Reviewed by John David Ebert
Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar hybridizes two ancient Near Eastern genres: the myth of the end of the world (first articulated by the Sumerians with the Flood myth of Ziusudra that later found its way into the Bible) and the later ascensionist literature, created during the first to third centuries AD, in which a Biblical protagonist such as Enoch or Baruch is taken up into the heavenly spheres where, as he travels upwards from sphere to sphere, he is initiated into the various mysteries of creation, often culminating in the ascent to the throne of God himself. The point of the vision being that, once the initiate is in possession of new secret knowledge, the possession of such knowledge will give him the keys to create a new culture that will enable him to overthrow the old and dying order. Hence, the irony of Nolan’s film, as we shall see: for the secret knowledge given to its protagonist does not enable the creation of any new order of civilization at all, but only the means of perpetuating a very sick and dying technocratic society.
In Nolan’s transformation of these myths, the world doesn’t end by flood, but by industrial exhaustion of the earth’s resources. The film takes for granted the premise articulated in my book The Age of Catastrophe (2012) in which the desertification of the Midwest as its topsoils dry out and revert to the very same Sahara-like conditions that formed its ecology only a few thousand years ago becomes the basis of the American future.
And the protagonist who journeys through the heavenly spheres in this case is a man known to us only as Cooper (appropriately enough, since a “cooper” is one who makes casks or barrels, in this case perhaps referring to the spaceark that he pilots), a widowed former astronaut who has reverted to farming and currently lives with his father and two children on a farm that is routinely ravaged by gigantic dust storms. Cooper’s daughter Murphy is receiving mysterious messages from her bookcase that, when transcribed, reveal the coordinates of a secret NASA facility, whose experts tell Cooper that they have discovered a new wormhole that has appeared out near Saturn and have already sent twelve astronauts out into it. (In ancient Greek cosmology, the sphere of Saturn was the ceiling of the world since the outer planets were not yet known). Once they find out that Cooper was formerly a great pilot, they insist that he fly up through the wormhole on a new mission to find out what happened to the missing astronauts.
Professor Brand, a NASA scientist, (played by Michael Caine), sends his daughter Amelia on the mission along with Cooper and two other astronauts, Doyle and Romilly. They have received data from three other worlds that might be inhabitable for human beings, and one by one they travel to each world in order to discover their suitability for a mass exodus of humans from the earth. Professor Brand cannot figure out the gravitational equations that would enable a complete exodus of humanity from the earth, but he promises to have it figured out by the time Cooper returns from his mission.
Like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the first two worlds go to extremes: one is too wet, full of gigantic tides, while the other is too cold and barren. Only the third, the world of Edmunds, is just right. But before they can get to the third world, Amelia and Cooper are separated during a disaster onboard their spaceship, a disaster which slingshots Amelia to the third world but sends Cooper through a spacetime singularity on the inside of which there is an astral reduplication of the bookshelves in his daughter’s bedroom. He learns that he can communicate with his young daughter in code through these books and realizes that he is in fact the one who had been trying to communicate with her in the past, and the messages that he sends her are the proper equations to solve Professor Brand’s gravitational equations that will enable a mass exodus of humanity from the earth. Cooper realizes that the n-dimensional singularity is actually a construct that has been created by future humans who have reached back into the past to try and help humans as a species survive.
Cooper awakens aboard a space station that now has been constructed out near Saturn as the result of his transmission of the equations back through time. Humanity has left the earth behind, and they have built a simulacrum of his farmhouse onboard the space station in honor of his daughter, whose “solving” of the equations made the exodus possible. When Cooper finally reunites with his daughter, she has aged into an old woman while he, meanwhile, due to relativistic physics has remained approximately the same age (biologically speaking; chronologically speaking, he is over one hundred years old, like one of the pre-diluvial ancients of the Old Testament).
By the film’s conclusion, Cooper is on his way to the third planet to reunite with Amelia where they will presumably function as the new Adam and Eve for the mass migration of humanity from the space station to a new world.
Part of the problem with the film’s philosophy is the assumption that it makes that the earth is something that can just be discarded like a huge crumpled piece of paper, once industrial society has simply “used it up.” This was also the assumption of transcendentalists like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke way back in the 1950s, and it is a mindset that is very closely bound up with a Gnostic-Neoplatonic desire to escape from the flesh, the body and the earth itself as a chaotic environment that, because it is too difficult to learn to live in harmony with, must simply be scrapped once it has been used up.
In Nolan’s film, in other words, the earth is scaled down to a garbage dump that can be tossed aside once used up, while another world can be found and escaped to where, presumably, the very same mechanistic processes can be restarted all over again until that planet, too, is used up, and so on. It is not a solution to any of our current problems, but a vision that encourages and manages to preserve the excesses of an industrial way of life that is destroying the planet because, for some strange reason, it refuses to cooperate and simply give forth its resources inexhaustibly.
Nolan’s film, therefore, while entertaining, must be regarded as yet another form of transcendentalist metaphysics disguised as harmless popcorn entertainment. It is a thorough product of the consumer culture industry–the very same industry that manufactures cheap plastic crap to be sold in Walmarts and, right alongside them, trashy movies to be consumed in decaying multiplex cinemas that serve to reinforce the same ethos that has produced the inexhaustible sludge of plastic gimmicks and throwaways–and that ethos, put simply, is to buy stuff quick, use it up, throw it out and forget about where it came from. Not to worry. If we run out of planetary space to store our garbage, we have astrophysicists working on the problem right now who are busy finding exoplanets for us to continue the same processes of devastation and wastage so that we can recreate the very same consumer-corporate nihilism elsewhere. Nolan is anxious to reassure us that “experts” are currently working round the clock to solve this problem for us. Our way of life, with its nihilism, hedonism, arrogance, crudeness and vulgarity–not to mention all the spree killers who have had just about enough of this way of life to go right along with it, will continue.
The problem, though, is that we don’t need a new planet; we need a new religion–and here Sam Harris can go fuck himself–that transforms our worldview from the ground up. Historically, only new religions can create the maximal stress conditions that give rise to new civilizations with new visions. Because only religions can provide the Visions–and yes, postmodernists, I mean those with a capital “V”– that fuel the passions necessary for the cultural extermination and dismantling processes that need to set in–and these are called “Crusades”–before one way of life can be wiped clean in order to make a new way of life possible. You can’t have the Age of Mammals unless you wipe the dinosaurs out first. Solving the mechanical wastage problems of an already long-since decrepit civilization only perpetuates the excesses of that same civilization. It solves nothing.
The Russian painter Kazimir Malevich once made the interesting statement that he thought it was a good thing if the communists destroyed and burned all the world’s museums because that would provide artists with a new opportunity to create entirely novel works of art that had no precedents and no traditions to interfere with their originality.
In a sense, what we need is to toss aside, not the planet, but the current capitalist consumer way of life that is destroying this planet. But the only way that is going to happen is with the birth of a new Vision that starts somewhere and, like the protagonist of Jean Giono’s fable of the trees, starts spreading over time into a huge forest of rapidly accelerating culture forms and new Ideas. A forest of visions in which transcendental views like those of Ray Kurzweil’s, say, are simply tossed aside as incompatible with regarding every grain of sand and every rock or tree as sacred and holy.
Not possible, you say?
Then you haven’t read your history books.