Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Politics of: Interstellar

Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar is in theaters now. What are its politics? The first section reviews the movie--the second assumes you have seen it (spoilers!).

It's hard to talk too much about Interstellar without spoiling it: it was filmed with baked-in secrecy and even major plot points were held at bay. What you know from the trailer, though, is this: at some point in the future, Earth is dying. Matthew McConaughey is selected to go on an interstellar mission to try and save humanity.

He must leave behind his family and his farm house to go into the depths of space where he will see amazing things and, you know, maybe die ... or not. The movie delivers on all these points--sometimes in a surprising way (McConaughey is not employed as an astronaut in the beginning of the movie--and there is no sign of the space program).

People have criticized (and lauded) the science of Interstellar. To be certain: it isn't a "hard science" narrative even if it kind of looks like it might be one. It does things with black holes, for example, and time-dilation, that seem improbably to the non-astrophysicist eye. On the other hand, it did have theoretical physicist Kip Thorne on-board--so who knows. In any event, the problems are not primarily with the science.

The movie is emotional--and emotionally manipulative--without perhaps having a great deal to say about its topics (love, death, family). That might be because there isn't much to say (would you go on a mission that would mean you'd probably never see your children again? To maybe save them--to save humanity? Uh--yes, and it would suck.). It gives us hardships that are seen in passing inviting us to either not care or possibly care more than the movie deserves (the asthma-ridden boy whose father won't abandon their dust-bowl farm house is a primary one here).

On the other hand, it's a stunning visual ride. If Nolan got the physics of time-dilation wrong, at least he got the look of a super-massive black-hole right. His robots are some of the most personable in sci-fi history and some of the strangest in design. When he has clouds of ominous dust threaten the farm house it really does look like how you'd expect the end of the world to look.

But in the end, it's not as unconventional as it appears. There are patterns to these kinds of movies--in Sunshine (humanities last-ditch attempt to save humanity by stopping the sun from going out) we have a delusion-induced mass murderer for them to fight. In 2001, which notably wasn't about saving humanity, we get a psychotic AI. Usually, in deep space, the vast vacuum, solar radiation, and meteor showers aren't quite enough to make it to the silver screen: we need an antagonist.

That's not too bad a thing though--there's only so long you can worry about the ship falling apart (see any submarine movie) before you just can't take it any more. Interstellar, for all its amazing visuals--and reasonably innovative story-line, does toy with being a more traditional movie.

Nolan has realized he has a really amazing degree of latitude in telling us stories he wants to. He's able to do things that, for example, the Wachowski brothers were not (if only they had been aloud to make the The Matrix's use of humans be for their brain's parallel processing power instead of ... erm ... body heat sources--the movie would have been 100% smarter right there). His use of this to make the nearly 3-hour Interstellar isn't a bad use of his super-powers ... but he left some money on the table.

Interstellar's emotional intelligence doesn't match its visual impact. Interstellar's technical-intelligence doesn't quite carry the weight of its human-experience narrative. It's awesome to look at. It packs a punch. It may not, in the end, quite justify it's 169 minute run-time.

Let's do the politics ...

The Politics of Interstellar
The National Review Online asked if Interstellar was right wing or left wing based on the clip above. It's 1 minute, 11 seconds long. Watch it. The clip shows McConaughey at his daughter's school because she's been insisting the moon landing was real and getting into fights about it. The book she's read--his old text book--is called a "Federal Text book" and the teacher says the school uses the corrected editions that show the moon-landing was faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union.

The point the movie is making is that all of human society is now focused on the earth (where crops, stricken by the blight) are dying. The author wonders if Interstellar will be another environmental disaster movie where leftist Hollywood wags a finger at us for failing to save the planet.

He shouldn't worry: even the scene with the drone (wherein the McConaughey family capture a rogue drone to harvest its power cells) doesn't have the drone doing anything evil. It's just a runaway piece of old technology. It isn't armed, isn't spying, isn't a relic of a surveillance state--nothing. It's empty symbolism--a literal indication that the world has suffered some kind of collapse and while we're not exactly post-apocalypse, we're no longer, for example, building MRI machines (cars run just fine though).

The idea of faking the moon landing is prime conspiracy fodder but it isn't left or right wing, exactly. It's a fringe conspiracy in the way that, for example, Birtherism or even Trutherism, is not. Both of these are nasty and small-minded--but it's considered socially acceptable to "wonder if something is there," right?

If you're going around wondering if they faked the moon landing you're a nut job. Space exploration also isn't primarily right or left. Both sides have factions that like it (remember Gingrich's moon base?) and factions that feel the money would always be better to be spent at home (the 1960's Space Program ... did both!).

The eco-apocalypse isn't a Job-Killing-Cap-And-Trade thing either. The visions of massive clouds of dust call back--explicitly--to the American Dust Bowl (in fact, characters seen on camera speaking about the dust bowl are real people taken from the 2012 documentary The Dust Bowl talking about the real event--and the footage is just applied to the movie). Now, you can say that a sci-film that features a 2nd-helping of the Dust Bowl effect has an environmental message--but in Interstellar it's some kind of disease (the blight) and not explicitly global warming or GMO food or whatever.

No, in this case Nolan's cigars are just cigars.

Conversely, Literary Ecology finds Interstellar decidedly right wing! It gives us unsavory "Luddite" characters (the school staff), has scorn for the life of a farmer vs. an engineer, and it projects a white, masculine Americana vision into outer-space (only one crew member is African American and only one other is a woman!). The author thinks McConaughey's character is out there for his children which, the movie sees, really, as just an extension of him. Uh-huh.

The problem with this analysis is that what it's really talking about is the embedded cultural structure that got the movie produced in the first place--i.e. that Interstellar is a product of its culture. If it's not utterly counter-cultural, gender-bending, transgressive--then it's right-wing. That's okay so far as it goes--but that makes almost everything right-wing (which the author of Literary Ecology would probably agree with--fight the patriarchy, yo!) but instead we should look to The Incredibles: If everything is right wing nothing is (and if you think that changes with 'almost' in front of everything, that's fine--but you also have to then put 'almost' in front of nothing and we're back with that being a useless critique).

Interstellar, like Nolan's Batman movies, just isn't political (despite what you may think of Batman) and this is actually somewhat impressive: It isn't accidental. Nolan could do what many other people do and throw in a Global Warming reference because it'd speak to a lot of his likely audience. No one would bat an eye if we were told that Global Warming (instead of, say, over-farming) had precipitated the blight--we'd all have nodded our heads and gone "Yeah, yeah--we got it."

He uses plenty of images and symbols the audience will recognize: drones, dust storms, and baseball games--but they're not linked to specific key-words like surveillance, global warming, or the American Dream.

But Nolan refuses to "throw the gang-sign." Why? The Omnivore doesn't want to read his mind--but The Omnivore suspects that it's the same reason the Joker's plan to have people on the ships blow each other up fails before Batman gets to them: because the story is about the human heart. Once you put politics on that--even a thin patina--you remove some of that power. Once you're talking about global warming or surveillance drones ("It's a left over Net Neutrality defeater from the Cruz administration!") or whatever, you start excluding people and Nolan doesn't want to do that.

It would damage his story in a way he predicts getting the science wrong won't.


  1. Replies
    1. Dust is kindled and The Omnivore flies out this Sunday.
      -The Omnivore.

  2. This is a well-written piece and largely unobjectionable, however as someone on the right, I would just submit this popular conservative critique of Interstellar for your consideration:

    It is a profound rejection of leftwing climate change hysteria, which is itself representative of an unattractive (especially to the Nolans, who are at heart just wide-eyed adventurers and explorers) brand of modern leftwing pessimism.

    The school teachers reveal that theirs is a "caretaker generation" and act resigned, guilty. The implication of the Apollo missions being erased from history is that we should forget that time when we dared to explore and to innovate because it was all just a massive waste of money that we should we should be devoting to sustainability, because Malthus. Always Malthus, just a different iteration.

    But if you want concrete evidence rather than allegorical, the blight feeds on nitrogen, of which our atmosphere is naturally 80% comprised of. So it is not a man made blight, but a naturally occurring one. Carbon is never mentioned.

    And the thrust of the story is that our protagonist carries a firm belief that is a relic from the past, the belief that we used to look to the stars in wonder and now we only stare at the dirt and wring our hands about our place in it. That is a bright shining indictment of the entire leftwing climate change argument, which goes that it is all our fault and we should therefore punish ourselves by crippling industry through draconian and frankly stupid restrictions on carbon emissions. If there is a thesis to this film, it is that man shall overcome whatever the climate has to offer us, through technology, innovation and ingenuity. He probably doesn't care if the innovation comes from the public sector, because if NASA returned to its mission and culture, most conservatives wouldn't have any problem at all with government funding some big space exploration programs. And the private sector should and will continue to innovate, fail, try again, and fail again, until it works. That's how we got to the moon, and I believe Nolan strongly resents the modern cultural current of pessimism, perpetuated by the left on the environment (and by the right on terrorism, fwiw).

    Finally, Jonathan Nolan is on record sounding very uncomfortable with climate change hysteria, not necessarily because he thinks it's a hoax or there's nothing to worry about, but because he believes the hype and the anxiety and the incessant calls for action are ridiculous. The brothers Nolan hear Hollywood screech about environmental doom and they facepalm, because they fundamentally believe in the human capacity to innovate and solve any problem we face, no matter how daunting. We went to the moon less than a century after the Wright Brothers. The inclusion of that scene with the book censorship is so important. It shames those who want to run from progress in the name of "sustainability."

    And finally, the villain is "Dr. Mann." Just google "Mann v. National Review" if you don't know about the embarrassment that is Michael Mann, climatologist and progenitor of the discredited "hockey stick," who is suing two conservative publications for libel because they hurt his feelings in blog posts about his data manipulation in said hockey stick graph, which purports to show an exponential spike in temperatures following a largely flat line for a thousand years, except he left out the entire Medieval warm period and the tree ring methodology has been comprehensively questioned and/or discredited. The Nolan brothers know who this guy is, and if you want to believe it's just a coincidence that a character who is a scientist and a liar is on a planet that is freezing but he sends data out saying is warm is given the same surname as one of the most notorious and dishonest demagogues in the climate debate... then that is your right. But it is hard to miss, if you follow the Mann suit.

    1. Maybe. It isn't a bad critique--and a good post. I'll note a few things.

      1. The conflict goes from Man vs. Nature to Man vs. Mann--that's at least as plausible an explanation for the naming as the reference to Dr. Mann.

      2. On the my-team's jersey side: McConaughey takes his daughter to a BASEBALL game (one assumes the Cooper household also favors Apple-Pie if they can still make it). It's also NASA--not the ESA. That's all pretty nationalistic (and therefore NOT progressive).

      On the other hand, it denigrates farming and the grandfather is unquestionably representative of Palin's real-America (so maybe that's not as right-facing as it could be).

      3. I agree that the lack of pointers to man-based climate change DOES refute the apologize-for-killing-the-planet left. On the other hand, so did the movie Sunshine where the sun was going out because of a quantum-object (therein we had a natural disaster that also wasn't caused by man).

      In the end, though, I think that refuting the far-left just moves it to the middle. The American right today is marked by not just some ambivalence about the effects of climate-change (hey, extending the farm-belt might be good for America?) or some question as to whether the causes are ALL fossil fuels or some kind of cycle--but by the strong and repeated belief in a broad-spectrum far-ranging perpetration of a *hoax*--like the moon-landing hoax--but with literally thousands of multi-national actors.

      When the movie speaks against the moon-hoax, it might be (I don't think it *is*--but it could be taken as) speaking against hoaxes in general. The (yeah, pretty 'progressive') school teachers who believe the moon landing was a hoax are being taken in by ideological hucksters (whoever is telling them the moon landing was a hoax).

      I think that trying to draw wider-reaching conclusions about the movie's stance on global warming from the nitrogen basis is interesting--but not conclusive.

      I don't have time to hunt up the link now--but you can check my analysis of Nolan's Batman movie for similar reference.

      -The Omnivore