‘Interstellar’, ‘Arrival’ and Sci-Fi: When Fiction Meets Reality

Science fiction is a genre that has absolutely no limitations. From the fun adventures of Star Wars (1977), to heart-breaking romances such as Her (2013) and gruelling horrors like Alien (1979), these films couldn’t differ from each other more if they tried. Some sci-fi films are about space wars rooted in hope, some are about the possibilities of technology and some are about the creatures that exist beyond our realm, but they all have one thing in common: that they are, for the most part, detached from reality. Although a large portion of sci-fi movies deal with human nature and there are always aspects of realness to be discussed within them, they are almost always never in the same world that we are – not just literally in the sense of Earth, but also in the sense of time and nature. This is the reason sci-fi is my favourite genre to watch, because nothing is restricted, the possibilities are endless.

Interstellar (2014) and Arrival (2016) are both known for playing with the unknown and the idea of nothing being off limits. They both explore the idea of time, how it restricts us and how it could possibly benefit us, and are both rooted undeniably more fiction than anything else. As extraordinary and entertaining as these parts are, the thing that makes these films so special is their attachment to reality. In some cases, sci-fi, a genre that is so focused on taking us out of real life, works even better when real life is one of the fundamental aspects of the story. While greater forces being a threat to humanity is the main narrative, sometimes the love between a father and a daughter will be what stays with you after the credits roll.

Interstellar (2014) 

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is set in 2060 Earth, where over half of the population has been wiped out by disasters, famines and droughts. The story follows Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), is an ex-science engineer and pilot who lives on a farm with his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain) and son Tom (Timothee Chalamet, Casey Affleck). People, including Cooper, begin to realise that very soon Earth is not going to be sustainable for human life as food is beginning to run out. Through coordinates found by his daughter Murph (which she believes were placed there by a ghost), Cooper stumbles upon a N.A.S.A. base, which eventually leads to him being asked to go on a dangerous mission with other scientists to find another planet for humans to live on. The only way to do this is through interstellar travel.

A wormhole has been discovered by N.A.S.A., which they believe was put there by someone or something referred to as ‘they’, and it allows astronauts to explore places in the solar system that have never been explored before. Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who is in charge of this mission, tells Cooper that although the main goal is to save the present human race, this may not be possible without a completed equation and so they have a plan B in place which includes taking stem cells to the planet and preparing for the future human race. Cooper, being a father and heroic figure, is determined to make Plan A work. He is faced with the difficult decision of leaving his children behind to save humanity. He doesn’t know how long he is going to be gone for and this doesn’t sit well with his young daughter Murph, who begs him to stay. Putting the safety of humanity first, Cooper leaves and embarks on his mission to find a new planet. After travelling through the solar system for years, encountering a lot of problems along the way and failing to achieve plan A, Cooper ends up falling down what seems like a trippy endless void. He’s informed that this is actually time represented as a physical dimension, which has been placed there by ultra-advanced human beings. Throughout this film, time has been one of the only things that cannot be controlled, but now Cooper finds himself in a place where he can use it to his advantage. He is able to use this dimension to transfer data to his daughter Murph in the past, that she will understand the significance of in the present, in order to save the future. This is used to solve the gravity equation and ensure that plan A can be achieved, and humanity can be saved. So, it turns out that Murph’s ‘ghost’ was actually her dad and the ultra-advanced beings were actually the human race helping Cooper from the future. 

Arrival (2016) 

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival opens with Louise (Amy Adams) playing with her daughter in a heart-warming scene. Through our general knowledge on storytelling and structure we can only assume that this is a flashback because of how it is presented. As the scene continues, we see Louise’s daughter grow up and very sadly fall victim to cancer which takes her life. We are then taken Louise at work, something we presume is occurring after the opening scene. It is then revealed on the news that aliens have landed on earth. Because Louise is a linguist she has been given the job of trying to understand their language, so that she can find out why they are here, before the military begin to take control. Louise and her scientist comrade Ian (Jeremy Renner) spend a lot of time talking to the aliens, understanding their written language and helping them understand ours. As Louise’s understanding of the aliens develops, we also see her having more flashbacks about her daughter. More about her daughter is revealed and we find out that her father left because Louise told him something that he didn’t like. Louise at one point states that “language defines the way our mind perceives the world around us”, meaning that humans think in a sequence, so our language is sequenced, which helps us differentiate between the past, present and future. When it comes to the aliens, however, they do not use language like us. To them, time is non-linear so they know about the past, present and the future. Because Louise is gradually beginning to understand the language of the aliens, it is revealed to us that this has given her the ability to also view time in a non-linear fashion. So, it turns out that what we thought were flashbacks of her daughter were actually flash-forwards. Louise’s daughter isn’t born yet, but Louise knows she is going to be, and she also holds the burden of knowing she is going to lose her. Her daughters’ father turns out to be Ian, who leaves because he can’t handle the information of his daughters passing. It is revealed that the aliens are here because they are going to need help from human beings in the far future, so they help them save the present. Louise is able to use her memories to convince authorities to call off a nuclear strike, by using information that could only be known from the future. 

Where the lines blur

If you’ve never seen Interstellar and just read that plot break down, you’re probably very confused. Even if you’ve seen Interstellar multiple times, your brain is still probably hurting. It’s a very complex film and if you looked at it with a quick glance it would be nothing more than a load of science and physics stuff that an average viewer doesn’t understand. However, when you take your time to really indulge, Interstellar isn’t just a typical sci-fi movie about space and aliens, but instead is about love – something that we all understand. It’s about how love transcends time, reality and space. While the general plot of Interstellar is saving humanity, the relationship between Cooper and his daughter ends up being the one thing that sticks with you. Amongst the stars, solar system and a billion other planets, it’s still basic human nature that we cling onto. 

Arrival is also a confusing premise, completely bending anything that we know about general storytelling, language and time. It contains one of the biggest draws in the sci-fi genre: aliens. Just like Interstellar, it is about mind-blowing concepts like time travel. However, just like Interstellar, this isn’t what leaves you thinking about Arrival. The thing that sticks with you after Arrival is the relationship between a mother and a daughter, and watching a mother face the inevitability of her daughters passing. Once again, this takes our own personal reality and transfers it over to sci-fi heaven. 

Interstellar and Arrival both take us out of reality, showing us things that are impossible in the world we live in. They present things that the sci-fi genre has been defined by, like space, spaceships and aliens. They both have incredible, other worldly visuals that take your breath away. Yet despite all the epic ideas that we have been taught to gasp at by other films in this genre, the thing we care most about is reality – the things that are not restricted to us at all. While both films are about time, language and space, they are also about the love between a parent and a child. While these films still have the fictional advantage of taking you to another world, they also bring our humanity with us. When you take a genre that consists of things like lightsabers, flying cars and evil monsters, and mix it with emotions, compassion and loss, it hits 20 times harder. The reason Interstellar and Arrival are so special is because they battle with restrictions while also keeping the fundamental elements of what make us human in place. They create a whole new reality, only to transfer it over to our own.