When consuming a narrative (especially a movie), I’m frequently torn about how close to examine its internal consistency. By consistency, I mean: does the world and plot stand up to close analysis; are the internal laws and logic upheld or are there emergent contradictions? TV Tropes has relevant pages on types of Consistency and Fridge Logic.
Successful films (and other media) exist across of broad spectrum of consistency. Some great films are horribly inconsistent and some hold up to rigorous scrutiny. However I think there’s a gap where films can get into trouble - an uncanny valley for consistency. I’m okay with both types of movies but I get frustrated when a movie sets out to be consistent yet contains major contradictions.
A well constructed world / plot suggests even greater richness waiting just off camera. It invites us to make inferences from small details and speculate at the interactions of characters and institutions independent of the main plot. These rich worlds also encourage us to speculate about future plot developments as they should follow logically from what we already know about the world and the plot.
Inconsistent and contradictory worlds and stories can work well too, beyond as just post-modern explorations. If the focus is all on the characters, the author can just hand-wave contradictions away and the audience won’t think twice. The movie Looper contained time travel but was all about the characters and their choices. The film directly addresses the paradoxes in a few sharp lines:
This time travel crap, just fries your brain like a egg…
I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.
I recently watched Interstellar and it’s the inspiration for this post. I enjoyed the movie and found it visually stunning but I had some serious issues with the world building and plotting. I’ll avoid any big spoilers but certain explanations for why events were happening felt deeply flawed and didn’t hold up on closer inspection. The real problem I have is that the movie seems to be trying hard to be consistent. It spends a lot of time on world building and seems to strive to get the science right - they employed a physicist as consultant for the film. That just makes it more of a let down when they introduce paradoxes and other flaws appear.
I remember walking out of Inception feeling the same way. I loved the overall feel of the movie but left the theater frustrated that the film contained many logical contradictions. All of the these can be explained away by assuming the whole movie was within a dream but that’s much less satisfying.
Complicated yet consistent narratives can be a delightful puzzle, a challenge from the author to viewer. If puzzle turns out to be broken and unsolvable, it’s terribly unsatisfying. I think Interstellar would have been much better if the writers had used much more handwaving rather than trying to set up a consistent world in the first place - then there wouldn’t have been the let down and the flaws would not have mattered.