Love In Time of Science: “Interstellar” vs “Theory of Everything”

unnamedWhy on earth are we comparing a space science-fiction epic with a period romance melodrama  you ask? Simple: both Interstellar and Theory of Everything came out this weekend trying to tread the thematic tight rope between human story and scientific ideas.

For those of you who don’t know, Interstellar tells the story of a former astronaut-turned-farmer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who travels to the edges of space on a dangerous mission to save humanity. Theory of Everything, on the other unnamed-1hand, chronicles the tumultuous romantic relationship between famed Cambridge physicist, Stephen Hawking, and the love of his life, Jane Wilde (Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, respectively).

Firstly: you should go see both. The performances alone are reason enough to justify a ticket for Theory of Everything, with Redmayne’s Hawking being the stuff that Oscar gold is made of. Likewise, Interstellar boasts one of the most immersive story telling experiences since Avatar, marked by stunning visuals and performances that manage to keep up – Jessica Chastain’s brooding turn as Cooper’s estranged daughter is particularly compelling.

unnamed-2At the core of these widely different films though is a single thematic concern: the interplay of science and love. Both films spend a considerable amount of their running time examining love in the context of scientific pursuit.

For Interstellar, this concern manifests itself primarily in the relationship between Cooper and his daughter Murph, who is both his reason for going and the source of his guilt for doing so. At its most cosmic, Interstellar asks the question of whether or not love can transcend the barriers of space and time, and if so, what that love looks like. On its most practical level though, it examines the conflict between one’s duty to science (and by extension, humanity) and one’s dedication to their family. Ultimately, without giving away too many details, the film’s answers are somewhat overly sentimental – resulting in an emotional resolution that is satisfactory though not perhaps as cathartic as the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, might have hoped.

unnamed-3Theory of Everything, though not dealing with love on such a macro scale, similarly examines if and how science and romance can co-exist. Ironically, it is not the physical handicap that presents the most obstacles to Stephen and Jane’s relationship, but rather Stephen’s academic pursuits and subsequent fame as physicist. In this way, the film questions whether the demands of science and one’s commitment to its tenants allow for a romantic relationship. The issue of the existence of God, for example, is one of particular importance to the couple who are divided along the lines of faith – Jane an Anglican Christian and Stephen an agnostic. Again without spoiling too much, Theory of Everything’s conclusion proffers quite satisfyingly that regardless of whether in science or in love – its the tangibles that count.

Part of the reason that Theory of Everything balances science and human emotion somewhat more convincingly than Interstellar would be perhaps because the film makes a point of not weighing itself down in the tech.

Interstellar, at its core, is about science in the context of love. Theory of Everything is about love in the context of science.

It’s this distinction that gives Theory of Everything the human edge over Interstellar. That’s not to say Interstellar’s human story isn’t compelling – its the very impetus of the film. But by its inherent nature as a space epic, Interstellar more interested in using its human elements to explore the larger questions of science than allowing them to take center stage.

Ultimately, both Theory of Everything and Interstellar ask big questions about love, science, and where we fit into all of it. And as stated before: both films are well worth the price of admission. But where Interstellar asks you to gaze up at the stars in wonder, Theory of Everything asks to train that same awe-inspired gaze at the person right next to you.

The One I Love & About Time: How Sci-Fi Is Saving The Rom-Com

It’s no secret that the Rom-Com has become a tired genre. With the notable exception of David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, there have been few straight romantic-comedies in recent years to make a significant cultural (and box-office) impact. On a more tangible level, the genre has simply become repetitive, relying on the same narrative tropes and comedic cliches that brought the rom-com to prominence back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. As much as we all might love When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle, we moviegoers can only tolerate clones of these films for so long.

Midnight in Paris

What, then, is left for the romantic-comedy, if audiences have become anesthetized to its charms and conventions? How can the genre reinvigorate itself in the face of movie-goers who have seemingly gone and seen it all? Like a noble family with an empty bank account, the rom-com has opted to marry itself off to another genre. And the results have been impressive (and surprising) to say the least. The suitor? Perhaps the most unlikely genre imaginable: the science-fiction film.

The union began in 2011 with Woody Allen’s time-warping wonder Midnight in Paris in which a discouraged writer inadvertently travels back to 1920’s Paris, encountering an enchanting Parisian art-lover along with the famed artists of the era. The film was a critical and box office hit, in part, because of its unorthodox, Twilight Zone-esque twist on the romantic comedy. The high profile success of the film has inspired a wave of similarly situated, sci-fi-rom-com hybrids that are breathing fresh life into a genre that has been weighed down by its own conventions and structures. Films like Warm Bodies or Safety Not Guaranteed for example, which have tentatively explored the realm between science fiction and romantic comedy (or in the case of Warm Bodies, romantic comedy in science fiction). Over the last year, however, this hybrid genre has come into its own right, solidifying its unique strengths as well as its position in the film market.

The One I Love

Take, for instance, the recently released independent film The One I Love. Directed by first time director Charlie McDowell, the film follows an estranged couple, played by Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss, who go on a weekend trip to the Ojai Valley to try and reignite their passion for one another. Without spoiling too much (the film is still in theaters and everyone should go see it), the trip takes a dark, supernatural turn when the couple discover that their guest-house is not all that it appears to be.

It’s difficult to talk about the film without ruining its appeal, but it can safely be said that the film’s brilliance comes from the way in which it offers up certain conventions of the rom-com genre, asking both the audience and the film’s characters to decide whether the idealized narrative of the rom-com is ever actually in their the best interest. This examination is only made possible through the film’s bizarre, science-fiction-ified set-up.

About Time

Another recent romantic-comedy hybrid would be 2013’s About Time, the story of an awkward English lawyer, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), who learns that the men in his family have the uncanny ability to travel back in time. The film centers around Tim’s romance with the independent but adorable Mary (Rachel McAdams) and his fumbling attempts to use his ability to help shape the life that he dreams of having.

Rather than simply setting a romantic comedy within these unusual circumstances, the film utilizes its science-fiction elements to subvert the tropes of the rom-com itself. For example, Tim and Marry initially have the classic ‘meet cute’ introduction, in which the two share an adorable, chemistry-laden first encounter. This ‘meet cute’ however is inadvertently erased by Tim’s own meddling with time, resulting in a second, disastrous ‘first’ meeting that is anything but cute. By subverting this convention, as well as several others, About Time manages to inject fresh blood into a premise that has otherwise been played out – i.e. the awkward guy who just wants to get the girl. Interestingly, the film was written and directed by rom-com veteran Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually), proving that the hybridization of the genre has moved out of just the independent film market and well into the mainstream.

If About Time and The One I Love are any indication, then sci-fi is shaping up to be the unlikely savior of the rom-com, reinvigorating the genre’s tired tropes and helping it reconnect with jaded audiences. Its almost ironic that the redemption of the romantic-comedy is playing out just like one of its own cliched plots: an unlikely couple, thrust together, learn to need one another. In this case,it’s one cliche we can all be happy about.