Interstellar: Christopher Nolan Nails Space, Short-shrifts Humanity

Review of: Interstellar
Movie:
Christopher Nolan

Reviewed by:
Rating:
4
On January 17, 2018
Last modified:July 11, 2018

Summary:

Interstellar proved an incredible journey of imagination except when it was Earth-bound.

Breakfast, Interstellar and Michio Kaku

I just had a nice breakfast with Dr. Michio Kaku as we both prepare to present at re:comm (a European real estate conference in Kitzbühel, Austria). His first question for me was about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

Here is what I said:

“I could suspend belief and really enjoyed the science fiction in space. I found the context for the earth-bound drama, however, wholly unbelievable.”

We then went on to talk about artificial intelligence, quantum computing, Einstein and how to think about the future. But for now, back to Interstellar.

More thoughts on Interstellar

Conceptual spoilers, and a few plot points follow…

As a scenario planner, I explore the future along a number of vectors. Uncertainties exist as a range of possibilities, and those possibilities play off of one another as you create stories about the future. I admonish my clients and my students that they are not to invoke magic or break the laws of the universe (as Michio suggested, however, that if I were to speculate far enough out, plausible in 100 years might well look like magic to someone living today without breaking the laws of the universe). I usually only work out ten to twenty years, so my don’t encounter physics breakthroughs, though I do list them as things to track. Social issues, however, can change much more radically, and more rapidly, than our discoveries about physics can be applied. Interstellar, however, takes a radically dystopian view that I don’t think passes the plausibility test.

In scenarios, we are always at the starting point day one, which means that all futures must account for the present. In the present, for instance, we have long-lasting vinyl windows that keep dust out. Even if we speculate about things not given in the film, about a huge decrease in human population as well as a near complete devolving of the economy and governments and the rules of law, the 20th and 21st centuries will have already made so many things that could be useful in Nolan’s future that to not make scavenging a key attribute of the indomitable human spirit is inexcusable. In other words, if we have vinyl windows now, in Nolan’s not-so-distant future humans would recycle the investments of middle-class suburbanites and apply them to their ramshackle farm homes. And what about masks? Wouldn’t that be the last thing manufacturing stops making in this world? We see some moments when they are used but others that imply breathing dust is the only option, really?

But to go a bit further, if we devolve back into an agrarian society, it isn’t likely that we would end up with homes that look like they were built in the 1890s. Given the competition with individual farmers and big agriculture, the homes of farmers that evolve into individual leaders would likely be pretty nice and modern. Of course, given that gasoline and some technology still exists, I would see a much more plausible future being one where big agriculture manages the declining resources rather than a bunch of individual farmers. Follow the money, and if the money is food, the last bastion of the ruling class will likely be big agriculture magnates (I can imagine that the earth might well be at the near subsistence level, which it isn’t really in the film, where rival agriculture companies fight for domination.)

That NASA is the only surviving functional government entity also strikes me as a narrative vehicle with little basis from which to draw such a political conclusion.

That NASA is the only surviving functional government entity also strikes me as a narrative vehicle with little basis from which to draw such a political conclusion. Further, all the manufacturing and mining required to build their various projects would be hard to keep under the radar even if no one has radar in the future.

It is very clear that Nolan thought long and hard about space. It is equally clear that his earth-bound narrative didn’t seek experts in the same way that his space opera did. Film makers should look to all types of resources when thinking about the future, not just technical ones. That is why using STEEP (social, technological, economic, environmental and political) factors are crucial to developing plausible futures for the mental exercise that is scenario planning. Overemphasis on one, or the discarding of any, creates futures without balance that will likely prove internally inconsistent, such as the one presented in Interstellar.

The best science fiction places humans that we can recognize into extraordinary circumstances. Interstellar does that. But science fiction also requires a suspension of belief, and I think that is better left to the science part of science fiction than to the social and political elements. Dystopias of the future can’t happen without going through the present first. Screen writers can scavenge all they want from today and reconfigure in infinite combinations, but they can’t pretend it doesn’t exist or that the humanps who remain won’t find some way to make use of all of the world around them, not just select bits.

I find it hard to believe that given the challenge of the planet that schools would go out of their way to create ideology that suggests the 1969 moon landing was a propaganda stunt.

Perhaps I am most disappointed in this failure of imagination because the actual message of the movie is so disconnected from what those being challenged by a dying Earth are so busy doing. I find it hard to believe that given the challenge of the planet that schools would go out of their way to create ideology that suggests the 1969 moon landing was a propaganda stunt (which also calls into question the governance assumptions underlying the movie – we don’t have big agriculture, but we do have a Department of Education capable of rewriting history and declaring the use of new textbooks?)

In Interstellar, the elite it seems are our ultimate saviors, the ones who keep the fires of industry moving just outside the peripheral vision of anybody else on the planet. But humanity survives, and it probably isn’t just the elite that ascend, who ends up understanding five dimensions…but some new population all equally living in five dimensions. And those fifth-dimensionally-aware future humans are cobbling together things from the universe to communicate and help the humanity of this film’s present. Even if some elite group of dedicated scientists does create the conditions for long-term survival, wouldn’t short-term survival be something that every person takes to heart? Nolan would have to look no further than Spielberg’s Falling Skies (TNT) to find that indomitable human spirit making use of anything and everything they can to survive.

 

Note: Despite my misgivings about the plausibility of the film’s earth-bound elements, the space imagery is spectacularly done, but it did force me to consider the next evolution of the movie-going experience, one that might lead more to Oculus Rift than the neighborhood theater or home movie watching experience, namely, when watching the space sequences, the IMAX screen was too small to convey the enormity of what Nolan put on film. No matter which current technology we use, films have edges, and Interstellar made me very aware of those edges.

Interstellar proved an incredible journey of imagination except when it was Earth-bound.

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