Why 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 hand, 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.
At 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.
Theory 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.