by Michael Uhall, University of Illinois
Interstellar enlarges the anthropocentric vision of Contact into a full-blown anthropological myth of human dominion over nature that founds itself upon the primal self-creation of the human. It’s interesting to note the degree to which the film synthesizes vocabularies of popular scientism and deracinated Christian dialectics. The former occurs not only in the immense attention to technical detail evident throughout the film – largely employed to detail memorably elemental planetary settings, as well as to justify its denouement – but also in the plot itself, summarized as the need for humanity to abandon an exhausted Earth and apply itself to the exploration of space. The latter vocabulary provides the motive force of the film, however, contrasting the subtle evil of a deterministic, entropically saturated nature with the overwhelming power of love. Let’s see how this unfolds.
The film begins by contextualizing its setting. Earth is afflicted by a slowly escalating crop blight, the causes of which, curiously, are abstracted from any possible ecological reason. We’re in the domain of a Dying Earth narrative here, not a climate change apocalypse. The difference between the two is that the former isn’t anthropogenic. This matters in Interstellar because it warrants the disdain for earthly caretaking exemplified by engineer/pilot Joseph Cooper’s charismatic go-get-‘em libertarian space cowboy restlessness (contrast Cooper with the protagonist Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast [Peter Weir, 1986], whose strikingly similar personality leads him into tyranny and destruction). It’s not that humans have damaged the planet – thereby implying that humans might be able to learn to adapt or mitigate the damage they have caused – but that planetary conditions ultimately have failed us. “You don’t think nature can be evil?” Cooper later inquires of Brand, surprised.
Resentfully (“It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are, Donald. Explorers, pioneers, not caretakers”), Coop (widowed) works a farm with his stepfather and two children, Tom and Murphy. After encountering the remnants of NASA, Cooper agrees to pilot an exploratory mission to an artificial wormhole discovered in orbit around Saturn. On the other side of this wormhole, Professor John Brand informs him, there are potentially inhabitable planets, as well as three human scouts sent ahead to investigate. There are two options for mission completion: Plan A (Professor Brand will solve an equation he’s been working on, achieving the theoretical grounds for a gravitational theory of propulsion) or Plan B (Cooper and his crew, including the Professor’s daughter, Dr. Amelia Brand, will endeavor to colonize a viable planet with the cargo of embryos loaded onto their ship, the Endurance).
Cooper’s departure deeply aggrieves his daughter, Murphy, although Cooper promises to return. In the background of the narrative, there are a series of gravitational anomalies centered on Murphy’s bedroom (e.g., resulting in both the provision of the NASA base coordinates and the scrambling of nearby navigational computers), although no one investigates this thoroughly. The young Murphy wonders if it is a ghost, while Cooper and others dismiss her observations – including the spelling out of the word “STAY” when Cooper informs Murphy of his imminent departure.
The Endurance enters the wormhole, at which point Dr. Brand apparently makes contact briefly with a mysterious being residing therein. In the new galaxy, Cooper and his crew decide which of the three potential planets to visit first.
Continue reading here.
Note also a reading of Interstellar in Tim Morton’s Humankind, Chapter 5.