Movies and novels are two very different mediums of story telling. Some great novels don’t necessarily translate into great movies. And some great movies would not necessarily make a great novels. But despite the obvious differences in the medium, there is a lot a novelist can learn about storytelling from the analysing the story elements of a movie.
Just consider the huge resources that are invested in a new movie. First, the time spent by numerous script writers writing and re-writing the treatment and script before a single minute is filmed. Secondly, time spent directing every scene and shot in production. And lastly, the time spent honing every scene in post production process. Contrast that with the role of the novelist who mostly relies on his own writing skills for story development, supplemented in some cases by input from an agent and editor.
As someone who loves Sci-Fi movies, I couldn’t wait to get hold of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar for my Blu-ray library. It’s a movie with an interesting story-line, great actors and cinematic technique. But for me it was let down by an unbelievable ending.
Of course, with all story telling the writer expects the reader or audience to suspend belief about the story worlds they create. For example, writers build fantasy worlds where magic, vampires and other mythic creatures roam, and future worlds where science has changed our technologies. And we are all prepared to accept these worlds. But having built that world the writer cannot change the rules of how that world behaves without their readers or audience feeling cheated.
Below is a very short synopsis of the Interstellar story-line. A more detailed synopsis of Interstellar can be found on Wikipedia.
The world of interstellar is set in a failing agrarian society where crop blight is threatening the future of civilisation. Cooper is a former Nasa astronaut who runs a farm with his teenage son, ten-year old daughter (Murph) and father in law. Murph believes her room is haunted by a poltergeist, but a message in dust is from an unkown intelligence that gives them the coordinates to a secret Nasa installation. Here Cooper meets Dr Brand, one of Cooper’s former college professors.
Brand reveals that a wormhole, created by an advance alien civilisation, has opened near Saturn and leads to three new planets in another galaxy near to a massive black hole (Gargantuan.) Three missions have already been sent to these planets to collect data about their suitability as a potential new home for humanity.
Brand recruits Cooper to pilot a mission to recover the data from the earlier missions, while he continues to work on a gravity propulsion system to send humanity to space stations for transit to one of the planets (Plan A). In the event that Plan A fails, Cooper’s craft would carry 5,000 frozen embryos to repopulate humanity on one of the planets.
Cooper’s crew consists of Brand’s daughter (Amelia), two scientist (Romilly and Doyle) and robots (TARS and CASE). They travel for two years onboard Endurance to Saturn, and then travel through the wormhole.The first planet they visit (Miller) is covered in a shallow ocean and the crew to the previous mission are dead. As they attempt to recover the data an enormous wave kills Doyle.
The second planet they visit is a frozen world with a poisonous atmosphere. Mann, from the first mission, faked the data he sent back to draw them there to rescue him. He breaks Cooper’s visor leaving him for dead, kills Romilly with a bomb and flees in the shuttle. Amelia rescues Cooper in a cargo shuttle. Mann is killed trying to make an unauthorised docking with Endurance when the airlock fails to seal, and the Endurance is sent into a spin. Cooper docks the cargo shuttle with the spinning Endurance and stabilises it.
At this stage the Endurance is nearly out of fuel and Amelia and Cooper plan to slingshot Endurance to the third planet (Edmunds) using the gravitational force of Gargantuan. Cooper and Tars sacrifice themselves casting off in the shuttle into the black hole and propelling Amelia’s ship faster by reducing the ship’s mass.
It is at this point that the storyline becomes somewhat unbelievable. Cooper’s shuttle is torn apart by the gravitational forces of the black hole, but the same forces don’t tear Cooper and TARS to bits. Instead they are ejected into a tesseract – a five dimensional space created by a future human civilisation. Inside the tesseract Cooper can see into Murph’s bedroom and communicate with her using gravity. (He was the poltergeist at the start fo the movie). He then communicates the data about gravity collected by Tars through morse code by manipulating the second-hand on a watch he gave to Murph.(Space Magic!)
Having finished his message, the tesseract collapses, and he finds himself traveling back through a wormhole only to be woken up onboard a space station after being found floating around Saturn.(More Space Magic!).
Here he reunites with Murph. As many Earth years’ have now passed (due to the effects of special relativity), Murph is now elderly and on her deathbed. Having fulfilled his desire to reunite with his daughter, Murp convinces him to leave and join Amelia and CASE on Edmunds planet. Cooper takes a Nasa shuttle and leaves for Edmunds.
My simple question is how can someone survive a blackhole in a distant galaxy and then find themselves spat out of the hole near Saturn? Even if they were, what are the chances of anyone finding a single man in a space suit floating in the billions of square miles of space? It’s like winning every Lotto draw since it was first set up. It’s too improbable.
Does the improbable ending ruin the movie? Well that’s for you to decide. I have to say, for me it delivered an emotionally satisfying ending to see Cooper succeed, even though it stretched all bounds of credibility.
Often as writers we put our characters through hell for the purpose of a good story. Often that means getting that character into a position where it is almost impossible to survive without extreme determination and fortitude. The emotional payoff is seeing them succeed against the odds.
If you were writing the ending of Interstellar, how would you have got Cooper and Amelia out of their predicament or would the ending require a whole knew begining to the story?