On Interstellar, 'plot holes,' and letting stories be themselves

There's a lot of debate surrounding Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, and one particular point isn't just about this film, but about the way we see storytelling.

SPOILERS for Interstellar follow. 

I know, I know, another Interstellar think piece. You're sick of these by now, right? Well, I promise, I'm largely using Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic here as a jumping-off point to get to something bigger, something that bugs me about the way we look at stories that just happened to resurface as reactions to this film began to populate the Internet. For the record, I quite liked Interstellar. I've seen it twice now and that feeling holds up. It dazzled me, thrilled me, and made me care about the characters, but I do acknowledge it's not a movie without flaws. Like a lot of Nolan's films, it feels a bit too self-serious, a bit too pleased with its own cleverness, and a bit too heavy-handed with its themes (how many times can you hear the same Dylan Thomas poem in one movie, I ask you?). I acknowledge these flaws, I'm willing to hear about potential others, and I've read some great pieces over the last week that were both highly critical of Nolan's film and solid pieces of thinking in their own right.

I mention that because Nolan is one of those directors (I'd argue David Fincher is also one, and Paul Thomas Anderson is another) who inspires an almost battle-line way of thinking when it comes to the reaction to their films. For some people, Nolan's been a genius since The Dark Knight, and he always will be. For others, he's a popcorn director masquerading as an auteur. For me, he's a guy who makes good movies that can sometimes be great and sometimes be a little crumbly around the edges. I want you to know that upfront, because this is neither a defense nor a condemnation of Christopher Nolan and his work. I'm after something else, and it just so happens that Interstellar is what sparked it. 

In the days after Interstellar was released, the inevitable "look at all the plot holes" pieces started to pop up on the Internet, and while some of those pieces have legitimate gripes about the film, they're also filled with gems like this, from Entertainment Weekly

"Wouldn’t it have been way better for Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to just send the super-robots?"

And then there's this one, from Vulture:

"Who would have been the spaceship pilot if Cooper hadn't shown up? Would NASA have called him eventually? It seems weird to entrust the future of humanity with a semi-random trespasser."

And another, also from EW: 

"Did anybody else get the impression if Mann just would have opened with, 'Sorry about the pings, I was crazy lonely and going nuts,' the other astronauts would have thought he was super unprofessional, but still let him tag along to the next planet?"

There are even smaller nits picked in both of those pieces -- one of them complains that the aged Michael Caine simply doesn't look old enough -- but these questions stuck with me, because they're not actually "plot holes," and at least two of them are readily and easily explained by the characters and the story itself. A "plot hole" is exactly what it sounds like: Something missing from the plot that helps the story make sense. Imagine, for example, that Romilly hadn't explained time-stretching relativity to Brand and Cooper before they went to the water planet, and then when they got back he was 23 years older and they just went on with the movie. That's a plot hole. These complaints, on the other hand, are "Why didn't the character(s) just do this? It's what I would have done if I were placed in the same totally crazy and unreasonable situation. I know exactly how I'd behave in a spaceship that's through a wormhole in another galaxy and the future of the human race is at stake."

I see this kind of thinking all the time. I hear it when I walk out of crowded movie theaters, read about it in Internet thinkpieces, see it on popular YouTube channels, and hell, I've probably been guilty of it a few times myself, but it infuriates me. It infuriates me because it comes from a way of thinking that's less about experiencing a story as its creators tell it to you and more about proving you're smarter than the movie. It's playing backseat driver to characters who are, in the best case scenario, supposed to feel like living, breathing, fallible humans in their own right. It's looking at stories like they're equations.

Stories -- the good ones, anyway -- aren't logic puzzles that you're supposed to unravel after you've seen or read or heard them. Characters aren't therapy patients you're supposed to fix by reverse-engineering their decision-making.  Dr. Mann, it's made quite clear, is not reasonable by the time he wakes up from hibernation, so why expect him to make reasonable choices? Why expect Professor Brand to send robots to do a job he has faith in his own daughter to do better? Characters, like us, make choices in the context of a story, and they're not always the right ones. If they were, the stories would be uninteresting tributes to rationalism, bloodless icons of agreeability. If you're perplexed or even infuriated by a choice a character makes, follow that feeling. It's part of the story. You're not supposed to always agree with them. You're supposed to find out what happens next.

So, instead of spending the length of a movie trying to make the case for why you'd be a far better pilot for an interstellar mission, just let the story be itself. You'll have more fun, I promise. 

More from around the web