There were moments in watching Interstellar where I was at the edge of my seat – but not quite in the way that you would expect. These were moments where the movie had the possibility of derailing itself by making the plot take one of the many dumb turns that space movies often take. The fact that it didn’t, and that my critiques of it are limited more to smaller details, is something of a minor miracle. Most movies of this ilk follow the path of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where some of the individual ideas and art direction are interesting, but the overall product is pretentious crappolla.
Anyway, Interstellar is a hard science fiction film directed by Christopher Nolan, set in the near future where ecological disaster is quickly rendering the Earth uninhabitable. The mysterious appearance of a wormhole in the solar system gives NASA the opportunity to send manned probes through it in the hopes of finding a planet capable of sustaining human life. A followup mission is sent to recover the data from the three probes that turned up positive so that either a) the information recorded from the black hole on the other side will lead to the development of propulsion technology capable of getting large colonies off of earth, or b) the mission crew will restart the human race on one of the planets by way of reproductive technologies.
Matthew McConaughey is Cooper – the man recruited to be the pilot for the mission. His determination in the mission springs from his desire to save, and eventually be reunited with, his daughter, Murphy. Indeed, this relationship is really the crux of Interstellar; in spite of a plot implicating the fate of all humanity, the movie is more concerned with the nature of the relationships which come to define us, and whether the people we love can and should be sacrificed for the greater good, if the circumstances are grave enough. But this, of course, feeds into a more cosmic question which the film implies: are we creatures meant to be oriented towards the true and the good, or are the things that are important to us merely byproducts of evolution which natural selection, being utterly indifferent to things transcendent, may one day prune away from us?
The Matt Damon effect
This is the first thing that Interstellar gets right – the human drama rings true. Few movies are interested in aping 2001’s icy post-humanism, but so many feel weirdly constrained by the genre, seeing deep space as a setting best used for recycling thriller/suspense tropes ad nauseam. Interstellar rather feels more like a melancholy western about pioneers braving the elements for the people they love – in particular I found myself thinking about John Ford’s The Searchers, which is similarly animated by a man in pursuit of a niece he has seemingly lost.
Case in point: around the middle of the movie, the crew must investigate a planet which is close enough to the black hole to produce a time dilation where one hour on the planet will be roughly equal to seven years outside it. Planning an investigation that will cost them only two years, they leave one crew member, Romilly, behind on the space station to continue studying the black hole. As you might imagine, catastrophe hits and the crew gets detained on the planet’s surface for longer than anticipated. By the time they make it back to the ship, over two decades have passed.
A lesser film would have had Romilly snap under the weight of isolation. Indeed, previous scenes indicate that he has difficulty adapting to space life. It would be easy to draw some tension over the crew dealing with a madman who has had access to vital equipment for years. It would be easy and possibly exciting, but in the end, just a meaningless case of cabin fever. Instead Romilly turns out to be just a tad more laconic and spaced out.
Interstellar instead saves the insanity subplot for Dr. Mann, whose probe landed on the second planet the crew investigates. As it turns out, Mann’s planet is uninhabitable. Mann, knowing that the only way he could possibly be rescued is if he were to broadcast a positive signal, gives in to the temptation. When Cooper finds out that he has been lying, he attempts to maroon the crew on the planet and take the space station for himself.
This is more compelling: Mann, who is described earlier in the film as, “the best of us,” was called to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of humanity. But he always had the opportunity by making a false move that would put the species at risk. In these circumstances of isolation, ‘humanity’ seems increasingly like this vague abstraction in comparison to one’s own life. Mann ultimately chooses survival at the expense of his own humanity, and the movie heavily implies that this decision is abetted by the fact that, unlike Cooper, he has no particular attachments or relationships that ground him.
Mann’s predicament is a sympathetic one, and it serves to reinforce the broader themes of the film.
Or consider the plot twist that the crew was never seriously supposed to save the humans on Earth. All that was a lie meant to motivate them to get off the Earth and start a colony elsewhere. In a lesser film, this would be the final twist. The film would either end on a note of tragic disillusionment as the crew accepts their grim destiny, or the film would pull a massive deus-ex-machina to avert the situation.
Now, Interstellar does feature an unlikely, near-miraculous solution to the problem. Cooper falls into the black hole and winds up in a tesseract constructed by the beings who created the wormhole. There he realizes that gravity is a force that can move through time, and uses binary and morse code to communicate with his daughter in the past, giving her the information she needs to get the race off of Earth.
But this isn’t a Deus Ex Machina: for one, it is within the realm of the possible that the film establishes. But perhaps more importantly, the film has thematically been pushing for this conclusion.
To get to that, it’s worth making a bit of a philosophical detour.
Incomplete Explanations and Intentionality
In a critical scene, Cooper discusses the nature of love with his fellow crew member Brand. Brand claims that love is something transcendent and objective. Cooper takes the view that it is a biological function which has a survival utility to it.
This brushes over a more general philosophical issue.
Unlike other phenomena, human thought and action has a characteristic which is unique to them: intentionality. This is a fancy way of saying that they are ‘about’ something. A rock is not ‘about’ something, but a thought is always a thought ‘about’ something, and a deliberately chosen action always has an object that it is ‘about’. So there are two orders of explanation that must be taken into account here: the causal explanation of the thought/action and the intentional explanation.
To give an example: say I’m reading a book, and spontaneously have a thought about my father. The causal explanation would be to say that something I read jogged my memory, prompting the thought. Perhaps one of the characters is similar to him. We can further refine this explanation by going into the details of all the perceptual/cognitive/physiological factors in play here. But this explanation will not serve to answer the questions of what my thought is about, whether the thing it is about is real or not, and what its nature is.
Or to put it in the terms that Gottlob Frege used in his book, The Foundations of Arithmetic: a psychological explanation for why humans believe that 1+1=2 does not replace a mathematical explanation of it. It does not give you any insight into the nature of numbers.
Any explanation of human thought and action which does not take into account the intentional content of these things is by its nature incomplete. And it does not suffice as an evaluation of truth or falsehood or moral good or evil, of this content. Its explanation may be a true one, but it only covers one aspect of the phenomenon in question.
The attempt to explain human behavior purely in terms of evolutionary psychology represents a massive failure to recognize this. Most important and characteristic human behavior does not have, as its intentional content, sociobiological utility. While getting married and having kids helps to maintain the population, and while there are deep biological impulses behind this behavior, it would strike us as really weird and mercenary if someone did this merely because of its social utility. What the actions of the spouses mean is something that supervenes on the biological reality that makes the actions possible.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Brand’s views are vindicated. It just means that a good explanation is one that takes into account the intentional world that humans actually live in, much like how an analysis of a piece of music must take into account questions of compositional structure in addition to the ‘physical’ reality of pitch, duration, etc.
But implicit also are more deeper consequences: if human/personalist goods are merely a function of utility, which is what really matters, then they can be sacrificed when they are no longer contribute to that utility.
More deeper still, what is useful for survival is not the same as what is true and good. Natural selection favors those traits that are conducive to reproduction and survival. While it is the case that having a decent grip on reality will likely increase your chances of surviving and producing offspring, to take this as the sole explanation of or desire to know is to say that our relationship with the truth is fundamentally incidental – and conditional. If survival should need to come at the expense of truth, then there’s no real reason for not biting the bullet. Actually, given that in this case our intellectual faculties are developed primarily for survival rather than truth, there is no epistemological guarantee that our notion of ‘truth’ is actually a kind of self-projection rather than anything real.
This is really the great insight of Friedrich Nietzsche. As he writes in Beyond Good and Evil,
The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment; in this respect our new language may sound strangest. The question is to what extent it is life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating. And we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgments (which include the synthetic judgments a priori) are the most indispensable for us; that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world by means of numbers, man could not live – that renouncing false judgments would mean renouncing life and a denial of life. To recognize untruth as a condition of life – that certainly means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil.
His epistemological nihilism is the logical endpoint of the hardcore Darwinian and utilitarian theories of human nature that have been in vogue (although he would couch it more in terms of power dynamics). The only way to get out of the rut is to claim human nature has capacities that are not merely the result of natural selection at work.
You can do this without taking a turn towards the supernatural: Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos offers a good example of a secular approach (I’d still argue that classical theism provides the most convincing explanation, though). Anyway, this is why I stated near the beginning that Interstellar is concerned with the fundamental orientation of humanity.
The opening portion of the film shows a society which has forsaken truth. History textbooks are deliberately falsified in order to keep the population complacent and willing to live out their lives as farmers. The mission seems to represent a trajectory away from this. But the later revelation that it was carried out under false pretenses drives home that the mission really represents the perpetuation of this situation where survival is chosen over truth.
Thus things become a question, not just of whether humanity will survive, but more fundamentally what vision of humanity will be passed on. Interstellar ultimately wants to vindicate Brand’s views about the transcendent capacities of humanity. But, humans have fallen away from this vision. They are in need not just of survival, but of redemption.
Thus in order to be thematically consistent, the truly efficacious solution has to be the result of an act of gratuitous love. Cooper, throwing himself into the black hole so that the mission can succeed, symbolically renews humanity as he saves it. The love between him and his daughter becomes the ground zero of the New Earth. Call it sentimental and unlikely, but I don’t think you could change it without doing violence to the overarching themes.
All this goes towards explaining why I found Interstellar to be one of the most compelling sci-fi flicks I’ve seen in a while. It uses its large canvas to explore basic questions of what it means to be human.
The above screenshot almost looks more at home in an 80s or early 90s movie, and in a good way.
If there is one area of Interstellar that directly matches up with 2001, it is that they both are unusually effective in making space feel real. A large amount of this derives from their commitment to allow most of their aesthetic decisions to be shaped by the constraints of the hardest of hard sci-fi. The next time you watch 2001, pay attention to how amazing the sound design is.
In Interstellar’s case, there is an even more rudimentary reason: it relies more on sets, models and on-location filming than on CG. Things actually look like they have some substance to them. As icing on the cake, the movie was shot with actual film stock, giving it that now nostalgic texture that movies used to have.
When I think about it, it’s kinda weird that I now look upon these things as unexpected luxuries in a major motion picture.
And I totally want that robot.