar, Nolan preempts logic debates by injecting his most existential beats with Midi-chlorians. Other 2014 films find themselves in equally difficult positions. The Nolan-esque Transcendence — directed by his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister — dedicates merciless amounts of time to framing its AI singularity scenario before remembering it needs action scenes. Luc Besson’s Lucy came straight out the gates with its “The average person uses 10 percent of their brain capacity” tagline, a long-standing fallacy that critics were happy to take to task. To be thorough is to court death — or a Twitter breakdown from deGrasse Tyson.
The Weinstein Company
The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, the cardigan-clad indie rock stars of the science movie boom, contend with the same fear. Their solutions are passivity. Explaining how a Turing machine works or what big bang theory could even begin to describe is a can of worms best left sealed. With Turing and Hawking’s well-documented legacies engraved in history books, both films resist scientific characterizations. The choice is understandable: Exposition-heavy biopics — or “VH1 original movies,” as they’re often called — offer the emotional depth of a Wikipedia page. The only problem is that, like Malcolm, the duo’s occupational and emotional lives are intertwined. Divorcing science from the scientists leaves them vacant, a sacrifice that feels as reactionary to what audiences might think as Nolan’s excessive explanations.
Jurassic Park is a movie about a complicated macro operation coming together, automated tour jeeps gliding past dino dens along a rigid path, then unraveling. When filmmakers trust the audience to process, genius characters with seemingly impenetrable intellects can be built up and torn down in the same way. For all of its schmaltz, A Beautiful Mind draws a line between John Nash’s Nobel Prize–winning game theory — first proposed when the mathematician and his college buddies eye up a woman at a bar — and his eventual paranoid schizophrenia. It’s always the same number-crunching brain at work. The Social Network is basically Malcolm’s chaos theory story stretched over two hours. Aaron Sorkin’s version of Mark Zuckerberg forms and manipulates relationships like they’re bits of code. In the scene in which Zuckerberg creates “Facemash,” David Fincher frames a scribbled algorithm that quickly fractals into real-world implications. There’s no line between science and people.
Nesting a towering Turing machine beside Cumberbatch in nearly every sequence of The Imitation Game allows director Morten Tyldum to skim the surface of that connection. Turing’s mind cranks like the gears of his proto-computer. What the organic and artificial intelligences are actually working through remains mystifying — one walks out of The Imitation Game with only a vague notion of the Turing machine’s visually stimulating mechanics or how it ultimately ended World War II. Not biting the bullet and Mr. DNA–ing the explanation leaves a lingering question: Why is Turing a genius? Cumberbatch’s off-kilter physicality only goes so far.
There’s even less room for Hawking’s brilliance in The Theory of Everything, a compelling timeline of the cosmologist’s blossoming and wilting romance with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). We meet Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) as he’s concocting a new theory on black holes3 and the origins of the universe. What exactly that means trickles off into the background. Director James Marsh feeds us a few moments of Hawking charm and brilliance: To woo his future wife, the PhD candidate explains why men’s laundered-and-pressed white shirts glow brighter than the girls’ white dresses under the UV light (answer: Tide washing powder). If Tide was a commonly found element in the darkness of space, it would be a Malcolmian pickup line that spoke to the scientist’s career-long pursuits. Instead, The Theory of Everything sidesteps the science — the explanation — in favor of the Hawking we know on the outside, coping with a motor neuron disease. When he publishes A Brief History of Time, it’s like magic.
Ernest Hemingway decried exposition. He became the face of the “show, don’t tell” credo when he wrote this in Death in the Afternoon: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Great stories require that frozen crest creeping out of the water. Jurassic Park endures because it dares to spend one-eighth of its time “telling.” For 2014’s science-themed movies to do the same is an arduous task — whatever the story, their scope stretches beyond the screen and into the vastness of the Internet, a shared knowledge. There’s no telling how big that iceberg is and how much it should reveal. Where’s Mr. DNA when you need him?
Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work has been featured on Vulture, VanityFair.com, and The Hollywood Reporter.